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Put your ears on

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

Rachel Pantoja -- cherubic, strawberry blond, and surprisingly self-possessed for a 12-year-old -- whips around in her swivel chair as she awaits her turn at the mike in a recording studio in North Dallas.

Rachel, whose idea of a good time is squirting lemonade at her friends from a toy fire extinguisher, bides her time as colleague Michael Davis finishes reading the introduction to a serialized radio drama.

"Jessie was about to install a blow-dryer into the time machine when Crazy Joe showed up," the slightly built 13-year-old begins.

A blow-dryer in a time machine? So it's not exactly "All Things Considered," but what would you expect from the company that brought us Donald Duck and Annette Funicello in mouse ears and a tight sweater? This is kid stuff for a new generation of kids, created by The Walt Disney Co., the unmatched master of squeaky-clean preteen entertainment and marketing, and pumped through the airwaves to the cars of soccer moms and carpooling parents nationwide -- whether they like it or not.

Rachel and Michael are entertainment professionals working part time every other week for Radio Disney, an emerging 24-hour syndicated radio network owned by Walt's company and produced almost entirely at its Dallas-based subsidiary, ABC Radio Network.

Two and a half years ago, Radio Disney began airing test programming in four markets outside Dallas. Financed by the deep pockets of Mickey Mouse, it has since expanded its reach to 42 cities, including Dallas' KMKI-AM 620.

"Smooth it out. Give it some energy," Byran Jester, the network production manager, tells Michael. Each day, Jester helps supervise five or six of the 40 child performers Radio Disney employs.

Michael is hitting snags. At some moments the boy rushes, slurring his words. Other times, he stumbles and stops in mid-sentence, shaking his head in defeat.

"Read it like you are talking to a 3-year-old," advises Jester, a large man in jeans and sneakers who has tremendous patience for the task of persuading kids to perform like professionals.

As Michael falters, Rachel becomes visibly more impatient. She pulls the lever under her seat to make her chair bounce up and down. Then she launches a campaign of goofy faces aimed at drawing a laugh from assistant producer Ernest Martinez.

Jester ignores her as he coaxes Michael to deliver an animated introduction to "Magic Kids Theatre," one of Radio Disney's regular features. A serialized tale that unfolds over several weeks as young Radio Disney listeners phone in suggestions for plot developments, "Magic Kids Theater" is part of the network's unique -- or, less kindly, irritating -- programming aimed at children 2 to 11 years old.

To draw in the tykes, the station airs a short playlist of bowdlerized pop hits, oldies, and television and movie soundtracks. The music is broken up by twice-hourly "edutainment" segments such as "Magic Kids Theatre" and "Aptitude Dude," in which listeners learn scientific facts such as how many ribs the human body possesses (12 pairs) from the authoritative voice of a surfer dude. Then there's "Gross Me Out," an informative little show that recently offered up a detailed description of boogers. About every 10 minutes, the network broadcasts the comments of some pint-sized listener. A 10-year-old girl in Atlanta will, for instance, yelp incessantly because she has just won one of the station's daily prizes, maybe a backstage pass to a Backstreet Boys concert, a SuperSoaker squirt gun, or a new Mattel "Generation Girl" doll.

After about 20 minutes into his taping session, Michael has finally hit all his lines right -- or so Jester believes as he prepares for the next bit.

Rachel doesn't think so. She may be young, but her professional's ear has caught something Jester's missed. "How can Heather go from being called Heather to being called Jessie?" she demands, pointing out that Michael had changed the character's name.

"She's right," says Jester, a little embarrassed as he ushers Michael back to the mike.

At Radio Disney, kids rule, parents drool.


By its own accounting, Disney is spending hundreds of millions of dollars -- and losing tens of millions -- to launch and expand Radio Disney. If it succeeds, the peewee analogs of Donald Imus and Howard Stern will be heard in 60 cities encompassing 75 percent of the nation's radio listeners by the end of the year.

The success of that investment and the efforts of some 36 adult employees in North Dallas hinges on the idea that parents will do something, namely tune in to Radio Disney, simply because their children insist that they do. That notion is particularly important to the new enterprise's prospects when it comes to automobile rides.

 

For parents, there typically have been only two choices in car travel: serene cruises down the highway sans children or earsplitting rides with the progeny screeching like banshees in the back seat.

In theory, Radio Disney offers a benign, if somewhat cloying, third alternative: Tune us in, and we'll somehow shut junior up.

"It was designed to be effective for kids and not annoy Mom and Dad," says Robin Jones, head of operations for the network whose affiliates use the slogan "Radio Disney: We're all ears."

