Small World

Radio Disney feeds the new pop underground with music for tweens

"We wanted to build a station where kids and families could go to hear good, contemporary, relevant music that they liked, but that also had appropriate messages parents didn't mind them hearing."

At first, those musical gems were few and far between. Jones remembers spending countless hours trying to decipher the lyrics to Hanson's "MMMBop" to determine if it passed that backseat singalong test. But apart from the young Tulsa brothers' fluky pop breakthrough and a couple of innuendo-free songs by the Spice Girls, there wasn't a whole lot of Top 40 fare in '97 that fit the family-friendly format.

"So our playlist in the beginning had a higher percentage of novelty oldies, movie and TV soundtrack songs and kids' songs sung by children's artists like Craig 'N Co., Joanie Bartels and others."

Celeste: Half of the girl duo Daphne & Celeste strikes a most tween-unfriendly pose.
Celeste: Half of the girl duo Daphne & Celeste strikes a most tween-unfriendly pose.

Then came Britney. And the Backstreet Boys. And 'N Sync. And soon, a whole candy-coated assembly line of kid-friendly boy bands and girl groups.

Fueled in part by the existence of Radio Disney as an outlet and the industry's sudden awareness that there was gold to be mined from those 27 million kids out there between 8 and 14--the largest number in this age group in two decades, according to a recent Newsweek cover story, who now account for a full 10 percent of all CD sales--the music charts have since been invaded by heartthrob herds with alphabet-mangling monikers (LFO, M2M, 3LW, LMNT, A*Teens, BB Mak, B*Witched), pint-sized rappers still working on their sixth-grade spelling lists (Aaron Carter, Lil' Romeo) and pop princesses with double-take looks (Jessica Simpson, Mandy Moore) or single-name hooks (Hoku, Myra, Krystal). And Radio Disney, naturally, has become a happy home to them all.

Today, there are so many young pop acts being launched on a monthly basis that even Radio Disney can afford to be a little snobbish on which new inductees to the Fake ID Club (the name given the phenomenon in a November MTV special) it deems to play.

"It used to be, 'Oh, so-and-so's only 12,' and you'd be like, 'Wow, really?'" Jones says, laughing. "Now it's like, 'OK. What else?' Because they're all 12 to 14 now!"

If you had to pick a poster boy for today's Radio Disney, a singular moppet who miraculously represented both the average listener and the typical Radio Disney pop star, it would be Aaron Carter.

Kid brother to the well-known Backstreet Boys hunk ("the blond one, Nick," Aaron raps in his incessantly played hit "Oh Aaron"), the younger Carter, who turned 14 on December 7, embodies everything that the Newsweek cover story from October warned us about in our exploding population of "tweens." "They are a generation stuck on fast forward," the article proclaimed, "in a fearsome hurry to grow up. Richer than ever, they're also a retailer's dream, with a seemingly insatiable desire for the latest in everything." Carter's current Radio Disney hit, the anthemic "Not Too Young, Not Too Old," defines his generation pretty much the same way. But from his jubilant first-person perspective, it sounds decidedly like a good thing.

Over a jammin' piano and guitar track, Carter boasts about having everything a tween could dream of: the coolest after-school schedule ("I'm all up in the video/Catch me at the studio/That's my life, bro"), his own Web site ("It's gonna be the bomb/Hit me all baby, Aaron Carter Dot Com!") and unbeatable playground skills ("Don't even talk about your Sony PlayStation"). Mostly, though, Carter revels in the unique pleasures of being able to work both sides of the ambiguous age range tweens affect.

"See, when it comes to girls, I'm not too young," he says, "but when I get in trouble...I pull my cap way down and say I'm 7 years old." By the time Carter gets to the final verse of the song, "That's how we roll/And when it suits me/I'm anywhere between 12 and 18 years old," he's detailed a top-of-the-world lifestyle that even Jay-Z and P. Diddy would envy.

It's no accident, then, that Aaron Carter is one of the most-played artists on Radio Disney--or that he's managed to sell more than a million copies of his last two albums without airplay on any other stations.

"He's the perfect model of what's called K-GOY: Kids Getting Older Younger," says Sarah Stone, Radio Disney's head of marketing. "It's this phenomenon of age-compression, where our kids are maturing--particularly in terms of their media savvy and taste sense--faster than ever before. So where kids used to watch Sesame Street until they were 4 or 5, now they mature out of things so much faster. And they go through musical phases faster, too, so we need to stay on top of that."

Of course, that's not to say Radio Disney can just drop in anything from the college playlists now and then to keep the, uh, listener base ("Kids don't like to be called 'kids,'" Stone warns) feeling more grown-up. "The thing is, while we know that kids are maturing faster in terms of the media and entertainment they seek, developmentally, they're not maturing any faster," she says. "So tastewise, they might be interested in rock music, but developmentally, not all rock music is appropriate for them."

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