Interview: Kathy O'Connell (Kids Corner)

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Sometimes the printed page (or screen) isn't enough.  I've admired Kathy O'Connell, the host of the Kids Corner radio show at Philadelphia's WXPN for many reasons.  She is in essence the dean of kids music radio, having hosted Kids Corner for more than 20 years (and other shows before that).  She is also an absolute riot to be around -- meeting her at StinkFest/KindieFest 2009 was definitely a blast.  So I was excited when O'Connell agreed to answer a few questions.  Read on -- even if you live nowhere near Philly -- and find out how O'Connell got her start in radio, what she looks for in putting together Kids Corner, and her connection to Vampire Weekend (really).

Zooglobble: What music did you listen to growing up?

Kathy O'Connell: My parents had lots of novelty records, like Spike Jones, Stan Freberg, and Betty Hutton, along with a lot of Sinatra and Dean Martin.  When I started buying my own music, I went heavy on the show tunes.  The album that had the biggest influence on me growing up was Carol Burnett Remembers How They Stopped the Show.  I won talent shows lip-synching her version of “Adelaide’s Lament.”  I pretty much had the “novelty” category to myself in the CYO Summer Recreation Talent Shows.

Then, the Beatles came, and I never looked back.  I was a British Invasion girl all the way, with a soft spot for novelty tunes.  When the Beatles and Soupy Sales were on  the same Ed Sullivan show, my brains fell out.

What radio stations and DJs did you listen to growing up?

WABC in New York.  Top 40 radio at its best.  I had a transistor radio to my ear all the time.  The WABC jocks were my first introduction to the possibilities of creative live radio.  I think people look upon radio as a conduit to music instead of an art in itself.  The WABC jocks were entertainers who happened to play records.  A good live radio artist is a like a good jazz musician.  They can roll with anything and make it entertaining.  And the intimacy of radio leaves such an imprint.  I can still sing the theme songs for Scott Muni and “Cousin” Bruce Morrow more than 40 years later.

My favorite DJ, then and forever, was Dan Ingram.  He did 2-6 pm on WABC.  He was the most creative voice on the radio.  And when he needed to, when a news story warranted it, he was serious.  Dan Ingram had the mix of funny and serious down perfectly.  Listening to WABC back then, you felt like you were part of a bigger community. So, it was a big deal when Cousin Brucie’s son Dana John (DJ) was born, and we got swept up in the “Principal of the Year Contest” every year.  I even nominated the awful principal we had at St. Hugh’s.  We weren’t successful.

When did you first realize that you wanted to work in radio?  When did you start doing kids radio -- it wasn't exactly planned, was it?

WBAI in New York City changed my life when I volunteered to answer phones during their fund drive, right after the accident at Three Mile Island.  From the first moment I walked into the station, it was “honey, I’m home” time.  WBAI was where I learned how to create radio, thanks to an incredible community of people who are still my family.  The “reception riffraff” as we dubbed ourselves worked for free, kept the station running and pretty much made ourselves indispensable.  No matter how annoying we were, they could never get rid of us.  I was in what was then the “Live Radio Department,” where I learned from people like Lynn Samuels (now on Sirius-XM).

I worked my way into my own late night show (“Rosebud”) from running the elevator on weekends. The elevator operator was licensed to sign on the transmitter for those who couldn’t.  The Saturday night midnight reggae show guy was late a lot, so I started filling in with something I called “The Waiting for Habte Show.”  A jolly mix of comedy, music, and whatever I could blend together on the fly.  I worked all week on sets of music and bits, betting that Habte would run late.  Eventually, I got my own overnight show on WBAI until I moved to California for a couple of years and worked in commercial radio.

The “Waiting for Habte” experience helped prepare me for the evening I got into kids’ radio.  I was board operator (engineer) at WNYC in New York in 1983, having just returned from  California.  One night, about 15 minutes before the kids’ show, “Small Things Considered” was set to air, the hosts came storming into the studio and started pulling records and supplies off the shelves, having a tantrum.  Since I grew up among crazy people, I just sat back and watched it happen.

