Small World

Radio Disney feeds the new pop underground with music for tweens

That's where Robin Jones' job gets tricky. "Blink-182 is a band that our kids love," she says. "But I haven't been able to play anything by them yet!" Jones says the kids understand that they won't hear profanity on Radio Disney--and labels with their sights set on the tweens-and-under group now routinely send edited versions of their latest hits to the wholesome-branded station. Where it gets a little hairy is when a song contains thinly veiled sexual innuendo (the line "I'm not so innocent" was axed from Spears' megahit "Oops! I Did It Again") or even themes that might keep RD's audience up at night.

"Blink-182's new one, 'Stay Together for the Kids,' might seem like a natural for us," Jones says. "But it's kind of...depressing, actually!" Same for Everclear's "Wonderful," a hit single from last year that brilliantly spoke of divorce from a child's perspective ("I don't want to meet your friends/I don't wanna start all over again"). Wonderful, yes. But in Radio Disney's relentlessly happy universe, much too downbeat.

Occasionally, Jones will find a track on even a Parental Guidance-stickered album that fits in Radio Disneyland--she's currently testing Gorillaz's "19-2000"--but in those cases, the station won't promote or give away the CD. "That's one reason we started the 'Radio Disney Jams' series," Jones notes, explaining the success of the compilation CDs now on their fourth volume. "Because we could put on there all the hit songs that the kids like, without the companion titles on some of the albums that aren't really appropriate for kids.

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.

"It's one of the services, I guess, that we're able to provide for parents," Jones adds. "We're in charge of going through all the latest albums and filtering them. Because they know if Radio Disney has put it on the air, there's nothing offensive in it: no bad words, no sex, no killing--no nothing!"

Even if artists are not specifically targeting the tweens' and kids' market, there's good reason for them to include at least one Disney-worthy track on their latest CD: If the album stiffs, but still manages to produce one Radio Disney hit, that hit can live on virtually forever.

Smash Mouth's "All Star," an across-the-board hit that actually broke first on Radio Disney, is still played nearly a dozen times a day on Disney--a full two years after its release. Ditto for Eiffel 65's "Blue," a Europop oddity on CHR that somehow continues to enthrall on RD. If nothing else, Radio Disney is heaven for the one-hit wonder.

"Oh yeah, they love us!" Jones says, laughing. "Because they continue to sell records. I mean, we played 'Macarena' until the DJs were screaming, 'I can't play this record another second!'

"The thing about kids is they hold on to their favorite songs longer," she explains. "If a kid really loves 'All Star,' for example, they really love it for a long time. It's part of who they are. And if you study the psyche of a 9-to-11-year-old, you'll see that the whole familiarity thing is very important. It's that warm blanket: 'I know this record, I know the lyrics.' All that is very important to a kid."

Radio Disney is also one of the few radio stations today that is still genuinely request-driven. "If the kids still like it, we keep playing it," Jones says. "And if they don't like a record, it's gone."

That kind of throwback quality to the classic days of screaming Top 40 radio in the '60s--and the fact that the network can only be found on old-fashioned, monophonic AM radio in most cities--may be one reason older music fans, who maybe don't even have kids, are tuning in to Radio Disney now. Filled with the sound of hyper kids' voices on the call-in lines and possibly the best manufactured pop songs ever--Mandy Moore's ethereal "Crush" has got to be how first love would sound if it had its own theme, and Dream Street's "It Happens Every Time" and "I Say Yeah" are quintessential bubblegum classics--Radio Disney brings the older listener back to the days when pop radio was its own wacky, self-contained world, and somehow alters the future so that all the depressing, angry rock of the last three decades (not to mention Howard Stern and Eminem) never happened.

In the end, it may be Radio Disney's preservation of that happy, peaceful universe that's really drawing people of all ages to the station now.

"My gut tells me that people are just looking for a positive place to kind of rejuvenate themselves and feel happy again--particularly after 9-11," Robin Jones says. Radio Disney, after all, was the one station kids could tune in to on that fateful day and actually hear nothing whatsoever about the terrorist attacks. "We specifically told our phone ops to instruct kids to talk to their parents or teachers if they called in scared on that day," Jones says. "But we didn't say anything about it on the air. We wanted it to be that safe haven."

In the perfect, positive world of Radio Disney, after all, those things the other stations claimed really happened on 9-11 are simply unconscionable.

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