For kids, she gets with the program

TV/RADIO COLUMN

Actress wins award for youth radio show

April 17, 2002|By David Folkenflik | David Folkenflik,SUN TELEVISION WRITER

So here's one question you don't hear very often: Why aren't there more radio shows for children?

There are TV shows, books on tape, Internet sites and all kinds of other diversions designed just for kids. But not on the radio. Not much, anyway.

Trish MacDonald, an actress and producer, decided to fill in the gap with her own creation, My Wonderful Radio Show. Yesterday, in a New York ceremony, she was given a Gracie Allen Award (named for the famous comedian) for her work by American Women in Radio and Television

MacDonald's show was pitted against others that aired on local stations in the nation's top 25 markets, and the group's awards are coveted: In national categories, Emma Thompson won best actor for HBO's Wit; Carol Marin took honors for her work on 60 Minutes II; and the staff of ESPN won for a documentary on Billie Jean King. It's a major honor for what started as one woman's obsession.

MacDonald, who is not an educator, came to the world of broadcasting for kids in an unusual way: About a decade ago, she had a standing gig with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra to narrate its "Tiny Tots" concerts and found she was inspired by the small children she had met.

A planned television show fell through, and MacDonald decided instead to devise a video for young kids, which was picked up by the Home Shopping Network for Christmas Day - typically a low-volume day. As she prepared a radio show, she met producer Susan Allenback, who worked with MacDonald and technicians at Invisible Sound, a recording studio in Highlandtown, to prepare it for broadcast.

"If this helps a child make sense of life - not tied to a computer, not tied to some focus on whether he's rich or poor - this can help him build some independence," she says. "Even if you've had a rotten day, [the show] can provide a child with a family to identify with."

On first listening, My Wonderful Radio Show comes across as a smoothly produced show, featuring well-developed characters, mini-radio plays, rambunctious music and lessons that don't seem all that preachy.

Right now, however, it's not on the air at all. MacDonald produced 13 episodes, which ran Saturday mornings on the locally owned nostalgia station WWLG (1360 AM) beginning in October. It repeated its run until late this winter, but for now, it's not being broadcast again.

"It was a really well-produced series," says Bob Pettit, general manager for WWLG. "The problem was finding sponsors for it. We're not a public broadcasting facility. She needed to have underwriting."

MacDonald purchased the time at a discounted rate from WWLG, but wasn't able to sell ads for it. Pettit says she needs to adopt a vigorous local model, where she and her fellow actors make paid appearances and sell spinoff products that could help to subsidize the show.

"Would you rather invest in this, or pork bellies?" MacDonald asks, ruefully. She says she wants to find a national sponsor - a toy company, for example - that would pay a significant part of the cost of distributing the show nationally.

With the advent of cable, children's television seems to have succeeded beyond critics' earlier claims. While there's still all kinds of product-driven pap, many broadcasters, such as Nickelodeon's Nick Jr. bloc, TLC, Animal Planet, and even, sometimes, the Cartoon Channel, are proving that PBS doesn't have a monopoly on worthwhile children's programming.

So why not radio?

There are a scattering of exceptions. For a bit, a few locally owned stations offered Marylanders children's shows, including one station on the frequency now held by WNST-AM, the all-sports talk station. The Walt Disney Co.'s modest-sized children's radio system includes stations in Salisbury and Philadelphia. But 90 percent of the airtime on those stations is reserved for pop music for the very young - think Britney Spears or 'N Sync. Better yet, don't.

"Kids just don't listen to radio that much, except when they're in the car with mom and dad," says Dave Hughes, who runs the regional industry Web site www.dcrtv.com. "I can't figure out why Disney is really pushing for a radio network for kids. But I think it's a good idea."

New HDTV station

Discovery Communications, the Bethesda-based company that brings you Animal Planet, TLC and several other cable stations, will start a new station in June that will broadcast only programs shot with "high-definition" technology.

"It'll be a service comprised largely of our very best programs, but delivered in `high definition,' " says John S. Hendricks, founder, chairman and CEO of Discovery.

This might seem like good news only for the 1 million or so American households (the precise number is disputed) that already have HDTV, which uses digital technology to provide a stunningly clearer picture than the normal boob tube. As the typical HDTV currently costs between $1,700 and $2,600, it may take a while before it is widely adopted.

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