The two-year-old Radio Disney network had reason to celebrate on New Year's Eve. As the last page of the 1998 calendar turned, the network entered its largest market yet when Mickey Mouse pushed Old Blue Eyes off New York City's WQEW and changed the format from American pop standards to children's Top-40. The new programming is designed to appeal to kids and their moms, with a mix of hits, oldies, and movie soundtracks, as well as news and ESPN Sports for kids. It's all spun by tyke-friendly deejays, who keep the energy high with lots of call-ins and special promotions.
Disney is not the first to make a run at children's radio. The trail was blazed by Seattle-based Kids Star, which flamed for only four years before burning out in 1997. Radio Aahs, a Minneapolis-based station whose parent company was once a Disney partner, is now out of business, and suing the Mouse for millions in damages.
But Disney comes to the airwaves with deep pockets, extensive research on its target audience, and the clout of a company that enjoys world-class brand recognition. Since its test launch in four markets in 1996, the Disney network has expanded to 36 stations and now reaches an average of 1 million kids a week, according to ratings commissioned from Statistical Research, Inc.
"It's an extension of Disney's core business, and it's not just for synergy," says Scott McCarthy, general manager and vice president of Radio Disney, a division of ABC Radio Networks. "When this is fully mature, we think radio can get between 5 percent to 10 percent of [all] advertising money spent targeting kids-which was $1.5 billion last year."
Some Wall Street analysts are also enthusiastic about the potential reach of the medium. "For anyone who's been in a car and heard the never-ending refrain, 'Are we there yet?' it's obvious what a good idea it is," says Chris Dixon, an entertainment analyst with PaineWebber. Still, his economic assessment remains conservative. For the time being at least, Dixon says, Radio Disney's value is as a promotional tool for the brand. It only contributed some $15 million to $20 million to Disney's revenue stream last year, Dixon says, a mere .09 percent to .11 percent of the estimated $16.8 billion total through September 1998. "About as much as Disney's video sales in the last hour," he adds.
"Radio is a piece of the puzzle. As a stand-alone, it still has a long way to go," says Matthew Feinberg, a media buyer with Zenith Media who buys Radio Disney ad time for General Mills. "Kids are a TV bunch, no matter what Disney says."
There is evidence to suggest that could be changing, however. For one thing, network Saturday morning television ratings decreased by 50 percent, from 4.7 in 1994 to 2.3 in 1998. Meanwhile, according to a 1997 Packaged Facts report, almost half of all children ages 6 to 8 say they "like listening to radio a lot," as do 70 percent of 9-to-11-year-olds. The percentage increases to 80 percent for 12-to-14-year-olds. And while it's true that radio fans skew older, according to the report, that may be because there has been a dearth of programming aimed at the younger demographic. Radio Disney intends to fill that void.
After the Disney network began broadcasting on its first four stations, it commissioned Statistical Research to rate the listening habits of 6-to-11-year-olds and their mothers in those markets, as compared to all other radio listening. The research found that Radio Disney listening skews higher in two-parent households, in households with incomes over $50,000, and in households with higher educational levels. The opposite is true for kids listening to other radio programming. In addition, Statistical Research found that moms listening to Radio Disney are twice as likely to be tuning in while in their cars than those listening to other radio stations.
And in focus groups, kids told Disney they want a station that was totally their own, not one that merely offers them a four-hour slot on an adult station. That's the kind of research that induced Disney, whose target listeners are ages 2 to 11 but whose core listeners are 6 to 11, to take an "all kids, all the time" approach to its radio network. Children also want hits, so Disney has developed a format similar to Top 40, favoring artists popular with kids and teens like Hanson, the Backstreet Boys, and 'NSYNC. Research also revealed that kids like some oldies-especially those redone by oddball performers like Weird Al Yankovic, who covered Joan Jett's "I Love Rock & Roll," transforming it into "I Love Rocky Road." Oldies and novelty songs now comprise 20 percent of the network's daily programming.
At KDIS in Los Angeles, sales manager Leslie Rockitter says the format is remarkable because of its crossover appeal, reaching 40 percent moms and 60 percent kids in her market. When the station began carrying Radio Disney in October 1997, five advertisers came on board to buy local time. Now Rockitter says that number has increased dramatically, and the inventory is close to sold out, including local spots by national advertisers, such as Pepsi, Mattel, Disneyland, Visa, and Starbucks. "It's an educational process when trying to reach advertisers," says Rockitter. "When the baby boom generation was growing up, kids didn't have money to spend. Now kids are assuming the role of the consumer at a very early age." Neither should kids' influence on their parents' spending behavior be underestimated. Kids under 12-more than 40 million of them-spent or influenced spending of $500 billion in 1997, according to James McNeal, of Texas A&M University.
Disney has had to make do without the benefit of Arbitron ratings, which do not measure children's programming-primarily because there has been so little of it. The company has tried to jump that hurdle by commissioning its own ratings survey from Statistical Research. Measurements are taken in all the markets in which Radio Disney has been on the air for more than five months. From the first measurement in September 1997 until October 1998, the overall daytime rating for kids 6 to 11 rose 70 percent, from a 1.0 to 1.7, and its share of the demographic listening to the radio at any given time has doubled, from 5.4 to 11.0. "That's very good for radio," says Debbie Solomon, senior partner, media research, at J. Walter Thompson. "Radio doesn't usually do that well. The average is .5 to 1.0. But since this is the only option for 12 and under, you would expect it to be better."
Of course, since Radio Disney is the only children's network, convincing advertisers that this is a good place on the radio dial to reach kids is something of a no-brainer. "A lot of kids are making media choices that are inappropriate-like heavy metal-and advertisers won't try to reach kids there," says Solomon.
Delivering parents' ears also ups the network's appeal to advertisers. "What made sense to me was how many mothers were listening in the car," says Laurie Asbury, brand manager for Chupa Chups, a Barcelona, Spain-based candy company. "Most of the time my product has to be bought by parents-or parents give kids the money to buy it." So familiarizing parents with her product is a plus for sales, Asbury says.
General Motors, one of the network's top five advertisers, was also impressed by how frequently Radio Disney listeners tune in on the road. "The moms are obviously there-and that's our target, especially for the Venture," says Greg Mazza, assistant brand manager for the Chevy Venture minivan. In fact, only 4 percent of Chevy Venture's 1999 national advertising budget is slated for radio, and because of the unique fit, all of it has been allocated to Radio Disney.
Disney has pulled out all the stops to make that relationship worthwhile. The minivan is the official vehicle of Radio Disney, and in advertising negotiations, the network agreed to buy about 20 of the vans by the end of 1998 for its affiliates to use for on-location promotions. Advertisers, they know, still need convincing. "It's been a sort of learn-as-we-go thing," says Mazza. "GM's position is that radio's okay, but it's not what we consider a primary media."
In fact, most national advertisers are still waiting until Radio Disney reaches critical mass of 60 percent coverage of the market, says Solomon of J. Walter Thompson. McDonald's for one, is sitting in the wings. "TV is the best way for us to reach kids," says Palmer Moody, a spokesperson for the fast-food chain. "When we see more extensive national coverage, we might take a second look."