Put your ears on

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.

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Miriam Rozen
Contact: Miriam Rozen

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