The sight of youngsters transfixed in front of a radio is nothing new, but transfixed by something other than the latest Madonna hit? Transfixed by something . . . educational ?
It turns out not to be impossible, even in the Age of Video. For more than seven months, KPCC-FM (89.3) has broadcast a 90-minute kid call-in show called "Kids America." Sandwiched between two broadcasts of the news magazine "All Things Considered" at 3:30 each weekday afternoon, it's sort of a " Small Things Considered."
All over the country, younger members of the video generation are turning on the "Duke of Words" to test their lexicography, "Xeno the Alien" to test their geography and singer Susan Dias and keyboard player Armen Donelian to marvel as they extemporaneously compose songs to the kids' call-in specifications.
But the real key to "Kids America" is that, more than just listening, it has kids \o7 doing\f7 .
According to program producer Keith Talbot, the show's toll-free telephone number registers, on average, more than 6,000 calls every broadcast. While the vast majority of these are only song requests, 25 callers are put on the air every day as active participants to give advice for characters in the topical soap opera "Martha's Mishaps," play the "Mystery History Guest" game and partake in other regular segments, as well as to introduce the day's top songs "as voted by Hugh the listener," (which frequently \o7 does\f7 include Madonna's latest hit).
"The most important thing about our show is that a child can hear something and run to the phone and call us," said Talbot. "I feel that we empower children and give them a safe place to experiment and try their power. We hear from parents saying, 'You've given my kid confidence; thank you for that.' That may be, in the final analysis, the most important thing we're doing."
"Kids America" is produced by WNYC in New York for the American Public Radio network and airs live on 26 stations nationwide. KPCC, its only Southern California outlet, has had the show since September. Just as "Pee-wee's Playhouse" on Saturday morning television has its adult audience, "Kids America" doesn't appeal only to kids.
"I listen to it on my way home from work," said Jeff Laun, a computer programmer who introduced his 10-year-old daughter, Lissa Sherman, to the show. Laun confessed that it's the most "childish" parts of the show that he likes best.
"They have really funny songs, that's what I like," he said. "There's one about excuses for not doing homework."
In fact, it is often adults who discover the show first and then recommend it to their children.
"The mail would indicate that as much as a quarter to a third of our listeners are adults," Talbot said. "We even get mail often from adults \o7 without \f7 kids."
Of course, many parents see value in the show beyond just fun. "There's too much visual stimulation these days," said Jerry Kitchel, a station staffer who listens along with his 5-year-old daughter, Sarah. "This affords young people the opportunity to sharpen their listening skills. I want my little girl to be a good listener."
But no matter how much fun or learning \o7 adults\f7 see in the show, its strength is that it is, in the words of young Lissa Sherman, "especially for kids!" In contrast to many other examples of children's media, "Kids America" is not the product of a group of child psychologists and education theorists, even though the show has an advisory board that includes academic experts.
Save for co-host Kathy O'Connell's brief stint teaching preschool some time ago, the staff's only experience in the education field belongs to associate producer and "Marcy's Friday Party" host Marcy Mankoff, who taught in a private school before going into radio. And only a few of the people behind "Kids America" are parents.
"I learned at the Soupy Sales School of Talking to Kids," joked O'Connell, an ebullient 35-year-old who co-hosts alongside Larry Orfaly. "Sometimes I panic over my lack of education. I think maybe I'm doing it wrong."
But to O'Connell, the lack of a formal educational agenda may be one of the show's strengths.
"We're not an educational show and we don't bill ourselves as that," she said. "We're not parents or relatives who have to be nice to the kids, or teachers who are paid to (teach), and we can bring in little pieces of the esoteric knowledge that we all have."
O'Connell and Orfaly, as well the people who do the show's segments, give "Kids America" its characteristically breezy tone. That anything-can-happen sense proves equally effective with everything from the silliness of wheeler-dealer Al Unctuous to such serious topics as the Challenger explosion. That day's show, O'Connell said, was "Kids America's" most difficult but best yet.
At a recent pizza party that KPCC sponsored to promote the program, "Kids America" fans gave their own reasons for abandoning the tube each afternoon in favor of the radio:
"The interviews," said Sarah Pruitt, 9.
"The songs," added her 6-year-old sister, Elana.
"I like every part," was perhaps the most representative answer, as given by 9-year-old Christy Grams.