They left, and several people in suits came in.  One guy said, “we need you to help us out,” since the kids’ show hosts had walked.  I said, “I’ll help you if you let me talk.”  And thus, a career was born.  “Small Things Considered” (3 hours a day, locally) became “Kids America (90 minutes a day, nationally), with a huge budget and lots of staff.  “Kids America” was cancelled on Christmas Eve 1987.  Luckily, the manager of our Philadelphia affiliate (WXPN) called me when the cancellation was announced, and asked me if I’d like to try to do a kids’ radio show by myself on WXPN.  More luckily,  I didn’t have to do it by myself. The second night of Kids Corner, Robert Drake showed up to volunteer on the show.  He’s been there ever since, producing Kids Corner.  Otherwise, I might have had to learn to work for a living.  I said, “I’ll give Philly a year.”  That was 21 years ago and counting.

Do you think kids music has really improved here in the past decade, or is it just a case of new ears and a new way of getting the music out to the masses?  In other words, are we just repeating things people were saying 10 or 15 years ago?

Yes and no.  Barry Louis Polisar was writing goofy songs like “Don’t Put Your Finger Up Your Nose” and putting out independent records 25 years ago.  Peter Alsop’s songs like “My Body” empowered kids before schools had anti-bullying programs.  These are independent artists who are still producing.  Trout Fishing in America built on that foundation, and their success has resulted in what we’re hearing now.  We’re now getting music created by the kids who grew up on Polisar and Trout.  Kids who expect a level of humor and to be treated like people, not babies.  Trout Fishing in America brings the same goofy sensibilities to their kids’ music that they brought to their all-ages stuff.  They joke about “the very exclusive Trout Records label,” but they set the stage for today’s kindie musicians.  I believe strongly that the best kids’ bands are made up of musicians from bar bands because they learn how to play with all kinds of distractions.  The difference is what kind of bottle is being thrown at you.

The big difference between now and 15 years ago is that there are more people who write about and share family music regularly.  Instead of some newspaper writer “discovering” the whole world of music for kids when the writer becomes a parent, it has become obvious that there’s great music being created all the time.  The expectations of the audience has changed with the availability of great family music.

What song qualities do you think tend to do well on Kids Corner?

Funny, funny, funny.  The Number One song for the last five years has been the incredibly silly “The Cheese Song” by Bubboon’s Tunes.  Rhythmic is great as well.  “Gotta Be Me” by Secret Agent 23 Skiddoo and “My Name is Joe” by Bill Wellington are huge Kids Corner hits.  I’m still playing the same “Weird” Al and Allan Sherman songs I’ve been playing for 25 years.  A friend once described my job as:  “You play ‘Fish Heads,’ you play ‘Star Trekkin.’  You play ‘Star Trekkin,’ you play ‘Fish Heads.’”  Those two songs were hits on “Kids America” 25 years ago, and they still wind up in our annual Top 10 regularly.

I look for songs that are relevant to my topics on Kids Corner.  I use a lot of library songs because I have a “Bookmobile” segment.  I have a weekly science hour, so astronomy songs always work.  Luckily, the pool includes new artists like Justin Roberts’ “Backyard Spaceship” as well as classics like Louis Prima’s “Beep Beep” from the 1950’s.

Do you consciously set aside a certain amount of your setlist for local artists?  Is that part of your mission?

Music is only a third of Kids Corner.  There’s equal emphasis on call-ins and kids’ participation as well as my ramblings and jokes.  I have slots for 6 songs a day, and two of those are devoted to the nightly music challenge.  Within that tight framework, I try to play local artists when they’ll fit.  But giving airplay to local artists isn’t a major part of my mission.  My mission is to entertain my audience.  If a local act like Ernie & Neal can do that with a song about “Macaroni and Cheese,” I’ll play it.  But geography doesn’t guarantee the music will be any good or that it will work for Kids Corner.  I have a Family Calendar on our website to promote local performances, and I have a list of local performers handy when I’m asked to recommend musicians for local venues and festivals.  So, while I don’t consciously try to devote a portion of my show to local artists, I try to make information available so my audience can go out and support local folks.

Something I’m seeing now is that kids who grew up listening to and performing on Kids Corner on my “On Stage” segment are now in bands. The drummer of Vampire Weekend had his first performance on Kids Corner. Philly groups like Cheers Elephant and Hoots & Hellmouth have roots in Kids Corner.  So, I feel like I’m supporting local musicians in a very special way.  They’re my kids!

