Tuned Out

Why children’s radio—a format once important enough that Disney undermined a competitor to dominate the radio dial—has largely disappeared from the airwaves.

By Ernie Smith

Today in Tedium: We’ve lost a lot of things in recent years, but one that we haven’t talked about too much is the demise of the children’s radio station. Yes, this is not exactly a surprise—how is radio going to compete with YouTube and Roblox? But back in April, the only real player in the kid-centric terrestrial radio space, Radio Disney, which started life on the airwaves 25 years ago this week, quietly wound down as Disney made the decision to focus on, well, every other part of being Disney. But it’s worth noting that Radio Disney was not the only one to embrace this phenomenon. Kids’ music makes a lot of money even to this day—it’s part of the reason why traditionally adult-centric bands like They Might Be Giants have embraced it. Today’s Tedium looks back at the many attempts to sell kids on radio—a market that has basically faded away by this point. (Thanks to Disney.) — Ernie @ Tedium

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Fisher Price Record Player

(Brian Moen/Flickr)

A quick overview of the market for kids’ music, which didn’t always have a home on the radio

To get an idea of how big a deal music is to kids, I want to draw attention to a device that you’ve probably seen and maybe even used a few times in your life: The Fisher-Price Record Player. Dating to 1978, this device is incredibly common on the used market because of the fact that seemingly every kid born in the early ’80s had one. It was the perfect gateway drug to get a taste of your parents’ Beatles records, even if the fidelity was not exactly as good as something more professional.

For many kids of a certain age, it was their first experience with music. It likely sold millions of units, if the used market is anything to go by.

And lots of kids had clock radios—including my personal favorite, the Nickelodeon clock radio, which I mentioned in this piece on alarm clocks in 2018. Kids had record players and they had radios. All they needed was the right music to play.

So naturally, it made sense to target this market more directly. In the ’60s, children’s music became a home for folk artists who saw the potential of recording albums for children—with Peter, Paul, and Mary seeing the most success with this approach. Children’s music also made room for musical oddballs who didn’t otherwise have a place in the mainstream market—folks like Raymond Scott and Bruce Haack come to mind.

If you want to watch this 45-minute Raffi concert special, I won’t stop you. Raffi is awesome.

Sure, albums were sold that targeted this audience, but it wasn’t a firmly defined subsection of the music industry, really, until the late 1970s and early 1980s, when ground-up solo stars like Raffi emerged, along with popular music duos like Greg & Steve, and even trios, like Sharon, Lois & Bram. (Eventually, quartets, like The Wiggles, would even show up.) Suddenly, there was a market for music targeted at grade-schoolers, and that meant the market could have a multimedia presence.

Sharon, Lois & Bram, for example, produced five seasons of The Elephant Show, a CBC-broadcast kid’s show that aired on Nickelodeon in the United States. (You are likely familiar with them if the word “Skinnamarink” evokes any memories for you at all.)

You could have a very successful career targeting the kids market, and many have. (Raffi, for years the market’s closest thing to a superstar, even had integrity—he once turned down the opportunity to play at Madison Square Garden because he didn’t think he could connect to the audience there.)

Many later-in-career artists have found opportunities with kids’ music. Woody Guthrie spent some of his later years producing music for kids. By the early 2000s, aging alternative rock acts such as the aforementioned They Might Be Giants, as well as the Barenaked Ladies, found a path forward via a kid-centric approach. (As did Chris Ballew, the lead singer of The Presidents of the United States of America, already a kid-friendly band, who now more frequently performs as Caspar Babypants.) Even still-in-their-prime acts, like Best Coast, have produced kid’s albums.

Even given all that, the market is definitely still niche. Case in point: It took until 1995 for Billboard to release a dedicated Kid Audio chart, which highlighted the albums sold to that audience—nearly missing Raffi’s most successful period. (As much of that music is generally catalog music in nature, the chart quickly was expanded to include older entries, which is why, if you read it today, the chart is dominated by movie and television soundtracks.)

