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When it comes to radio listening, kids are all ears.

As a kid growing up in suburban Detroit, Keith Naughton grooved to the sounds of Motown, the Beatles, and the Rolling Stones. He remembers his first radio, a small transistor, and the thrill of dialing into his favorite Detroit station - "The Big 8," CKLW-AM Radio 800 - while huddled under the covers when he should have been fast asleep. Today, the 39-year-old Naughton has three kids of his own, and his eldest daughter, 9-year-old Nora, appears to be a chip off the old musical block. Her station of choice? The soft rock, contemporary hits of 100.3 WNIC, which she listens to at home, in the car, and perhaps unbeknownst to her dad and mother Janet, at night in her bedroom when she's supposed to be fast asleep. Nora is the undisputed ruler of the radio dial in the family, says Naughton, recalling his daughter singing along to the latest Celine Dion hit during a recent father-daughter Saturday morning drive. "She's a loyal listener."

The future of radio will depend on youngsters like Nora Naughton. While radio advertising has traditionally targeted the teen and adult market, the medium is increasingly viewed as one of the best ways to reach the powerful preteen demographic - a group of fledgling consumers that influence the discretionary spending of mom and dad. A recently released Arbitron study entitled "How Kids and Tweens Use and Respond to Radio," found that about 90 percent of 6- to 11-year-olds surveyed tuned into their favorite radio stations eight to nine hours each week. "The survey confirms what we suspected, that radio fits into children's lifestyles and is a frequent companion at an early age," says Rick Berger, president of Next Generation Radio, which develops youth-targeted brands for the industry. "We were surprised by the loyalty of the youngsters to stations and formats."

Preteens are helping to fuel an already robust industry. Although the pundits placed radio on life support years ago, the plug hasn't been pulled on this granddaddy of media channels. Americans' love affair with the medium is in full bloom - whether they are at home, at work, in the car, or sitting in front of the computer doing tax returns while listening to streaming audio. Radio, which reaches 95 percent of all consumers age 12 and older each week, remains a good buddy, a constant companion that has wormed its way into the fabric of our daily routines. And its popularity is reflected in its financial health. Total revenues from the medium are expected to hit $20.3 billion by the end of the year.

The Arbitron study shows just how important the preteen market will be in keeping those revenues headed in an upward direction. Released in August, it combines results from two previous surveys: "The Kids and Tweens Listening Study," which was Arbitron's first syndicated local market ratings survey exploring the listening habits of kids and preteens; and the "Children's Measurement Callback Study," which involved phone calls to parents and kids who had completed listening diaries from the first survey. Conducted in New York City, Minneapolis-St. Paul, and Los Angeles, the surveys revealed that children have very distinct listening and format preferences that can be targeted to deliver specific messages. In Los Angeles, for example, 67 percent of the girls, age 6 to 11, preferred a Top 40 station while 71 percent of the boys in the same age range preferred a rhythmic contemporary hits radio (CHR) station.

Arbitron's study found that in households with children, listening to the radio is often a family affair. The most likely locale for tuning in to a child's "P1" favorite station - as Arbitron defines the station of choice - is the family car, with a whopping 85 percent of respondents saying that the sedan or SUV is where they most often listen to the radio. And when it comes to station choice within the family, kids rule. According to the study findings, children chose the radio station either all of the time (34 percent), or some of the time (38 percent). The study showed that kids like radio commercials and are receptive to radio ads that are fun and informative. They are also likely to respond to the products and services being advertised, and frequently ask their parents to make purchases on their behalf.

Yet, until recently, marketers have paid little attention to youngsters under the age of 12. "Kids have always been a vast wasteland, a segment that has been totally ignored" by some markets, says Gary Fries, president and CEO of the Radio Advertising Bureau. One reason says Fries, is that the Britney-set doesn't have oodles of available cash, or carry gold cards. But now, with hard data supporting radio's pull on kids and tweens, marketers have a reason to give the medium a second look. "There's always been a gut feeling that kids and radio would be a good way to brand a product," says Fries. "Now there are numbers to back that up."