Although parents gripping the wheels of their Suburbans may tune in to Radio Disney only to pacify their charges, those adults nevertheless represent a captive audience for advertisers. Radio Disney's own research suggests that for every 2.5 children tuning in, one adult is listening as well. That ratio allows the network to market advertising time to a strange mix of products -- ads for sugary breakfast cereals and toys airing with spots for Chevy minivans and tax software. More than 1.5 million kids and more than 500,000 parents tune in to Radio Disney every week, according to Statistical Research Inc., an independent firm hired by Disney.

But for Disney, the network remains a high-risk, cash-hemorrhaging venture. The network earned at best $20 million in revenue last year, estimates Chris Dixon, an entertainment industry analyst at PaineWebber, or less than 0.11 percent of Disney's total revenue and about as much as Michael Eisner's troops sell in videos in one hour.

Part of the problem is that, with a few exceptions, major national advertisers such as kid-favorite McDonald's have been reluctant to sign on with the network. "When we see more extensive coverage, we might take a second look," a McDonald's spokesman told American Demographics magazine last February.

Jones says that the affiliates now have enough local sponsors to air five minutes of advertising per hour, while the network itself is selling only about 2.5 minutes in national advertising. The company's goal is to increase the national ads to five minutes. (Jones' boss, ABC Radio Vice President Scott McCarthy, says Jones' figures aren't quite accurate, but he declined to provide any himself.)

Ratings are the biggest stumbling block when Radio Disney tries to woo national advertisers. Arbitron, the independent company that rates radio broadcasters, doesn't survey listeners under age 12, so Radio Disney must rely on its own research to convince advertisers that the network is reaching its target audience. Census bureau figures show there are plenty of kids -- 23.8 million of them ages 6 to 11 -- but no one has proved yet that they listen to radio.

"Television, for advertisers, is the most important medium," says Debbie Solomon, a senior partner at the advertising firm of J. Walter Thompson, which focuses on marketing to children. "Radio will always be a secondary medium." Solomon believes, however, that Radio Disney has a chance. She particularly favors the network as a medium for advertising to parents, who can walk away from the television set when children watch, but may be trapped in the car when their young ones tune in to Radio Disney.

Others before Disney have tried to launch radio programming for kids. A Seattle-based company created a similar venture called Kids Star, but it lasted only four years before closing shop in 1997. Minneapolis-based Children's Broadcasting Co. (CBC) tried to launch a kids network called Radio Aahs, but it failed in 1997.

CBC closed its doors about a year after ABC Radio (which had not yet then started Radio Disney) severed a 7-month-old agreement to develop Radio Aahs. ABC had agreed to take responsibility for CBC's national advertising sales and assist CBC in acquiring affiliates for its network in exchange for $25,000 a month plus commissions and a chance to later purchase part of Radio Aahs.

But in July 1996, ABC told CBC it wanted to terminate their agreement. On the same day, ABC, which had in the interim been purchased by Disney, announced plans to launch Radio Disney.

In September 1996, CBC sued Disney, claiming breach of contract and alleging that the larger company had stolen trade secrets. A jury agreed with CBC and issued a $20 million judgment against Disney, but the verdict was overturned by a U.S. district judge in St. Paul. CBC is appealing.

Despite the lawsuit, the failures of others, and the trouble selling a kids network to advertisers, Disney is at least assured one side benefit from creating the network: Radio Disney serves as a ready-made marketing tool for its parent company's theme parks, movies, toys, and clothing. Jones and her boss, McCarthy, become a bit testy when it's suggested that Radio Disney might be considered little more than an empty billboard for Disney to slap ads onto. When Radio Disney took over a New York station that had previously played Frank Sinatra, the New York Post described it as "The Day the Music Died" and reported that "Radio Disney is nothing more than a cog in the Disney promotional machine." To such charges, Jones says: "Disney is just a big part of kids' lives. I'd much rather have that than hard rock."

 

But questions about the commercialization of children's programming persist. While that issue has been a major concern in television programming, where the line between cartoons and toy advertisements has been nonexistent, Radio Disney is still too new to be on anyone's radar screen. Still, Amy Jordan, a senior researcher at the University of Pennsylvania who monitors children's television for its commercial content, says the network may be skirting Federal Communications Commission rules that discourage ads for products such as toys from being aired too close to programs featuring those products.

At Radio Disney's offices, meanwhile, the receptionist's desk bears an image of Tarzan, the star of the latest Disney animated feature film. The network is offering a tree house as a prize in its current promotional contest.

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.

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.

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."

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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