“Kids Corner”…WXPN Radio Host, Kathy O’Connell

This week we have two spotlights for Sunday Spotlight. The first one is about the radio program on 88.5 WXPN called “Kids Corner”. This is a program dedicated to children and today we’re talking to Kathy O’Connell, host of the program.

Photo by Mark Wilkens
Photo by Mark Wilkens

Thanks for speaking with me today, Kathy. You’re the host and producer of “Kids Corner”?
“Yes, I am. I’m Kathy O’Connell, the host and, my “title” says producer of “Kids Corner”, but Robert Drake is the actual, hands on producer of “Kids Corner”. I’m more the executive producer. But I am the one and only host. From the beginning to now.”

When and how did kids corner begin?
“January 4, 1988. I had been doing a call in show for kids called “Kids America” out of New York and we got cancelled because our funding ran out. Classic public radio story. WXPN had just picked up this show and started running it. The then manager, called me and said “How do you feel about coming to Philadelphia and doing a show by yourself, because you’re basically the show?” I said “Oh, yes. I’ll try it for a year.” That was 1988. The next day Robert Drake showed up and we’ve been together ever since.”

Tell me about the program.
“I’ll tell you who it’s aimed at and who the reality is. Officially, we say it’s aimed at kids 7-12. I know we get them younger. I’d say 6-10 is the key age group that we seem to get.  But we also get them a lot younger. That’s one of the things I’ve noticed; more and more we’re getting 4 and 5 year olds calling in. We also get a lot of grown ups. I lose kids when they get into their teens, but then they come back. I start being “hip” again. In their early 20’s.”

Kind of like being a parent!
“I love it! Yes! Exactly! I am a wonderful aunt. I am the greatest aunt in the world! I think that’s one of the great benefits of my job. I have all the glory and great stuff about being a parent and none of the very, really hard work of actually raising kids. So I get to be the really wonderful aunt for an hour a day. I play great music and say funny things and everything they do is wonderful. I really do believe that I have the greatest job in the world. It’s a call in show for kids on Tuesdays and Wednesdays and the rest of the week it’s not live call ins. On Monday it’s all devoted to our Kindie music party. Kindie is what we call the music. It’s kids independent music. It’s this amazing music that is sort of being made for kids that’s been made for years but started to get an upsurge and a name about ten years ago. You know when something gets a name…. For instance tonight (this interview was done on Tuesday, 7/7/15), I’m asking kids for advice about what you do when you have a new baby living in the house because they have more experience than I do. Two of my friends just had twins. They’re just bringing them home. So I’m asking what their advice is for Paul and Jessica. And if they’re a twin, to also call in. Last time I had a baby in the house, I was 16 months old. I know nothing.
Thursdays is science. We have a wonderful, revolving, array of scientists. Derrick Pitts, an astronomer from the Franklin Institute; Mike Weilbacher, the executive director of the Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education; Dr. Lisa Chirlian, a teacher and chemist who does kitchen chemistry. I should also mention the first Wednesday of every month, Joe Hilton comes on with the Kids Corner book mobile. He’s a retired librarian from the (Philadelphia) free library and he truly brings in these massive stacks of books and we just talk books for an hour. It is the greatest job in the world! I am grateful every single day! I am so into this wonderful job.
My grandmother worked in a hat factory her whole life. I shared a bedroom with my grandmother my whole childhood. My grandmother got up every morning and stood all day in a hat factory so I could have this life. The classic wonderful American success story. Who I’m really grateful for, is the audiences in Philadelphia and WXPN. Kids corner was at the beginning of this big change at WXPN. We were kind of the anchor of it. Out of that, we turned into a real radio station. They wound up hiring Michaela Majoun (who just retired) for mornings, the World Cafe started coming out of Philly. I grew up in New York so I had no idea about David Dye and all these DJ’s. They were just my friends. And WXPN turned into this incredible community. I now have kids that come to WXPN events that bring their kids. They’re really not kids, the kids are in their 30’s. And then they have babies.”

You have such a passion for what you do. It really shows!
“I was very lucky. I was mentored, I guess that’s the right word, by Soupy Sales. He was like my dad. In my teenage years, my friends and I stalked him. We really did. If I ever write a book, the first line is gonna be “thank God my mother was crazy”. (Laughter) We lived on Long Island and would go into the city and just hang out outside his house all day and wait for him to walk the dog. When he would do the Carol Burnett show, we’d figure out (this is in the 60’s, before we had computers) what flight he’d take. I have home movies because one of my friends always had a movie camera with her. So, I have all these wonderful home movies from then. Then I grew up and started having a life. But I reconnected with him in about 2002. He and his wife really became my surrogate parents. They became my mom and dad. Through to the end of his life in 2009, he was my mentor. He’s the reason I’m really good at what I do. I got to see “proud dad eyes” through him. I lost my whole family when I was really young and to be able to see that look of pride from somebody that knew me since I was a dopey kid was really incredible. I’m so lucky!                                    My poor grandmother….we all had these life size posters of Soupy that they gave away with Clark gum. We all had them hanging. My poor grandmother had to get up every morning to go to work at the factory with this life size Soupy poster.”