But it, nonetheless, said market is growing. According to a 1992 Billboard article, kid’s music represented only 0.3 percent of all music sales in the U.S. in 1991, per the RIAA (a still-significant $234 million market), but a 2006 Billboard article noted that percentage had grown to 2.8 percent by 2004—the first time the mark had ever topped 1 percent. (Occasionally, a total whopper emerges: Pinkfong’s take on the campfire song “Baby Shark” quickly became the most popular kid’s song of all time, hitting the Billboard Top 40 and going diamond largely thanks to YouTube.)

More recently, pop-rap superstar Lil Nas X found a lot of success targeting kids with his music, even going so far as to release a children’s book back in January—which proved a problem when, two months later, he upset a lot of parents by taking his music in an edgy new direction.

To put this all another way: There has always been a small but important market for music targeted at kids, but it has not always been large enough to have a home on the radio. But one did eventually re-emerge … with Radio Disney its clearest success story.

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A compilation disc of music from Radio AAHS, the largest kids’ radio service of the early ’90s. (via Discogs)

The rise of radio networks targeted at kids

Looking back at the history of radio, kid-centric programming does go back as far as the 1920s and 1930s—though it wasn’t in the context of music at first. According to The Guide to United States Popular Culture, kid-targeted programming dominated the 5pm hour on many radio stations in the 1930s and 1940s, and (as with television) Saturday morning was a prime time for kids.

This was also the case in the United Kingdom, where the BBC produced Children’s Hour, which aired between 5pm and 6pm. (The broadcasting service created kid-centric programming for radio as late as 2009.)

As properly explained in A Christmas Story, serial-style shows like Little Orphan Annie dominated the entertainment landscape for kids during this period. But the rise of television eventually pushed kid-centric radio to the side for a few decades.

But by the late 1980s, broadcasters had started to give kid-centric radio another go. A number of distinct efforts to target radio towards kids launched, some with a vibe closer to Nickelodeon than to PBS.

One such network, the Imagination Station Network, literally started with the financial backing and on-air support of one of the earliest proponents of kid-centric pop music, Peter Yarrow of the folk trio Peter, Paul, and Mary. And another, Kidwaves Radio Network, was working to build up a large enough audience base that it could launch nationally, but appears to have struggled to get off the ground, according to reports from newspapers at its Philadelphia home base.

The most successful of these formative efforts was a service called Radio AAHS, which evolved from Children’s Broadcasting in the late ’80s to become a full-on syndicated radio provider, the brainchild of a guy named Christopher Dahl, who built a ground-up network for kids.

“Everybody here, the adults, the younger adults, has a mission,” Dahl told the Fort-Worth Star Telegram of the initiative in 1993. “We really believe we’re making a difference in kids’ lives.”

The company had enough success with the format that the network had expanded nationally and even put on a full-on children’s music festival, Kidstock, in the Minneapolis area in the early ’90s. The 1992 version of the festival reportedly brought in more than 10,000 attendees.

“Think of 15,000 kids chanting the same thing,” Dahl told the Star-Tribune of the wide-scale concert, which brought in performers from Sesame Street among other places. “I wanted the excitement of a large arena. We wanted to present children’s music with the same excitement that parents get when they go to concerts.”

(Raffi would not be down with this.)

Part of the network’s appeal, as shown in this 1993 clip from the television show John & Leeza, is that it actually put kids in the recording booth and let them host the shows, complete with kid-friendly banter. To put it simply, Radio AAHS was a small-scale success that showed that there was room for a kid-focused radio niche.

But these efforts were small potatoes compared to what came next. And Christopher Dahl’s wholesome success story would get caught in the crosshairs.

2004

The year that BusRadio, a service that played kids’ music on school buses, launched. The format, which was very similar to the captive-audience approach used by the TV network Channel One in classrooms, proved highly controversial for many of the same reasons Channel One did, and the format never caught the scale of Channel One as a result, shuttering in 2009.

Why Disney decided to build a network of radio stations for kids, and who Disney had to undermine to get there

Perhaps it was only a matter of time for the key brand in the kid universe, Disney, to notice the market and build around it.

