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DJ puts rapport with kids online

Rick Adams' humorous ways pull a million children from 6 to 14 to his live show on AOL. They besiege him with 5,000 e-mails a day.

August 09, 2004|Ellen Edwards | Washington Post

You could call Rick Adams the Man Who Made Madonna Moo, but that might give you the wrong idea.

After all, this is a man who spends his afternoons with your children. And really, he was just playing one of his little games. Madonna was on the phone, and he asked her to play the "Moo Baa" game. He ran through a list of breeds of sheep and cows and she had to bleat for the ones she thought were sheep and moo for the cows. And she did. The real Madonna.

It was the peak of his 10-month-old radio show.

Adams is one of those annoying people who knew what he wanted to do when he was about 3 years old. He wanted to be a radio DJ, and now at age 32 he is -- but with a new-media twist. After years of radio and television work in his native England, a lot of it aimed at children, he's the DJ for AOL's daily, live Internet radio show for kids, called Radio KOL, which can be heard only by AOL members.

Chances are your kids, or some you know, are among the 1 million 6- to 14-year-olds who each weekday spend quality time with Adams. They e-mail and instant-message him, they badger him for giveaways, they send their shout-outs to friends and family, and they ask for songs, some of which are way inappropriate and which he can't play, but most of which he can and does.

"The wrinklies [that's what he calls parents] will get some stuff and the kids will get other things," he says from his studio in Northern Virginia. "I always want to pitch up to them, not talk down." His talk is funny, and he puts a lot of calls from kids directly on the air. They have responded by becoming regular callers and some have created their own characters, such as "Somebody," who calls often to chat with Adams.

Big kid on the block

Although there is lots of radio aimed at teenagers and adults, there is little dedicated to the younger set. Radio Disney is the only other contender, and with about 3.5 million listeners, it's by far the big kid on the block. It's a national show, live 24 hours a day out of Dallas, and as with Radio KOL, kids can send requests and shout-outs through the Internet at Radio Disney.com.

Adams' first job in radio was as an intern making coffee for people.

"It was the best job," he remembers, peering intently through his slit-like glasses. "I was around the station and people thought, 'Hmm, if he can make coffee, maybe he's good at making biscuits.' " Then a DJ quit, and there he was. "They said I could try the show but 'We're not going to pay you.' " Eventually they did, of course, and he went on to do a lot of radio and television in England, including a stint for Nickelodeon, for which he had to try out.

"I had never considered TV," he says. "I found it truly terrifying. So for the audition I put a bag over my head and did some thing about veggies." The humor won them over and he got the job. "They called and said, 'Can you come back and do whatever it was that you were doing?' " He was popular on morning television, and then he got a call from Malcolm Bird, senior vice president and general manager of AOL's Kids & Teens programming, asking him if he wanted to come to the United States to start this show.

" 'Hmm,' I said, 'let me think about that.' " He puts his hands to his face for a moment, pretending to consider his options. " 'OK, yes.'

"I'm astounded at American kids," he says. "They're ready, set, go. Perfect for getting on the radio. They're very open, intelligent, funny. They have ideas for games, like 'Molly's Fish and Chips.' " For that game, a girl named Molly came up with the idea of standing at the top of the stairs in her home and sniffing the air to try to guess what was cooking for dinner downstairs. Then she would go see if she was right. Now lots of kids try their noses at the game. It's typical Adams' silliness.

And because it's AOL's show, it uses all the interactive tools that AOL offers. At any time during the show, Adams has as many as 400 IMs knocking at his computer screen. He gets about 5,000 e-mails a day.

In demand

Right from the start, so many electronic messages came in that Adams couldn't keep up with them. On the day the show started last September, it took his computer 35 minutes to shut down all the IM windows on his screen.

So Adams helped create an interactive Martian named Felg, who responds to the kids. Everybody gets a response, even the kids who might send in something inappropriate.

"If the kids get cheeky," says Adams, "Felg will say something like, 'I'm not programmed to understand that kind of language.' " Kids love him, says Bird, "because he speaks to them as if they're small adults. He shows them respect."

Adams, who is single, moved to Washington and not only had to plan the substance of the show but also had to help build his own tiny studio and the technical setup that transmits it over the Internet from AOL headquarters in Dulles, Va. Outside his studio are two large cages that house the Radio KOL pets, two bizarre-looking sugar gliders named Ariel and Kiki.

So every weekday from 3 to 7 p.m., he's live on AOL, bouncing in his seat, full of energy and with tricks up his sleeve to play with the kids who call and IM. The program repeats continuously until the live show starts again at 3 p.m. Similarly, the Friday "weekend" show repeats until 3 p.m. Monday.

"I respond to what they like," Adams says of his listeners. He doesn't have a rigid playlist, the way many DJs do, and he likes to program his own music. AOL's archives allow him to access virtually any song in an instant. His audience's musical tastes run to Britney Spears, Hilary Duff and Raven, but an occasional song from Usher might make its way on the air.

Still, with such a young audience, there are limits.

"We watch that like a hawk," he says.

"We want the wrinklies' minds to be at ease. My premise is to be entertaining and silly. Parents know it's safe."

And he puts on his headphones and shouts out to his listeners.

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