What are the advantages and disadvantages of doing a relatively short program, but doing it four nights a week?

In the same way classic kids’ TV shows (like “The Soupy Sales Show”) were consistently in the same place every night, kids can count on Kids Corner marking their time during the week.  I’ve had parents tell me they use Kids Corner as bait to get homework finished.  Or that kids know it’s bedtime when Kids Corner is over at 8.  I have to condense a lot into that one hour per night, but when it works, it’s great.

My primary example of how powerful that one hour a night can be is the success of Trout Fishing in America.  I started playing them when “Big Trouble” was first on cassette.  Word got to them that “this woman on the radio in Philadelphia has gone crazy for you.”  Keith Grimwood tells the story of schlepping his huge bass up the stairs to our old WXPN studios, all the while grumbling, “kids radio?  Who ever heard of kids’ radio?”  Well, this little kids’ radio show built them into a huge regional hit in the Delaware Valley, and that in turn helped spread the word to other audiences.  This was the first market where their kids’ music became more popular than their regular stuff.

You know Soupy Sales -- how did that come about and how's he doing?

Basically, my friends and I stalked him when we were kids.  If you’ve ever seen the movies The World of Henry Orient and The King of Comedy, my teenage years were a combination of those two movies.  A community of 50 or so regulars grew among the kids who came to see Soupy’s show on Channel 5 in the ‘60’s.  In that simpler time,  my mother let me take the train from Long Island to his shows in NYC regularly.  After Soupy’s show ended, some of his “gang” continued to go to his appearances, hang out in front of his house, even go to the airport when he went out of town.  A friend and I even went to Atlanta to see Soupy in the play “Finian’s Rainbow” in 1968!  I spent my college money on that, which didn’t go over very well in my house.  Given what I wound up doing for a living, I say to him all the time:  “Thank God I’ve wasted my life on you.”  I have two Peabody awards because I followed that man!

Soupy is 83 years old, and in spite of serious health challenges in the past few years, he is doing really well.  Last October, the University of the Arts in Philadelphia honored his role in preserving jazz history.  Thanks to Soupy, the only existing video of trumpeter Clifford Brown exists.  The thrill for me was that Soupy and his wife came to Philly for it, and I did a presentation about his jazz show in Detroit in the 1950’s.  We’ve done several events together, and he beams like a proud dad.  It’s really great.  Soupy introduced me to jazz because he had to use his own record collection for the music on his show, so Herbie Mann’s “Comin’ Home Baby” was “Gunninger’s Theme.”  And “Mumbles” by Oscar Peterson and Clark Terry was the theme for Pookie the lion.  I play “Mumbles” on Kids Corner!  Thanks, Soupy.

One of my listeners dressed up as me last Halloween.  I gave her a Soupy Sales pin to wear, and she said one thing she learned was “that grownups love Soupy Sales and will give you more candy if you’re wearing a Soupy Sales pin.”  I’m introducing him to a new generation.

What's coming up next for you and Kids Corner?

WXPN’s big event is our XPoNential Music Festival July 24-26 on the Camden (NJ) waterfront.  Kids Corner takes over the Camden Children’s Garden, where we present family music from noon-6 for the weekend.  It’s a great chance to meet my listeners and their families.  And I have lots of visits from the “grownup” part of the Festival from kids who grew up on Kids Corner. And cool stuff happens that embody Kids Corner, like when our “Nature Walk” woman Jane Kirkland discovered butterfly eggs on a milkweed stalk across from my table.  All weekend, she took families on a tour of discovery, including those butterfly eggs.  Who recognizes butterfly eggs?  These are the people I know….it’s great to be me.

Robert Drake has expanded the Kids Corner website to include archived programs, podcasts, and information about all our Kids Corner folks.  I tell people I basically know one thing:  you turn on the microphone, and I talk.  And talk.  Robert and the crew at WXPN are inventive about finding ways to share my talking with the world.  So, I’m sure there are new technological advances in the works for Kids Corner.  But they know better than to tell me about them until I need to know.

Photo credit: Candace diCarlo