‘Kids Corner’ producers reflect on 30 years at XPN; anniversary celebration planned

PHOTO BY ROBERT DRAKEPart of the Kids Corner mural at 43rd and Locust streets in Philadelphia. It was created by the Philadelphia Mural Arts Project.
PHOTO BY ROBERT DRAKEPart of the Kids Corner mural at 43rd and Locust streets in Philadelphia. It was created by the Philadelphia Mural Arts Project.
PHOTO BY JOE DEL TUFO
Kathy O’Connell, host of WXPN’s Kids Corner.
PHOTO BY JOE DEL TUFO Kathy O’Connell, host of WXPN’s Kids Corner.

IF YOU GO

What: Kids Corner 30th Anniversary Celebration

When: Sunday, April 22. Doors: 10 a.m. Show: 10:15 a.m.

Where: World Cafe Live, 3025 Walnut St., Philadelphia.

Tickets: Single: $18. Two pack: $30+fees.

Info.: www.worldcafelive.com.

Kathy O’Connell, the host of WXPN’s iconic children’s show “Kids Corner,” is sitting in a bare recording studio at the radio station’s West Philadelphia headquarters. She’s on the phone with a chipper 8-year-old named Meredith, and they’re chatting about ice cream.

While O’Connell talks with Meredith, producer Robert Drake sits in an adjacent studio, manning the phones. Wading through the many incoming calls, Drake asks each caller, “What’s your favorite dessert?” and then types up some notes for the host.

“Kids Corner” is the longest-running, call-in radio show for kids in the country. Most nights, the show has a theme, and tonight’s theme is dessert foods. Young listeners from Philadelphia to Baltimore are calling in, each one eager to share their favorite confections, and all itching for the surreal thrill of hearing their voices on the radio.

Some kids love cupcakes, others love brownies. One boy tells Drake his favorite dessert is “piecaken,” which ignites a frenzy of Googling as the producer tries to figure out what exactly that is. Eventually, Drake learns that piecaken is a three-layer cake composed of pecan pie, pumpkin pie, and apple pie — the Frankenstein’s monster of dessert foods.

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As callers are patched through to O’Connell, the host addresses each kid with exuberance. She’s patient and enthusiastic, her effortless banter easing whatever radio version of stage-fright the young callers might be feeling. She even knows what piecaken is.

O’Connell’s been hosting “Kids Corner” for 30 years, but there’s no indication that the job’s become routine for her. She and Drake don’t even seem to consider it much of a job at all. They’re visibly giddy to still be making this kooky, hour-long radio show after all these years, and they show no signs of stopping.

Even as they’re promoting the upcoming “Kids Corner” anniversary event at World Cafe Live on April 22 — a musical cavalcade that will feature many acts — the duo says they’re looking ahead to the next 10 or 20 years.

“We’ve been doing this show for so long that, to me, it’s like, ‘And then next year is the 31st anniversary, and then the 41st anniversary, and then the 51st anniversary,’” O’Connell says, sitting in the XPN offices on March 20 about an hour before the “dessert” broadcast.

She adds, “But it’s a really big deal. I mean, being in any radio job for 30 years, having any job for 30 years, is a big deal!”

“Kids Corner” first aired on Jan. 4, 1988. O’Connell, whose New York City-based “Kids America” had been canceled a couple weeks earlier, moved to Philadelphia to build a new youth-oriented program from scratch.

Pretty much entering the endeavor alone, O’Connell thought, “I can do a show by myself, sure. Because basically — and truly my belief was — just turn on the microphone and I’ll fake it and we’ll figure it out.”

A day after “Kids Corner” premiered, Drake showed up and volunteered his services. He says he was keen on being involved in the show because it was clearly “a different way of doing radio.” What so appealed to him was “the idea of doing radio for an audience that doesn’t spend money.” It felt novel and liberating, and he wanted to be a part of it.

O’Connell and Drake’s partnership formed immediately, and it grew stronger with each passing year. By the early 90s, Drake was a paid staffer, and “Kids Corner” had won a prestigious Peabody Award for its “innovative approach to learning through use of radio.”

Since then, the show has helped launch the careers of several youth-oriented musical acts, including Trout Fishing in America, and Lard Dog & The Band of Shy, both of whom will perform at the April 22 event. Beyond the zany, infectiously clever music on the show, the true secret to “Kids Corner’s” enduring appeal is Kathy O’Connell.

