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Jaunty `Kids America' tunes in to young listeners

WITHIN seconds after American Public Radio's ``Kids America'' hits the airwaves, telephone lines by the thousands are humming. The callers are young people from all over the United States, eager to take part in the zesty mix of fun and learning that has already made this Peabody Award-winning show -- which went national last fall -- a heartening success story in broadcasting's neglected world of children's programming.

Some of the appeal of ``Kids America'' lies in its unique role as the only daily national radio show produced especially for youngsters. But it is also the program's direct engagement of children through the telephone -- along with the jaunty tone it takes in exploring everything from literature to computers -- that helps explain the way it turns young listeners on.

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Once on the air, callers become a real part of the proceedings and not just a production device to attract listeners. In addition to answering questions, they contribute advice, information, spelling challenges, quiz questions, and other items, including discussion of serious issues.

And it all happens live: Airing dependably from 6:30 p.m. to 8 p.m. (Eastern time), the show is now an important fixture in many young lives. The effect has been a leap not only in listenership, but in the attention the program is getting from several directions. A startling 6,000 or so calls a day now come in -- some 130,000 to 150,000 a month. More stations are signing up to carry the program in their regions. Some teachers put ``Kids America'' posters up in the classroom and let pupils bring in tapes of the program. And besides other recognition, the program has received a special National Education Association award.

Co-hosts Kathy O'Connell and Lawrence J. Orfaly keep up a lighthearted but skillfully managed chatter that serves as a conversational control tower for the 15 or so calls that actually get on the air each day after being fielded by the show's ``request department.'' The co-hosts' talk has a quick-witted and sometimes slightly wacky spontaneity, like that of a well-educated family where all kinds of notions are welcome for friendly scrutiny. The chemistry is warm, direct, and -- although smooth -- free of the kind of sleek packaging shunned today by many savvy youngsters.

Not all adults like this approach. Some feel there's a hyped-up tone with a manufactured urgency. Others think the show hops around too much from topic to topic.

But producer Keith Talbot, reached by telephone in New York, says the kids themselves determine the approach.

``The standard answer on the phone is `Hello, ``Kids America,'' what would you like to talk about today?' '' he explains. ``So it's up to them to tell us whether they want to be in the show. Maybe they just have a music request, or maybe . . . they'll just want to talk about their day. In many ways that may be one of the most important things we're doing. Children get the undivided attention of an adult for a few minutes.

``We're not trying to do the school's job,'' he stresses, ``and we're not your parents, and we're not your peers. This isn't a show with a bunch of adults pretending to be children. We're something that exists in between all of those other forces.''

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The roots of ``Kids America'' go back to a 1984 local program produced by New York public radio station WNYC, which felt something was needed to serve the mini-boom of children in the '80s. The result was called ``Small Things Considered,'' a takeoff on the National Public Radio program. The lighthearted approach implied by that title is one of the few things that remained after WNYC recruited Mr. Talbot, who was a producer at National Public Radio, to overhaul ``Small Things Considered.'' Last September, American Public Radio began distributing the show -- by then called ``Kids America'' -- to test listener reaction.

The favorable outcome, according to Talbot, depends heavily on the program's reliable daily scheduling. ``It allows a relationship to be established that is predictable and comforting,'' he points out. ``You can count on `Kids America' being there every day for you. That's what good radio is all about -- having that kind of relationship.''

``I listen to `Kids America' almost every night,'' says Stephen Krajewski, a 12-year-old from Winchester, Mass. ``It's neat, the whole show. . . . I have a picture of them [the hosts] and I phone in a lot.''

Stephen also likes the way the program is divided into 30-minute segments. ``It has different parts,'' he says. ``I like the songs a lot. . . . They have the Mystery History, Xeno, and all this other stuff.''

Producer Talbot feels this is an important aspect too: ``Each half hour has a completely different dynamic,'' he explains. ``The program isn't dependent on just one idea or one personality.''

The segments are varied in nature but appear at the same time each week, at the rate of three a day. ``Paging Dr. Book,'' for instance, prescribes book titles and offers other reading advice. Susan Dias, at the piano, writes songs on the spot in response to phoned-in requests. The Duke of Words conducts spelling bees. ``Radiovision'' plays old and new music, often classical, and invites callers to describe their reactions -- with some highly creative results.

The ``Martha's Mishaps'' segment presents a new problem each week for which callers can offer solutions, and sometimes the subject can be very serious. In one March segment, Martha told listeners that a man dressed something like a policeman asked her to go with him. Children called in with some solid advice about asking parents first, and the co-hosts repeatedly told listeners not to go with him, to tell their parents instead.

The style of ``Martha's Mishaps'' satirizes old soap-opera clich'es, and although youngsters won't remember the original, they will recognize the spoofy tone of ``Martha's Mishaps'' from TV's ``Sesame Street'' and other modern children's programming. But one important difference is that ``Kids America'' is less relentlessly pedagogic. While ``Sesame Street'' uses songs to package specific lessons, ``Kids America'' offers some material, like pop songs, just for the enjoyment, with no excuses. `A respect for learning'

That's because the kind of learning ``Kids America'' offers is not necessarily scholastic. ``It teaches me something about parents and kids,'' says seven-year-old Jonathan Shank, of West Medford, Mass. ``There was one song about when some parents leave their kids in the house all alone, and the kids don't really like it. I don't get left alone, but the song told me about what it was like.

``And I really like to imagine what it looks like on the radio station where they're talking,'' he explains. ``It's a big room and one guy is sitting way down on the floor and another one's sitting up in the balcony, and there's a microphone with each one and they have to signal real quick so they can talk. . . . Kathy's up on the balcony, too.''

The show's primary aim is ``to communicate a respect for learning, more than the actual nuts and bolts,'' says Talbot. ``I believe in that kind of reinforcement of a positive attitude as a more appropriate role for the broadcast entity.'' As evidence, he cites part of a letter from a mother in Watertown, Mass.: ``You have . . . made certain things easier for me to do, or let's say that now when I spell things or ask my kids to visualize something from a bird's-eye view, or to stop for a second, listen, and imagine, they don't just think I'm weird.'' Pulling parents, kids together

Although Talbot describes the program's present format as ``very secure,'' he points out ``we've introduced a new math-and-logic-based feature recently called `Buy or Fly,' and it involves a door-to-door salesman coming to make offers at the door of the hosts, Kathy and Larry. The kids have to decide whether the deal is a good deal or not. . . . [They] have to use math and logic. We're also working on a way to do science and computers.''

How does the show decide when to add a new feature?

``We have the best kind of research there is,'' says Talbot, ``because we're talking with hundreds and hundreds of kids every week. . . . But I think much of the answer is me just remembering who I was when I was eight or nine years old, and frankly I prefer that as a research method over putting a lot of people behind one-way mirrors and all that nonsense.''

The future of ``Kids America'' will depend partly on fundraising. The program is now actively seeking what American Public Radio calls ``a corporate partner'' for the next fiscal year, even though WNYC says it will air next year whatever happens. But Talbot has certain misgivings about the whole funding process.

``When you become beholden to a lot of people, it limits the chances that you can take. . . ,'' he observes. ``It would be bad for this program to get so fat that it couldn't afford ever to develop a new feature or take a chance, because we'd be too concerned about protecting our investors' interests.''

The program's current way of operating ``is doubly needed now,'' he says, ``because there are so many forces that have tended to pull parents and children away from each other. We're a force that clearly brings them together. . . . We do it by just having adults come on the air and be themselves and inviting children to call up and be themselves.''

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