On November 18, 1996, Radio Disney launched on radio stations nationwide, an initiative that was brought to life because of an acquisition that brought Capital Cities Communications, the owners of ABC’s broadcast apparatus, under Disney’s roof in a $19 billion deal that transformed Disney into a player that realistically had mass-market plays in basically every type of media, including radio. Beyond the ABC television network (a network of 225 local television stations at the time the merger was announced), this gave Disney access to ESPN, and it also gave Disney access to 21 owned-and-operated radio stations. These stations became test beds for the Radio Disney concept.

A 1998 Billboard article notes that, despite the prior formative efforts to create kid-oriented radio formats, Radio Disney was largely new territory at the scale at which it played—so new, in fact, that the primary audience-measuring tool radio stations used at the time, Arbitron (now Nielsen Audio), only targeted listeners ages 12 and older.

The key innovation the Radio Disney brought to the market was that, rather than simply being a home for Raffi-style music targeted at kids, it curated popular music for material that would be kid-friendly, making it palatable to both kids and adults. Early on, the network would play pop music that didn’t differ too much from the top 40, but would often include pop songs that were distinctly kid-friendly. For example, “Weird Al” Yankovic, who had a kids’ show on TV at the time, had his Kinks parody “Yoda” played on the network, despite the song dating to 1985. (Weird Al’s team credited the format for helping boost sales of his catalog records during the period.)

But this curated musical selection, for an audience that wasn’t usually programmed to, occasionally led to some fairly squeaky-clean songs getting removed from the dial.

“We don’t play anything about sex, that’s lyrically sensitive, or has bad language,” operations director Robin Jones told the magazine. “I would love to play ‘Gettin’ Jiggy With It,’ but we have to draw the line sometimes.”

Radio Disney’s launch would not be seen as particularly kid-friendly behind the scenes, however. One could argue it was downright cutthroat, even. Before Radio Disney went on the air, the company had effectively leveraged a marketing deal with Radio AAHS to get an understanding of the radio network’s market, dangling the possibility of turning some of the stations owned by Capital Cities into Radio AAHS affiliates … then blindsided Radio AAHS by launching Radio Disney, which in many ways mimicked the Radio AAHS format. The upstart broadcaster accused one of the world’s largest entertainment companies of stealing its trade secrets in an attempt to break into its market.

“We created a recipe and they baked their cake to it,” Christopher Dahl told The Washington Post of the conflict.

The battle threatened the future of the Radio AAHS format, but would become a Pyrrhic victory for Dahl’s company. Disney lost a breach-of-contract suit with Children’s Broadcasting Corporation as a result. While the $20 million suit was a big deal for Christopher Dahl and the company he had built, it was obviously a drop in the bucket for a company the size of Disney. Radio AAHS, which had sold off its radio stations to pay for the lawsuit, was off the air regardless of what the lawsuit actually said.

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(Glennia/Flickr)

But with the lawsuit settled, Radio Disney was free to dominate the kid-focused airwaves basically by itself for more than two decades, with only players on satellite radio providing any real competition. It can’t be understated how much Disney dominated kids’ entertainment by this point—not only putting out dominant animated movies, but now having a legitimate foothold in Saturday Morning cartoons, cable television, and publishing. It could even create artificial scarcity with its own content in the home video market. Now, it had the ability to broadcast its own vision of radio to a target audience of preteens.

And that vision took an interesting turn as teen pop made a real comeback a couple years after the Radio Disney began. The format evolved to essentially match the idol-centric approach favored by The Disney Channel, marketing teen pop to younger audiences and thereby helping Disney benefit from the synergy that the music created with its popular shows and films like Lizzie McGuire and High School Musical. It sounded like pop radio, but with a lean on the types of pop radio kids might listen to.

