Youngsters Tune In to Radio Stations for Kids

Preteens listen to and participate in programs especially tailored to them

THE old-fashioned medium of radio is reaching out to young audiences again after decades of virtually ignoring the pint-size market.

Teenagers are well known for their penchant for music, and every major city has radio stations targeting the teen set. Meanwhile, younger children are left to rely on tapes or CDs.

"It is kind of baffling that of the 11,000 radio stations in the United States, none of them seem to think that kids are an audience," says Christopher Dahl, president of the Children's Broadcasting Corp., a Minneapolis company that has started a children's nationwide radio network.

If we want our kids to turn off the TV, we need to provide an alternative, says P.J. Swift, producer of Pickleberry Pie, a weekly children's program that airs on about 80 public radio stations. "That was our motivation in starting to make kids' radio nearly 10 years ago," she says.

The small amount of existing radio that targets preteens seems to have appeal. Marcus Alvarez listens to Mr. Dahl's Los Angeles affiliate every day. "I used to watch TV a lot, and I got kind of tired of it," says the 12-year-old. "So now I listen to the radio more. I'm in my room, and I can listen to the radio while I do stuff."

"There's this perception that children don't listen to radio," says Gary Ferrington, an instructor in media technology at the University of Oregon. "Television provides all the visual information; radio allows you to create your own imagery. It's a much more interactive medium."

Viewed from a marketing standpoint, "kids have an incredible influence in terms of purchasing power," Mr. Ferrington adds.

This is helping to fuel a resurgence of radio programming for kids.

Ms. Swift estimates there are about 120 locally produced radio programs for children around the country. FOX Broadcasting has a syndicated radio program, "The Fox Kids Countdown," that airs Sunday mornings on 150 stations nationwide. Meanwhile, several organizations are working to spread full-time kids' radio from coast to coast through syndicated programming.

Radio AAHS, which is produced by Children's Broadcasting Corp., is a 24-hour, seven-day-a-week radio network now on 30 radio stations nationwide, including New York City, Los Angeles, Dallas, and Denver. The flagship station began in Minneapolis in 1990. The format is about 70 percent music, Dahl says, supplemented by call-in games, story times, and news geared for children aged 12 and under.

Marcus confirms that he listens mostly for the music. "I call in a lot of times to request a song," he says. A friend introduced him to the station. "He told me it was kid radio, and I never heard of a kid radio before so I really wanted to listen to it."

In fact, young voices make up a large portion of the programming on Radio AAHS. Young disc jockeys known as the "Air Force" take over the airwaves after school, and there is a regular morning show called "The All-American Alarm Clock."

But 24-hour programming for kids? Shouldn't little ones be in bed instead of listening to the radio in the wee morning hours? "We want to be there if a child wakes up at night and wants to turn on the radio," Dahl says. "Some kids go to bed with it on and wake up to it. It's kind of a background to their lives like radio is for most of us."

David Bolling of Englewood, Colo., bought his sons AM radios so they could listen to Denver's Radio AAHS in their bedrooms. "I know the songs will be appropriate for them," he says. "When I get tired, I just go upstairs and listen to it," says six-year-old Jake. Everyone in his play group tunes in to the station now, he says.

Children's Broadcasting Corp. is working with the ABC Radio Network to expand Radio AAHS nationwide. Their goal is to be in the top 100 radio markets, Dahl says.

KidStar is another commercial radio network looking to go nationwide. It began on a Seattle AM station in 1993 and launched its first syndicated station in San Francisco last October. The network expects to have affiliated stations in the top 10 markets by the end of this year.

KidStar programming includes music interspersed with features. For example, "Ask Sylvia" is a three-minute feature during which a 15-year-old "Ann Landers" advises listeners on such topics as sharing a room with siblings and handling the rejection of being the last person picked for a team in P.E. class. Another feature, "Snax with Max," reviews recipes solicited from listeners.

MUCH of the on-air discussion comes from listeners. The KidStar PhoneZone, an interactive telephone system, lets callers leave messages, enter contests, share jokes, or spout off on any subject. Callers then listen for their comments over the radio. The Seattle PhoneZone receives between 1,000 and 8,000 calls daily.

For the slightly younger set, public radio offers several children's programs. Swift's "Pickleberry Pie" is produced for kids 3 to 8 years old. "The bulk of children's music addresses the preschool and primary-level child," Swift says. "And that young age is the time to get them away from television."

Another public-radio alternative to Saturday-morning cartoons is Rabbit Ears Radio, which provides weekly children's stories on 280 public radio stations nationwide. The half-hour syndicated show, which is distributed by Public Radio International, began in 1994.

The program's originator, Mark Sottnick, says his goal is to "restore the lost art of storytelling for children and their parents."

Taking a page from "Sesame Street," Rabbit Ears enhances its adult appeal by featuring celebrity readers and musicians on each program. The alternating hosts, actors Mel Gibson and Meg Ryan, introduce each tale, giving information about the origin of the story, the narrator, and the musicians. The two well-known parents also talk about the moral lessons contained in that week's story.

After Meryl Streep agreed to read "The Velveteen Rabbit" for Sottnick's original soundtrack, the Hollywood connections began to click into place. "Meryl just happened to be working with Jack Nicholson, who agreed to lend his voice for a Rudyard Kipling Story, 'The Elephant's Child.' From there, good word of mouth enabled us to attract more stars to narrate more stories."

In the past several years, Rabbit Ears has developed four different series of stories. The original "Storybook Classics" include Cher retelling "The Ugly Duckling" and Danny Glover dramatizing "Br'er Rabbit."

"We All Have Tales" is a collection of international folk tales ranging from Jamaica to Persia and Japan to Germany. Whoopi Goldberg gives us the African story "Koi and the Kola Nuts" with music from Herbie Hancock.

"American Heroes and Legends" offers such favorites as "Johnny Apppleseed" told by Garrison Keillor and "Rip Van Winkle" from Angelica Huston.

"The Greatest Stories Ever Told" is a selection of Bible stories. Ben Kingsley tells of "Moses the Lawgiver" and Jason Robards shares "Jonah and the Whale."

Sottnick aims to make his show entertaining for adults as well as children. "At the very least, we know that our programs appeal to grownups in Sweden," he says, "where they appear on TV at 11 p.m. under the guise of 'Bedtime Stories for Adults,' " he says.

All Rabbit Ears Radio stories are available on both audiotape and videotape.

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