One company giving radio a second look is Welch's, the food and beverage company based in Concord, Massachusetts. This year, the company joined forces with Walt Disney Records in a tween-targeted marketing campaign to promote the launch of its "La Vida Mickey," album, a compilation of Latin/pop tunes, and three previously released titles for kids. The campaign was based on one simple objective: To partner with a company that has "similar equity." "Even though the Welch's name is known, you can never sit back and relax," says Kelli Freeman, Welch's soda/soft drink brand manager. "It's important for us to keep our name, our brands, as top of mind." Freeman explains that choosing Disney as a partner helped drive awareness of both properties among a constantly evolving demographic. "Welch's and Disney are both synonymous with quality," says Freeman. The promotion, which ran from May through August, required youngsters to spend the time looking behind the labels of specially marked Welch's soda products. In return, they got a chance to win prizes, including the grand prize of a trip to Hollywood, a chance to be a recording star for a day, a studio tour, and a meet-and-greet with Radio Disney DJs. The promotion resulted in double-digit sales volume growth for Welch's drinks.

Indeed, Radio Disney has been at the forefront of tapping the market of preteen radio listeners. The channel is similar in style to Top 40 music radio, but targets kids using Disney characters, preteen and young adult DJs, and a highly interactive Web site. According to the Arbitron studies, approximately 62 percent of children age 6 to 8 surveyed in the Minneapolis-St.Paul market, tune in to Radio Disney; the remaining 38 percent tune into a Top 40 station. Once kids reach the critical age of 9 - the beginning of the tween years - their allegiance switches to Top 40. Of those children surveyed in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area, 72 percent of kids between ages 9 and 11 prefer Top 40, while 28 percent remain loyal Radio Disney fans.

"At this point, kids' radio in the United States equals Disney," says Tom Taylor, of Nashville-based M Street Corporation, which provides database services and publications to the radio industry. According to M Street, at year-end 1999, 51 stations were involved in "preteen" programming as a primary format. Although the growth is strong (in 1992, only three radio stations in the U.S. broadcast exclusively for children), the real resurgence, says Taylor, has taken place in the CHR/Top 40 market. In 1992, there were 587 Top 40/CHR stations. In 1995, that number dipped to 318. By mid-year 2000, the number has jumped to 417. And for advertisers looking to make a statement to the preteen demographic, CHR is a viable commodity. "CHR has always had a large kiddie corps, though it's always been ambivalent because of the fear that the perception would hurt them with advertisers," says Taylor.

Henry Laura, vice president of Arbitron's advertiser/agency services, says marketers are taking a fresh approach to evaluating media. "A medium is selected for a campaign based upon its ability to deliver important niche audiences at the right time," says Laura. "Kids have a lot of choices, but without data no one is going to program to, or use radio to reach, this group. Now we've documented that kids listen to radio." That's good for marketers and agencies who are trying to find new ways to brand products. Especially those companies that have traditionally relied on the "in-store environment" to tap into the kiddie-market, such as grocers or manufacturers of kid-friendly products, says John Young of J. Brown/LMC Group in Stamford, Connecticut. Although "TV gets to kids," it's radio that gets to kids and their parents, especially while listening in the car on the way to those Little League games. This immediacy ultimately influences purchasing behavior. And, of course, adds Young, it doesn't hurt that preteen idols include 'N Sync, Backstreet Boys, Britney, Christina, Mandy, and Jessica. These ubiquitous pop stars are staples at Top 40 stations. "We now see that developing our audience at a young age is important," says Roy Laughlin, president and general manager, KIIS-FM, Los Angeles. "These 6- to 11-year-olds grow up, and it's gratifying to see specific formats like ours are attracting future 25- to 54-year-olds."

But the big winner here may be radio itself. "Radio's been `dying' for 40 years," says Interep's Stu Naar, with a chuckle. "But it's healthy and it's huge and it's only going to get bigger, with streaming audio, and terrestrial radio, and every other form that it morphs into. It's going to be interesting to see how people capitalize [on the data]. When it comes to kids and their influence, it's all happy money, it's all discretionary." And that's music to the ears of any smart marketer.

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