I never realized Soupy Sales was such an idol!
“He was! In New York from 1964-66, even a little beyond that. He did a broadway show and I even went to the “Tonight Show”! He was on and we’d hang out and get to see all these great shows. His New York kids show was the biggest thing going. It was like the Beatles at the time on this local level (and beyond). He was also on in other cities. He was this huge phenomenon. It was about 75 of us…kids..high school mostly (and a couple of sad adults). We’d go to the studio. That’s how we spent our vacations. Years later, one of my friends asked her mother why she let her do that. Her mother told her she needed it. Our lives were built around that in high school. Thank God I had that.”

Is that what inspired you to go into kids radio?
“Not at all. I fell into it. I was in radio in New York at WBAI, a radical, “let’s be political” radio station. I did an overnight show where I talked about television. I moved to California for a couple of years to work in commercial radio because the rule was, that if you wanted to work in radio in New York, you have to work outside of New York. I did that for a couple of years and came back to New York. I was working at a radio station as an engineer at WNYC. I was occasionally on the air, I was still on WBAI at night, but occasionally my voice would get heard (during the day). I was an engineer for a show called “Senior Edition”. The guy who hired me was named Larry Miller, a program director at WNYC, the single meanest man on Earth (horrible boss, terrible bully) had created this kids show called “Small Things Considered”. He made me edit it even though it wasn’t my job. I had to edit down the best of “Small Things Considered” to run on Saturday. The woman who did the show with him (Barbara Rosen, who’s husband was one of the hostages in Iran, she was a pretty nice woman). One night I’m sitting there babysitting a tape for some show and they come barreling in and start grabbing records and headphones and stuff. I’m just sitting there watching all this go on because I grew up among crazy people, so I was used to people fighting around me. About ten minutes later, all these people with suits come in and said they needed me to help them out. Larry and Barbara had just quit and the show’s gonna go on live. I said “you let me talk and I’ll help you all you want”. Larry wouldn’t leave because he was still director of “Small Things Considered”, (he and I wound up co-hosting small things considered that night). Half way through it, I said “this is what I want to do.” It was like three hours and God knows how we filled it in. Betty White talks about how she had a live five hour TV show in the 50’s and she says how she didn’t know how they filled the time. That’s what happened with “Small Things Considered”. But somehow we filled the time. We got a Peabody award for it. My first Peabody award. We got money, finally, from the corporation for public broadcasting and that became “Kids America” which was an hour and half call in show for kids.”

What made you love it so much?
“I just felt at home. At WBAI, and at a show I did in California, you’d get these adversarial calls. People would just want to argue about everything. And this (the kids show) was just positive and nice, kids calling in and being kids. Talking about stuff and not having to worry about getting into a fight with somebody on the radio. This was before Rush Limbaugh and all that. It was just really nice. I connected with an old friend of my mothers about 20 years ago and I was filling her in on what I’d been doing. She said “no wonder you wound up doing radio for kids…because of Soupy Sales”. I do think something was planted with Soupy years ago (and I mean that in the best possible way [laughter], he was always a gentleman). Something came to fruition. I never thought I’d still be doing this. That was in 1983, 30 years ago, all that happened. I leapt into it. That’s why I’m grateful every day.”

I’m attaching a photo of Soupy Sales, his wife Trudy Carson Sales & Kathy at Ocean City, NJ in 2007 The photo is by Terri Greenberg
I’m attaching a photo of Soupy Sales, his wife Trudy Carson Sales & Kathy at Ocean City, NJ in 2007
The photo is by Terri Greenberg

So what do kids typically say when they call in?
“Mostly it’s the subject, whatever the question is on any given night. They call to tell their story. A lot of times it could be to recommend a movie, a TV show, books, that sort of thing. But then sometimes it’s to give advice like how to deal with being the new kid in school, some serious topics as well. Bullying, loss. In 30 years enough awful, horrible things have happened that we’ve had to deal with on the radio. From the Challenger to school shootings to 9/11 to war. The war started at 7:00, the first Iraq war (1991). We were on the air when it happened. It’s a judgement call sometimes on just what we’re gonna talk about. When it’s something serious or in the news. I don’t talk about things like the OJ [Simpson] story for example. We talk about stories that kids are going to be affected by, even if it’s in talking about it at school. One of the things that I like to do is arm kids to tell their parents to turn off the news. I never went to bed before 11:30 throughout my childhood because we had a TV In our room. I never asked questions. I thought guerrilla warfare was actually gorillas at war. When you’re a kid, you really need context and explanation. My friends daughter was about 5 on 9/11. They kept showing the pictures of the planes hitting the twin towers and she thought it was happening all over the country, all over the world, over and over again. So to arm kids to say “talk to me about this” or “can we change the channel”. Just to make adults aware of that has been a really important part of the show. A lot of times it’s just for them to talk about what’s going on in their lives. All kinds of things. In Philly we’re really lucky to have such great resources. Tracy Thomasey from the Support Center for Child Advocates, has been on with me several times for the serious stuff. Bringing the social workers point of view on it. That was such a simple question and I just went on and on.”

