Capital dials F for fun

Capital Radio is targeting kids with Fun Radio, reports Sally Williams. But just how do you get today's kids to turn on and tune in?
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Pity Richard Park's poor neighbours. He's just bought his three- year-old son Jonathan his first "boom box" - a purchase Jonathan's 10- month-old brother, Jack, has already noted with interest. "Kids love listening to radio, especially if they can hear other kids on it or take part themselves," their dad explains. And he's prepared to put this to the ultimate test. Park, head of group programmes at Capital Radio, will next month lead a bid to run the country's first radio station for kids.

"Four to 14s are radio's great missing audience as most radio in this country is made for people aged 20 plus," he claims. "If we don't do something, and fast, we'll have a generation lost to the medium." So Park has put together Capital's bid for a new regional FM frequency in the north-east. The station, Fun Radio, would target pre-school children up to early teens, offering a music-driven mix of teen bands and novelty hits with competitions, bite-sized stories and educational items and local information for kids and parents.

A typical day would start with a bright and breezy breakfast show to wake up the kids and get them off to school. It would include get out of bed phone calls, on-air competitions and prizes. The emphasis would shift to parents at home with smaller kids later in the day and again, at tea-time, to kids getting home from school. Ten to 14s would be targeted in the early evening and by 10pm output would have mellowed to a more relaxing, contemplative pace for mums and dads still awake.

"In any hour there would be at least three records requested by kids," Park says. "They love novelty records, like 'Barbie Girl', and the younger end of the pop market that's not played by most other stations aimed at an older audience who are only interested in dance or rock tracks." There would be the odd pint-sized DJ, lots of phone-ins and, of course, more serious stuff - Park prefers not to use the word "educational". "You've got to be so careful not to be so educational the audience feels patronised and preached at," he explains. "The key will be to cater for children's interests properly - to encourage them not just to sit in front of Cartoon Network all day."

It's a plan driven as much by commercial expediency as market potential. Capital is eager to apply for new radio licences as they become available around the UK, not least in the light of its failed attempt to buy Virgin Radio last year. Park admits the original plan had been to offer a rock- based format in the north-east - part of a strategy to rationalise Capital- owned stations across the UK by drawing on a small portfolio of established formats, like Adult Contemporary and Gold. This meant that they had to think of something new.

"This service is long overdue. With more than 8 million four to 14 year- olds in Britain it's a mass market format with considerable potential," Park insists. Maybe. But if that's the case, why has no one done it before? The BBC, in fact, has been slowly but surely smothering children's radio for the past three decades, killing off Children's Hour in 1964, Children's Favourites in 1967 and Listen Mother in 1982. The one remaining nationally networked slot for children of any age - a half-hour drama on Radio 4 each Sunday at 7pm - will be axed next month. The reason? Cost, the BBC claims - because children just don't want to listen to radio any more.

It's a crying shame, says former children's TV presenter Susan Stranks, and it's also untrue: "The BBC and independent radio have said for a long time children only want TV and pop. But if you don't give them the right radio, of course they won't listen." BBC children's radio failed to move with the times, she says. Meanwhile BBC schools programming - recently axed but still available to schools on tape - is dry and formal.

As director of Children 200, a voluntary organisation to encourage Lottery and Millennium funding on children's needs, Ms Stranks has been lobbying for the launch of a national children's and schools' network for the past eight years. "Children are not seen as cost effective because they are a fragmented audience with diverse needs varying with age and ability," she explains. "Target them effectively, however, and they can be very commercially viable indeed." Which is why a number of commercial radio groups are already developing the children's radio format abroad.

There's Radio Kikker in Holland targeting older kids, Radio AAHS broadcasting out of Minneapolis to AM stations across the US, and Walt Disney/ABC kids radio - hailed by Park as "one of the best stations on the dial" after he heard it for the first time two weeks ago. "These stations are proving that children's radio can be a commercial business," says Denise Gardiner, head of research at advertising agency Leo Burnett, whose clients include McDonald's and Kellogg's. "A lot of people discount radio for children, but 80 per cent have a radio in their bedroom - some as young as seven."

Advertisers would be extremely interested in commercial radio for kids, she adds, although she does sound a note of caution. "You always have to be careful - especially when advertising products like toys and sweets. Our clients have a responsibility not to be seen to be 'exploiting' children. The trouble is, with almost anything to do with targeting kids, you'll always come up against someone who doesn't like what you're doing."

Children's radio is a highly emotive issue. Unperturbed by potential competition for children's attention from cable and satellite TV, computer games and videos, Park insists Fun Radio will embrace all these and more to accurately reflect today's children's everyday lives. "We'll present stories in bite-sized chunks rather than read Winnie the Pooh for an hour," he adds. To him it's a matter of easily accessible entertainment. Others, however, might see it as "dumming down".

Walking the fine line between the two will be key to Fun Radio's success, says Gardiner. "While it's realistic to acknowledge children have much shorter attention spans nowadays, you must balance this against turning everything into a soundbite. Do that and you risk outraging the moral brigade."