Happy 25th Anniversary, Kids Corner!
Hear from host Kathy O'Connell as her fantastic kids call-in radio show on WXPN turns 25.
Photo by Mark Wilkens
Kathy's early years in radio
I was the board engineer at WNYC in New York for a show called Senior Edition, about old people, and the host also did this nightly call-in kid show. Part of my job was to edit the “Small Things Considered” segment. One night, the host storms into the studio, pulling records and headphones and muttering, then storms out. Then these people with suits come in, and one of them says, “We need you to do this kids’ show because the host just quit.” So I said, “OK, if you let me talk.” Halfway through the show I thought, “I really want to do this.”
How Kathy landed at WXPN
After three years our show, Kids America [a Peabody Award winner] lost funding and was canceled on Christmas Eve. As soon as we were pulled, the program director at XPN called to say, “Do you want to move to Philly and do the show here?” I figured I’d give it a year. I walked out with a whole lot of records — Barry Louis Polisar, the godfather of kids’ music; Pete Seeger; a bunch of Weird Al Yankovic. That’s when kids’ music really started getting going, and that turned into Kids Corner.
The evolution of kids’ music
In the 1980s, the early days of Nickelodeon, the only good kids’ music came from Canada: Barry Louis, Sharon, Lois & Bram, Fred Penner. Before that was Sesame Street — Joe Raposo based the show’s music on quality rock-and-roll — and Free to Be You and Me. Another big turning point was A Very Special Christmas album , with Bruce Springsteen and John Cougar Mellencamp. It was a change in attitude; if you make it as good for kids as you do for adults, you’re going to have a winner. Families are a captive audience. A lot of indie bands followed — They Might Be Giants, Dan Zanes, who was in the Del Fuegos. When Dan Zanes came to Kids Corner, David Dye [host of WXPN's World Café] was pacing back and forth, he was so excited; I just knew Dan from Rocket Ship Beach [his first kids' CD]. When I first heard Trout Fishing in America, it was like the first moment I heard the Beatles — “This is how kids’ music is supposed to sound.”
Kathy's on-air approach
I’ve always gone off the cuff. The beauty of Kids Corner is its structured anarchy — it’s me and the kids. It's the training ground for engineers at WXPN: It's live, there are certain rules, the structure is always the same. And if things aren't working, turn on Kathy's mic immediately, because I can fake my way through anything. I’m a big believer in the spontaneity of live radio.
Roberts, Alastair Moock, the Little Rockers Band and the Imagination Movers.
Everything in life is like a game of Survivor; you have to make a great alliance early on. On January 4, 1988, [now Kids Corner producer] Robert Drake showed up as a volunteer to make my life easy. He's been with the show since then and does everything you don't hear on the radio and is completely involved in choosing the music. The music has to enhance and explain what I'm doing in the moment. Kids' music has become this abundance. There's a lot of terrible stuff, but there's so much wonderful stuff that putting a name on it, "kindie," has sparked another high point for family music. It's a specific sound and specific approach that has many branches to it and many kinds of music within it.
“Kindie” as a teaching tool
At a time when teachers’ resources are being cut back and homeschooling is growing, it’s so great to have family music resources out there as educational tools: Jonathan Sprout’s CD on American heroes, for example, and the Deedle Deedle Dees’ on science. Tom Chapin, Harry’s brother, a longtime kids’ music pioneer, has an emotional learning CD called The Incredible Flexible You about “navigating the tricky waters of social interaction.” Sooz, out of New Jersey, has a Stand Up Speak Out [antibullying] program. These are terrific teaching tools — good music that does good.
How Kathy got so good at talking to kids
I have to credit Soupy Sales [a comedian and TV personality who hosted a kids' television show in New York when Kathy was growing up in Long Island]. Besides my personal relationship with him — he was like my dad the last six years of his life — he was the first person I ever saw who talked to the kids in his audience like we were regular people. When I was a teen, my friends and I went to his show all the time and followed him everywhere. He got to know us personally. I said to him, "What did you think — there we were, these teenage girls." He said, "I don't know, you were just always there." He'd tell us, "I'm going to do Carol Burnett," and we would start figuring out what time his flight to L.A. was, and one of the moms would drive us to the airport so we could wait for him to walk to the gate. One time, he goes into the airport bar, because he was an adult. We were crestfallen. My mother rolled her eyes, opened the door and walked in — "Hey, Soupy, can you come out and talk to them?"
I reconnected with Soupy in 2002. Basicallly, I have him to thank for my whole career. I still do his jokes and use his way of talking. We did a show together once in Ocean City, and he was sitting next to me at the autograph table as fans came up to me. It was the coolest thing in the world showing him that "This is what your influence did." I got to see the look of pride in his face; he'd known me since I was a kid. I used to tell him, "Thank God I wasted my life on you." I was with him when he died, holding his hand.
Kathy's own group of lifelong fans – and her dogs
I call them "my dotage kids"; they’re going to take care of me in my dotage. [laughs] A lot of them are now musicians themselves. The drummer from Vampire Weekend [Chris Tomson] may not remember the first time he ever played drums on the radio, but it was on Kids Corner. These kids grew up listening to me and I’ve become very close to a lot of them.
Last summer, when I was in the hospital getting a new hip, one of my dotage kids took care of my 13-year-old terrier, Soupy, who had inoperable cancer. Soupy held on until two days after I gave up my cane from surgery. This connects back to the music: Two days later, Lunch Money was playing at a Kids Corner Music Festival. I'd gone out on stage and shared that Soupy had died, and he had a really long life, and what I want you to do is let's give Soupy a big howl. The whole audience holwed in honor of Soupy. And Lunch Money has a song "I Want a Dog," and they sang "I'll name him Soupy," and all the kids sang along; it was wonderful. My other dog, who's name is Colbert, is a Pomeranian.
Some of Kathy's favorite Kids Corner moments
The Persuasions, an incredible a cappella group from the 1960s, did this kids’ album, On the Good Ship Lollipop. They came to our old studio and climbed three double flights of stairs to perform. It was like being in the presence of magic. And working with Pete Seeger and watching this man, pushing 90, consume more spaghetti than I’ve ever seen anyone eat backstage at World Café Live. Then he’d come out and dance around. His voice has been gone for a while but the spirit is still there. Incredible.
The night Jerry Garcia died [in August 1995], one of my dotage kids whose parents are Deadheads went on the air with me, talking about Jerry and what his music had meant to her personally. She truly felt as if a member of the family was gone and was crying on air. I’m not very big on keeping you on the air if you're crying; it can feel expoloitative. But she wanted to be on the air and talk the way she did about Jerry. In that moment, I got it. I got what music can mean to a family.
The first time Trout Fishing was on Kids Corner, in 1991, Keith [Grimwood] had to lug that bass up three double flights of stairs. He didn't know me, other than as the woman on the radio in Philly who's gone crazy playing your music. But when he got to the top of the stairs and we met, it was one of those "Honey, I'm home" moments. We connected.
What's on Kathy's personal playlist?
Trout Fishing in America. I know I sound like a cliché of myself, but I listen to their grownup stuff. Their music speaks to me like the Beatles. I've also got Judy Garland, Stevie Wonder — and a lot of show tunes. Getting trapped in the car with me, you’re stuck with show tunes all the way, I sing along. [Want to sing along with Kathy? Join her as she hosts two upcoming sing-alongs at the Bryn Mawr Film Institute: Newsies on Dec. 7. and White Christmas on Dec. 21.]
How long will she host?
Forever! Why would I ever stop doing this? I’ll be like the Phantom of the Opera, downstairs haunting the place. I am the luckiest girl on the face of the Earth with the best job in the world.