In talking to the host, one gets the sense that there was no other possible career path for her. From a young age, O’Connell was mentored by legendary performer Soupy Sales, best known for his daily children’s show “Lunch with Soupy Sales.” Sales became something of a father figure to O’Connell. When he died in 2009, O’Connell was by his side.

From Sales, O’Connell learned, “When you do a kids’ show, once you show up, you’re on. You have to be on.” This ended up being easy for the host, “because I’m normally like this. Like, thank god I do a kids’ show, really! And the live factor is important as well. I really love doing live radio. Even when we record it, there’s a kind of anything-can-happen feeling. We have a very strict rundown, but within that structure, anything can happen.”

Drake credits O’Connell with keeping “Kids Corner” fresh and exciting. After all, doing any job for 30 years runs the risk of the work feeling perfunctory.

“Because we have a formula, meaning the show has a start, a middle, and a finish, it could easily become routine,” Drake says. “But I think the secret is Kathy loves to be on the microphone. So as long as the microphone is on and she’s able to be in front of it, then she’s happy. And if she’s happy, the kids feel it, and everything just happens naturally. I think that’s the organic aspect of it. I think that’s what makes it feel not-stale. There’s no drudgery to it.”

The producer adds that “a lot of the success of ‘Kids Corner’ is that Kathy’s personal life experiences have morphed into segments” on the show. O’Connell brings her life to the microphone, which often lends the broadcast a personal touch and makes it more engrossing.

In general, “Kids Corner” doesn’t shy away from serious or sorrowful subject matter. “We’ve talked about the loss of pets, or the loss of a friend, like when Soupy passed,” Drake says. After 9/11, “we talked about the stress of dealing with war.”

“The day after the Orlando shooting,” O’Connell recalls, “I said, ‘Sometimes things happen in the news that just make you feel so sad, and you’re so overwhelmed. Talk to someone about your feelings.’ When we do those topics, I say ‘gather the family around’ a lot, because the important thing to do is open up a dialogue with your parents, talk about your feelings with the people who know and love and care about you.”

This tendency toward empathy and kindness is what has helped “Kids Corner” capture the hearts of generations of listeners. The show is more than dessert stories and novelty music. O’Connell forms a bond with her audience. She laughs with them, chats with them, and soothes them when the world is scary.

“Radio is the most intimate medium,” she says. “I have friends who have been telling me for 30 years, ‘Radio is an archaic medium, radio’s going to be dead soon.’ Well, it hasn’t died yet. And part of that is, it truly is the most intimate medium. It is the most personal.” When you’re listening to the radio, “you get a real connection with that disembodied voice.”

Above all, though, “Kids Corner” has always prioritized education. Through tough research questions — about historical figures like Russian ballerina Anna Pavlova or Portuguese explorer Bartholomew Diaz — the producers encourage children to actively pursue knowledge.

“A kid’s full-time job is to learn,” O’Connell says. “They’re going to learn wherever they are, no matter what they’re doing — in school, out of school, or reading cereal boxes. They’re sponges for information.”

But, in the age of smartphones, with so much information at a child’s fingertips, the “Kids Corner” producers say they’ve had to adapt. “30 years ago, the idea of making kids learn how to research and use encyclopedias was really a driving force for us,” Drake says.

These days, he says the show is turning Googling into a family activity: “Now that technology has made (research) so easy for most kids to do, we want to make sure that they don’t do it alone. It’s less about being able to find a name really quickly thanks to Google, and more about the fact that you and your mom sat there and did it together.”

“It’s the connection that’s more important to us,” he says. O’Connell nods.

At this point in the conversation, the producers check the time: 6:45 p.m. 15 minutes until “Kids Corner” goes live. They exit the XPN conference room and head downstairs, where O’Connell takes her seat in front of a microphone, waits for the “ON AIR” sign to light up, and then does what’s always come so naturally to her: she talks.

The “Kids Corner” 30th anniversary event will feature appearances by Trout Fishing in America, Lard Dog & the Band of Shy, Chibi Kodama, and Billy Kelly.

To learn more about “Kids Corner,” visit the show online at www.kidscorner.org, or tune in at 88.5 WXPN Monday through Thursday at 7 p.m.