In their corner

Kathy O'Connell, "Kids Corner" host, says, "When I'm here. I'm home. After 25 years, it's fun."
Kathy O'Connell, "Kids Corner" host, says, "When I'm here. I'm home. After 25 years, it's fun." (STEVEN M. FALK / Staff Photographer)

For 25 years now, youngsters have been tuning in to WXPN's "Kids Corner" and its empathetic, like-a-favorite-aunt host, Kathy O'Connell.

Posted: February 18, 2013

Some people are just the way you always pictured them.

Kathy O'Connell, for instance. For 25 years now, thousands of kids (and their parents!) have listened to her show, Kids Corner , on WXPN (88.5 FM).

And to mark the birthday, on Sunday morning there's going to be gala party, with O'Connell presiding over a kid-driven "news conference" at Union Transfer, followed by a Kids Corner Music Festival, starring two show favorites, the Not-Its! and Big Bang Boom.

O'Connell, nicely, is pretty much as the longtime listener pictures her. A kid person, sparkly, full of stories, exclamations, and silly jokes, instantly empathetic and attentive. You can see why kids take to her as family, call in to talk to "Kathy," as though calling up an aunt or big sister.

She and longtime producer Robert Drake have met hundreds of first- and second-generation listeners. "And we're just now starting to see our first third-generation listeners," says Drake.

If you're like a lot of people, your kids grew up listening to O'Connell, maybe calling in, participating in the games, contests, and storytelling. Mine did.

Maybe you're like me - and still find yourself listening sometimes, even though your kids are in their 20s and far away. There's a section of my prefrontal lobes that permanently plays the Firm:

Star-Trekkin'

across the universe

on the starship Enterprise

Under Captain Kirk . . .

In the WXPN studios, it's showtime. O'Connell chats with frequent guest Janet Kirkland of takeawalk.com, about all the nature you can see in your backyard. Shay from Martic Elementary in Holtwood, south of Lancaster, calls in to report a redheaded woodpecker. Alex from Harlan Elementary School in Wilmington calls up breathlessly to report: "I found a skull on a Thanksgiving hike with my uncle!"

"Wow!" cries O'Connell.

"Kids are a day at the beach compared to adult callers," O'Connell says off-mike "I used to do adult call-in shows, and some of those people could be really antagonistic."

O'Connell, 60, grew up TV-nuts on Long Island. "I wrote away for tickets to the live shows, like The Garry Moore Show   ," she says. "The tickets'd come, and my mom would have to take me." She and a pal hounded comedian Soupy Sales until they became very close - and in fact, she helped nurse him during his last months.

When asked if she is a "radio rat," she nods with a laugh. She got her radio start on volunteer progressive station WBAI in New York, "one of the reception-area riffraff," she says. "And when a paying job opened up, I drove all the way across the country" - to station KBOS in Tulare, Calif., where "I played Van Halen for people milking cows" and did call-in shows, "lots of callers wanting to talk about how all the rock songs had hidden Satanic lyrics."

At length, she landed a job with public-radio juggernaut WNYC. In 1984, she became host of Small Things Considered, which changed its name to Kids America , "a show with a staff of 20 and a hefty grant budget," distributed to 26 NPR stations nationally.

And one day - as they say in kids' stories - the funding dried up, and so did the show, on Jan. 1, 1988.

But then, three days later, after an admiring call from WXPN, O'Connell was in Philadelphia doing the inaugural Kids Corner. On the second day, Drake knocked on the door and volunteered. And he's stayed.

And they've been there ever since. "At first I said, 'I'll give Philly a year,' and now I'm here 25 years, a 10-block walk from work," says O'Connell, who is single and has a dog, Colby, though no kids of her own. (She lives not far, by the way, from the Kids Corner Mural, painted in 2004, at 43d and Locust.) "There's an XPN community, this dewy-eyed look of love for the radio station. It's a wonderful thing to be part of. Why would you not want to be here?"

WXPN, a world leader in the college-based radio movement, has a budget of $7.2 million and an audience estimated at 405,000. No firm numbers tell us how many kids listen to Kids Corner every weeknight, but Drake says, "Seven thousand is a number we're happy with."

"I know and like Kids Corner," says Larry Rosin, president of media research company Edison Research in Somerville, N.J. He lived in Philly for a decade, "and I listened even before I had kids, like a lot of adults."

How does Kids Corner fit into the kids radio picture? It's very local. It has a Web presence, and, as Drake puts it, "Every once in a while we'll hear from some dedicated listener in Alaska or Russia or someplace." But it's not syndicated in the same sense as, say, David Dye's World Cafe.

Nationally, kids' radio, to the extent there is any, is Disney Radio, and the "kindie" movement (both a kind of kids' rock-and-roll and a radio format) much in evidence on the kids' channels on Sirius/XM, such as Kids Place Live. "And there's any number of downloadable and blog content for kids," Rosin says.

"Essentially, Disney is top 40 radio for kids," Rosin says. " Kids Corner doesn't do that. The songs are silly, fun-and-games. Plus, there's an educational component." He notes that so many different kinds of media are competing for kids' attention, "everyone in radio should be grateful to Disney and to Kids Corner, for introducing kids to the media."

O'Connell says the show is also a natural comforter. "When Newtown happened, for example, we knew kids are going to call in and need to be listened to, and we do. When the Challenger disaster happened, the first thing I said was, 'And now, ladies and gentlemen, Kermit the Frog,' and put on 'Rainbow Connection.' "

Seed money for Kids Corner came from the William Penn Foundation. Funding is "a conglomeration of different sources," O'Connell says. "We don't pay any of the guests. It's pretty much Bob and me, with a lot of help." Like Kids Corner favorites Trout Fishing in America:  

All I want is a proper cup of coffee

in a proper copper coffee pot

I may be off my dot

but I want a proper coffee

in a proper copper pot

Decklin calls in and uncorks a wild tale, how his sister left the door open and a bird got into the house and a hawk did, too, and they had to get them back out again. O'Connell listens, asks questions, says, "Wow!" and wraps with "Decklin, that's a wonderful story! Thank you for sharing it!"

Her eyes let you know that not a syllable of that thanks was false. Which may be the key to host and show:

"When I'm here," O'Connell says, "I'm home. After 25 years, it's fun. My God, yes."


Birthday Bash

Kids Corner's 25th Birthday, at Union Transfer, 1026 Spring Garden St.

10:45 a.m.: "Press Conference": Kids ask questions of host Kathy O'Connell

11 a.m.: Kids Corner Music Festival, with the Not-Its! and Big Bang Boom

Tickets: "Press conference" free. Music Festival tickets: $8 for WXPN members, $12 for nonmembers.

Information:www.kidscorner.org


Contact John Timpane at 215-854-4406 or jt@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter, @jtimpane.

comments powered by Disqus
|
|
|
|
|