Thanks, Radio Disney


Thanks, Radio Disney

by Alexandra Watts


Next time you’re talking to a millennial, before blaming them for being selfish and hopelessly addicted to technology, ask them about their favorite radio station when they were a child.

Chances are, a good percentage will say Radio Disney, an AM radio station in various markets aimed towards younger listeners, many of who were introduced to the airwaves via this Disney creation.

And for that, we should probably thank Mr. Disney.

Disney unites us all. It doesn’t matter whether your first crush was Annette Funicello (the OG Miley) or Zac Efron, your favorite song is “When You Wish Upon a Star” or “Let it Go,” or a good portion of your tears went to Bambi or Up.

And while we all draw our memories from different Disney-associated things, there are some pieces that serve in the background for each generation and stand out dependent on the time period and what was going on during the time period.

Take the ‘90s for example. A lot of Ace of Base, sure, but not a lot of child-oriented media outlets.

There were a few cable channels and mornings & afternoons on PBS, but the variety of child-oriented media just wasn’t around.

My peers and I stopped being “neglected” in 1996 when Radio Disney launched. I don’t know how Radio Disney will go down in the history books, but there was something special about the station.

Even though Radio Disney was made for young ears, it didn’t sacrifice the quality or content of the station.

While one wouldn’t hear explicit songs on the station, it never seemed like censorship was being practiced. There were no “cleaned-up” cover versions of songs (think Kidz Bop/Sugarbeats) – unless, you count the “Mambo No. 5” that was Disney-fied.

Even though it was a station for the children, there wasn’t anything exaggeratingly juvenile about it. When I listened to Radio Disney, I heard songs by Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, and *NSYNC, artists that were popular with “older kids.” Did I know about any of the controversy surround Spears’ Rolling Stone cover? No, but being able to listen to charting and relevant artists made me feel more part of a bigger music experience.

Radio Disney making music accessible made me feel like I had a cultural cornerstone of my own. I will always thank my parents for the Motown cassettes and classic musical that were the background of my formative years, but being able to “possess” music that you listened to independently and came from your own era is special.

Hopefully, you’ll get to the classics someday, but living and listening in the moment is special.

Also, Radio Disney gave glimpses of the classics. Take this anecdote. When I was young, I heard “It’s My Party” by Lesley Gore. A random afternoon on Radio Disney turned me on to the Judy + Johnny saga and classic hits. I never forgot the song, and I still jam to it to this day.

If you think it’s odd to listen to go from Britney Spears to Lesley Gore, Radio Disney made it seem natural.

Maybe it seemed natural because Radio Disney didn’t try too hard. The station, as appropriately mature as it was, didn’t put on hypothetical high heels and bowties and masquerade itself as being stereotypically adult.

A child-oriented station is great, but you can’t treat kids like kids while giving them what they perceive as the adult experience of listening to music and discovering artists.

The appeal of Radio Disney was that it made music an experience. It wasn’t just a child-oriented radio station, a station with cover songs on repeat, or even one regulated to a specific pop-music genre.

Even when I moved on to FM radio to being a radio host, I thank Radio Disney for changing, shaping, and establishing how I listen to music.

Radio Disney was perfect – it offered the comfort of being a safe place for kids drinking Kool-Aid and dreaming of Toys ‘R’ Us, but offered a glimpse into the adult world of not only culturally relevant artists, but being in possession of a cultural thing of our own.

Radio Disney was not only an experience, but introduced its listeners to treating music as an experience.

Notes & All:
– Yes, there are children’s radio stations prior to Disney, but I am focused on wide-ranging stations. Yes, the ‘90s had a good Thursday night lineup on NBC and plenty of boybands, but there was not widespread streaming, so any other child media would not have been accessible.

– I listened to Radio Disney starting in 1999, three years after inception. I stopped in 2003. It is still online and digital, if you ever want to give them a visit.

– Nickelodeon has its own radio station, too.

– I’m a fan of Lesley Gore’s music because of that song. She’s great. Look up her performance on The TAMI Show.