Put your ears on

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

In the station's edutainment segments, political correctness prevails. Jones says they try to give equal time to Kwanzaa and the Chinese New Year. On the new "Generation Girl" skits, a woman plays a doctor -- even if by airing the episodes the network is sending your daughter out to buy dolls.

In the network's newscasts, ABC News for Kids, Colorado's Columbine High School shooting never took place. "That would have been too hard for kids," Jones says. Monica Lewinsky didn't show up until well after Newsweek put the allegations on its cover, and when the scandal was discussed, "We only talked about the meaning of impeachment and how he had lied," Jones says.

The biggest change Radio Disney has made since it first rolled out its programming is to add more kids' voices. "We found that kids hear other kids," Jones says. "They tune out adults, but they perk up when they hear a kid talk."

Michael Davis, left, and Rachel Pantoja, right, two of 40 child performers employed by Radio Disney, work under the eye of producer Darcy Clarke.
Mark Graham
Michael Davis, left, and Rachel Pantoja, right, two of 40 child performers employed by Radio Disney, work under the eye of producer Darcy Clarke.
Kim Stewart and Dean Wendt, morning disc jockeys at Radio Disney, never say they're in Dallas.
Kim Stewart and Dean Wendt, morning disc jockeys at Radio Disney, never say they're in Dallas.

For Kim Stewart and Dean Wendt, the station's morning drive-time DJs, that philosophy means talking to children around the country all morning. They operate surrounded by SuperSoakers and Sock 'Em toys in a studio that has Hanson posters on the wall. They and one producer field the calls. In March, the radio station estimated it had received 20 million calls to its hotlines in the previous 12 months. If you've ever seen an 8-year-old girl or boy with access to a phone and the possibility of inane chatter, this is not surprising.

The callers are not usually broadcast-ready. "We have to edit them a lot because of all the pauses," says Stewart, a 25-year-old Dallas native who taught at a preschool before starting in radio full time, on adult stations before Radio Disney.

She and her co-host Wendt, like all the Radio Disney DJs, have a big-brother or big-sister sound. (Some take it further. DJ B.B. Good performs her morning show in a helium-voiced squeak aimed at pleasing the youngest of listeners.) Wendt, now 31, feels a kindred spirit with those prepubescents glued to the radio. In his bedroom as a 7-year-old in Danville, Illinois, Wendt would play radio DJ and get angry when his mother interrupted his broadcast to ask him to come to the dinner table.

When the Radio Disney opportunity arose, he had left on-air work behind because he felt that his role was limited on adult and classic rock stations. He was told less talk, and he knew that meant they didn't want him to do much but play songs. At Disney, he gabs with kids all day long, spars with his co-host, and cracks jokes.

While out of radio, Wendt worked at GTE on industrial productions, videos the company used for instruction purposes. Now he revels in the fact that Radio Disney's Jones, who had worked with him previously in radio, sought him out for Radio Disney specifically because he didn't have the low, booming voice that most stations desire in their DJs.

"I knew this would work," Wendt says about the network. "It is what old radio used to be -- not background noise."

After finishing their morning shift, Wendt and Stewart look spent. They descend from the sound room to the station's lobby. Stewart crouches forward in discomfort. "We have to go to the bathroom," she says. Then, laughing, she adds, "We do everything in pairs." The quip probably would not be allowed on Radio Disney.

Earlier that same day in another recording room, Rachel Pantoja and colleague Kevin Miller try dozens of times to get a sneeze down pat. The two were recording a segment warning kids to avoid passing around germs. "When it comes to colds, keep a lid on it," Rachel is supposed to say.

But before she gets to that line, Kevin has to get his sneeze right. "It sounds like you're just coughing," producer Jester tells him. The adult and the boy spend a good four minutes practicing sneezes. Next, Rachel needs prompting to sound more "grossed out" in reaction to her colleague's nasal emissions.

After they finally finish the cut, Rachel, Kevin, and Michael Davis collapse in their swivel chairs in the sound studio. Do they listen to Radio Disney in their spare time?

Rachel, the daughter of a radio DJ, wags her right hand to indicate a noncommittal response and shakes her head no.

Kevin shakes his head no.

Michael at first says he does, then amends his answer after watching the others. "Well, I don't listen, but I tell all the girls in my class to listen so they can hear me."

Three kids -- three employees -- and not one listener among them. That's not a good sign, even if the three are older than 11 and just beyond Radio Disney's target market. Perhaps network executives should prick up their ears. After all, kids, even those on the payroll, rule.

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