It’s great though because it’s a complex question that isn’t cut and dry. It’s important for people to know because sometimes parents don’t know how to handle tough situations like that and it’s good to have someone in your corner (no pun intended) to help. My son was 3 1/2 when 9/11 happened and it was a tough thing to explain. We watched the news all the time for days. But when you see your toddler recreating scenes from the event with his toys, you become aware that turning the news off is probably a good idea.
“Exactly. And I’ll tell you what song has served me well over the decades: “The Rainbow Connection”. The producer of “Kids America” was a guy named Keith Talbot. He said, to this day, he laughs whenever he hears it. When the Challenger blew up, I said that “sometimes you just don’t know how to explain things. You just gotta wonder, so here’s Kermit the frog.” That’s my go to.”

Radio has become almost a secondary source of music since the popularity of iPods, iTunes, satellite radio and things of that like. Why do you think it’s important to have something strictly for children on the RADIO?
“That’s a really good question. Because it is a radio show, even if you’re listening to it online, it’s still presented as a radio show. It gets back to the definition of radio as the theater of the mind and the most intimate medium. This is a part of the discussion we used to have at WBAI all the time…why radio? I’ve had friends that have been predicting the end of radio since I got into radio. They’d been trying to get me into other mediums. I just really think there is something so intimate and personal, specifically about radio, that somehow it works. If a parent listens to XPN and the really great music sources that there are now, the parents have some pretty great music collections. A Kindie rip off of the Beatles will never be the Beatles. And God bless them, I know some bands try to do all Beatles and I’m like “No. Throw in “Yellow Submarine” every once in a while, but turn them on to the real thing”. But I think them [kids] having their own music, having ownership of that music, is a big part of it. And having ownership of that hour on the radio is really important. The comedian Paul Tompkins, a Philly comic, was on years ago. To this day, he will still answer, if he answers honestly, if you ask him what the worst week of his life was, he would tell you the week he filled in for Kathy O’Connell on Kids Corner. Because he’s very quick and very funny and a lovely man, but the kids were like “you’re really not doing this right. We have to tell you how to do this show. You have to do this…” They really take ownership of it. We may have grown up on radio, but to a lot of kids…it’s kind of foreign to them.”

Do you believe radio has a future and why do you think it’s so important for radio to survive?
“There’s this new thing, Beats, that just came out…our program director was just talking about it. And they say now that this will really kill radio. He pointed out that there’s XPN’s now all over the country that prove that we can do this. It’s not gonna work everywhere. I’ve been waiting 30 years for kids radio to take off. On Sirius satellite radio, they have Kids Place Live. I have friends who do the kids channel on Sirius and they’re still waiting for it to be the next big thing. It’s never gonna be enormous but I always feel it’s gonna be there. I guess if I were younger, I’d be more panicked about it’s future.”

Does WXPN host any kids concerts? If so, when do they take place?
“All the time. One of the big things we do on kids corner every year for the last few years is a conference for Kindie musicians called KindieComm. The “Comm” is for community that came out of the Non-COMMvention that XPN does every year. That was like our template for it. In connection with that, when we have all these musicians from all over the world, kids musicians gathering in Philadelphia. Attached to that, we do the Kids Corner music festival every year on that Sunday. So, next year I think April 2 or 3, is the Sunday. I also attach onto every concert by certain bands like Trout Fishing in America, my favorite band in all the world. Truly, they’re a great example of doing this kids thing. Then they got word that this crazy lady in Philadelphia had fallen in love with the band and all of the sudden they’re doing a concert for 800 kids in a book store in New Jersey. It’s this amazing thing. So I attach myself to a lot of music events. There’s a big one coming up in a couple of weeks. It’s called Kidchella. It’s gonna be at the Smith Memorial playground on July 24. Jeff Bogle, the kids blogger, has put it together. It’s a concert with Play Date, Shine and the Moonbeams and The Alphabet Rockers. (Here’s the link to that event: http://smithplayground.org/kidchella-july-24/)
The zoo does a Tuesday music series every summer. So there’s a lot of stuff.”

How can people keep the program going?
“Go to http://www.WXPN.org. The best way is to tell people with kids about it [Kids Corner]. Tell teachers about it. Tell librarians. I just assume everybody knows about kids corner just because I’ve been doing it so long, but until you have kids, you’re not aware of what’s out there for kids. It really isn’t on your radar. So that’s the most supportive thing you can do to support the show. Pass it along.”

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