One difference between Radio Disney and regular pop radio? Throughout much of its history, it only played new stuff, rather than looking back, a huge difference at a time when Blue-album Weezer still gets played on rock radio daily, despite modern Weezer still selling chart-topping albums in 2021. Radio analyst Sean Ross, over at RadioInsight, noted that Radio Disney had found a fascinating niche near the end of its long reign as a branded radio network—one of the few stations in the country that played contemporary hit radio without any recurrents.

“It might seem like an odd response to a wide world of music discovery, but the fraction of the audience most interested in music discovery has been siphoned off, and it’s not worth most people’s efforts to fight for them,” Ross wrote. “Except for Radio Disney. Over the last year or so, that channel has evolved to what is effectively all-current CHR.”

It wouldn’t last. By the point, Radio Disney was slowly being removed from terrestrial radio, with its final station, Los Angeles-based KRDC (formerly KDIS), slowly winding down in early April. For a time, it looked like the network would find a way forward as an internet-based platform, but restructuring within Disney, along with the pandemic, ensured that the concept would fade into the past.

Radio Disney felt like an alternate-universe version of popular music in many ways. It seemed like an interpretation of what pop music would be if one of the world’s largest companies could program it based on its cultural status and moral compass. It was a world where Hilary Duff was the biggest star in the universe (she had won significantly more Radio Disney Music Awards than anyone else), where kid’s music wasn’t defined as purely educational or recorded by adult artists targeting six-year-olds, but a refracted version of what adult music listeners enjoyed. It created pop stars that only really had an audience on Radio Disney—as well as major pop stars like Miley Cyrus and Demi Lovato who would eventually build careers far beyond the confines of what the Disney universe could offer them.

And in the end, if could be argued that by essentially monopolizing the format, it made children’s radio as a concept less malleable over time. After all, when Disney got bored or had a bad quarter, it basically meant killing the entire format. Which is what it did.

2013

The year Nickelodeon launched Nick Radio, a kid-focused radio network similar to Radio Disney, with the help of iHeartRadio. The network, which had a number of artists play guest DJ, was far less successful than Disney’s efforts, failing to become a farm system for teen pop like Radio Disney had, and shut down in 2019. (The website is still online, though.) A point of silver lining for Viacom: Nickelodeon did help bring one of the biggest pop stars in the world, Ariana Grande, to the public eye.

Is the demise of Radio Disney a leading indicator for the future of terrestrial radio? It’s a question worth asking.

The target audience for the radio station is literally the next generation of people who would be expected to listen to radio, a format once considered cool enough that eight-year-olds wanted to host it, but Disney itself appeared to de-emphasize terrestrial radio stations in Radio Disney’s mix by the early 2010s, mostly turning the network into a digital offering. KRDC was basically the only radio station in the Radio Disney network by the end, with the station being replaced by a much more common type of radio format in the modern era—sports talk radio.

But in an era of streaming and podcasts, it’s entirely feasible that the target audience for Radio Disney will grow up without really listening to the radio as we think of it. Sean Ross of RadioInsight hinted at this when he pointed out that Radio Disney was the closest thing to a recurrent-free contemporary hit radio station in the U.S. The audience for radio had shifted to the point where both recurrents and oldies were not pushed off to the side, but actively integrated into many formats.

All the shifts in the radio market highlight that is a market that is evolving because streaming has gotten so good at offering an alternative for younger generations. If Disney wants to reach this audience, all it needs is a well-curated Spotify playlist, rather than spending millions of dollars each year on a radio network whose value was already on the decline. Will radio eventually pull those older listeners back? It’s an open question, and one for which the answer may not be clear for another couple of decades.

Radio is obviously not dying anytime soon—far from it—but certainly it is not going to be bringing in new generations of listeners who grew up with iPads in their bedrooms rather than record players and clock radios. The kids who might have told their parents to turn on Radio Disney in prior generations will likely ask them to turn on a Spotify playlist.

How will the next Raffi reach his or her target audience? It probably won’t be through the radio.

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Ernie Smith

Your time was just wasted by Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is the editor of Tedium, and an active internet snarker. Between his many internet side projects, he finds time to hang out with his wife Cat, who's funnier than he is.

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