Put your ears on

Disney hopes its upstart kids radio network will be more than just a Mickey Mouse effort

Non-Disney products get programming touts as well. The disc jockeys frequently talk up the toys that they award as prizes.

Mattel Inc., which recently came on board as an advertiser, earned an even bigger plug. The toy manufacturer is rolling out Generation Girl, a new line of Barbies aimed at attracting preteen girls who are outgrowing their curvaceous plastic playmate sooner than they once did. The new doll brand, according to Mattel's marketing material, "has an edgy feel, characters with defined personality and aspirations that match those of teen girls today." The dolls -- Barbie, Chelsie, Nichelle, Lara, Tori, and Ana -- represent all manner of Eurotrash. Chelsie is from London and Lara used to live in Paris. Their aspirations include careers in fashion modeling, acting, singing, and songwriting -- not an electrical engineer or physicist in the bunch. The new doll line is complemented by a book series featuring the characters. In a strange bit of multimedia hybridizing, Radio Disney is airing plays taken from the books set at International High, the new Barbie and friends' fictional New York high school. Last weekend, Radio Disney listeners could tune in to the radio play, then order Mom or Dad to Target to fetch the dolls and books.

But Radio Disney exec McCarthy insists that the network will not air ads for the new Mattel product during, before, or after the "Generation Girl" episodes. He also warns that not all advertisers will get such conveniently timed programming developed around their products. "If it doesn't have merit, we won't do it," he says.

The kids outnumber the adults at Radio Disney's studios: Pantoja, Clarke, and Davis.
The kids outnumber the adults at Radio Disney's studios: Pantoja, Clarke, and Davis.

McCarthy wouldn't say whether a toy maker's decision to advertise on the network gives its products more "merit." When asked whether there was a tie between Mattel's decision to advertise on Radio Disney and the Generation Girls programming, Mattel spokeswoman Lisa McKendall at first replied: "I'm sure there was. We never advertise on radio." But later, in a fax, she wrote: "Radio Disney and Mattel worked out serial programming independently of the advertising buy."

It's easy to see why McKendall might be confused. At Radio Disney, the lines between promotion, programming, and advertising are sometimes a bit muddy. Radio Disney offers listeners Disney-themed prizes such as walk-on roles in the TV series Sabrina or trips to the company's theme parks. Four of the network's DJs broadcast from booths in the parks. The network, meanwhile, is able to attract national advertisers by selling them on the benefits of having their products linked to the Disney magic.

Although all the other programming is produced in Dallas, Radio Disney listeners learn little about the city. The North Texas DJs never mention their location. "To say that you are broadcasting from Dallas doesn't contribute to the [Disney] magic," says morning DJ Kim Stewart. "We try to be real general."

Nevertheless, the Disney venture has created an unprecedented opportunity for radio talent in Dallas: a place where kids rule. For some, that's the perfect place.

"I don't think a 6-year-old has any business listening to that," Radio Disney's Jones says of the hard rock played on other radio stations. She should know. The mother of a 5-year-old, Jones has been in the radio business since 1981, and for several years was an on-air personality.

Jones is the mother hen of Radio Disney. She has been with it since before the station began as a pilot project in four cities in November 1996. Jones even helped develop programming possibilities when ABC Radio -- before merging with Disney -- looked into starting a children's radio network in the early '90s. In 1996, ABC, with the Disney merger looming, began to revisit the idea. Jones, who had been an on-air personality on ABC's adult rock stations, says she jumped in again, having always relished the idea of starting a children's network.

In court, lawyers for the CBC questioned how much ABC Radio employees like Jones had to do with devising the basic ideas behind the programming at Radio Disney. The CBC lawyers claimed that ABC used its seven-month agreement with CBC to steal ideas about how to target kids with radio programming.

The Disney lawyers denied the allegations, arguing that the trade secrets were not so secret. Anyone knows the hours that kids attend school or that kids would prefer programming that featured familiar characters such as Elmo and Winnie the Pooh.

Whatever role she played at the start, Jones now sets the tone for Radio Disney. She vigorously defends the network as a safe harbor for kids that is free of the violence, sexual innuendo, and rough language prevalent in other broadcasts. "Our music director has to sign off on all songs as PC for kids," she says. "If I feel like a mom driving along in a car would be bothered, then we don't play it."

"C'est La Vie," a song by the pop group B*witched, was edited to stay on the playlist. Radio Disney listeners don't hear the lyric "I'll show you mine. You show me yours," but rather, "You be the king, and I'll be the queen." Will Smith's Wild Wild West rap song lost a gunshot in editing for play on Radio Disney.

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