At 7 p.m., four nights a week, roughly 6,000 children across the Philadelphia area who could be settling in front of big-screen televisions, texting over their telephones or gazing into computer screens, choose instead to do something that children of the 1930s and 1940s once did: tune in to their favorite radio show.
For 23 years, “Kids Corner,” on WXPN, led by its exuberant host Kathy O’Connell, has been entertaining youngsters with a mesmerizing mix of on-air chat, funky science, zany music and even zanier jokes. (What did the thief get when he stole a calendar? Twelve months.)
On the air, O’Connell’s unmistakable voice percolates with ageless verve as she paves the way for her young callers to talk about everything from how their pets got their names to where burps come from and what kind of creepy spider might be building a web in the garage. With patience, wit and curiosity, O’Connell encourages her callers to speak their minds.
Adults in the radio world have taken note of “Kids Corner’s” special recipe for success, awarding the show the prestigious Peabody Award and the Major Edwin Armstrong Award for Creative Use of Radio.
The Current sat down with O’Connell to talk about the origins of “Kids Corner,” her decades-long career as the voice behind the microphone, and how for more than 40 years, the comedian Soupy Sales (who died in 2009) played a critical part in her life.
Q. For those who aren’t familiar with ‘Kids Corner,’ how would you describe the show?
A. We talk to kids for an hour, giving them opportunities to call in. Each day is devoted to a different topic and a lot of the topics are decided with the overall philosophy of letting kids speak. It’s their show. We say the age range of our listeners is 6 to 13. That’s a big range. I would say the main target is 8 to 10.
Q. This is the 23rd year of ‘Kids Corner.’ That has to be unusual for a radio show, especially for a kids’ radio show.
A. I can remember when I came here I said, ‘Sure, I’ll give Philly a try for one year, and then I’ll go back to New York.’ But WXPN’s commitment to the show has been amazing. I mean we are not a big-bucks operation here. We are public radio, and we’re not even the main NPR station in town. I think what has also helped is that technology caught up with us, the ability to get the show out over the computer. I have people in Montana who listen online.
Q. What were the origins of ‘Kids Corner’?
A. This is the best story in the world. There are two origins actually. ‘Kids Corner’ came about because my old show ‘Kids America’ [produced by WNYC in New York] got cancelled on Christmas Eve, 1987—cue the violins. This was a show that had a $20 million a year budget and 20 people. It was funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting but then we lost our funding in 1987. So, the then-general manager of WXPN, Mark Fuerst, who had come to New York to visit my show, called me and said: ‘You are the show and you should come to Philadelphia.’ [Fuerst offered O’Connell a three-month trial period to produce and air the show at WXPN.] They didn’t buy a tape recorder that year and put that money toward my salary.
But how I originally got into kids radio … I’d been doing radio on WBAI [in New York] as a volunteer, and then I went to California and finally got paid for doing radio out there for a while. I moved back to New York and got a job as an engineer at WNYC, the public station. I was the engineer for a show called ‘Senior Edition.’ We had the meanest boss on the face of the earth, and he also did the kids show called ‘Small Things Considered.’ Well, one day he and his partner on the show got mad and walked off 15 minutes before air-time. The managers of the radio station came over to me and said: ‘Kathy we need you to help us out.’ I was the only one who knew what buttons to push to keep the show on the air. So, I told them: ‘If you let me talk I’ll do anything you want.’ That’s how I ended up with ‘Small Things Considered,’ which morphed into ‘Kids America,’ which was a national show.
Q. So when you came to WXPN did you feel you had to start all over again?
A. Oh, yeah. But basically radio is me and a microphone, and I knew I could put together the talking part. It’s the structural part, the management of it, that I’m not made for. But then a miracle happened. ‘Kids Corner’ started on January 4, 1988, and on January 5, 1988, Robert Drake showed up to volunteer [as a producer] because, as he puts it, he heard me and knew that I needed him. He started putting together a system and a structure for the show. Now he’s been the producer of ‘Kids Corner’ for years and I’d be lost without him.
Q. How have you changed as a host over the past 23 years, and how have the kids changed?
A. We used to have a lot more bells and whistles and a lot of different contributors on the show, and recently we’ve gotten back to just me talking to kids. How have kids changed? Well, the access to information now is so incredible. But, you know, lots of things haven’t really changed over the years. We do a segment every year around the holidays called ‘Don’t Get Me That’ about the worst toys—we call it the Gooey Louie segment because back in the ‘90s, a kid called in about Gooey Louie, a plastic toy that has green slime that comes out of its nose—and kids still call in about the same kinds of things today. All this time they have wanted to talk about their parents, their families, their friends, their hobbies, bullies and giving advice to other kids. They also still love talking about books.
Q. I know a lot of your listeners are regulars, and after 23 years some of those kids have become adults. Have any of them stayed in touch?
A. Yes, some have. I call them my dotage kids. They are the kids who are designated to take care of me in my dotage. I meet a lot of the kids who grew up listening to me and it’s wonderful.
Q. Let’s talk about your relationship with the comedian Soupy Sales. You’ve said that he became like a father to you?
A. I grew up in Long Island, and one day I turned on the TV and I saw Soupy Sales and my life changed. My mother let me take the train regularly into Manhattan to watch his show. I was 13, and I got involved with this wonderful group of kids who hung out in front of the Soupy Sales studio every day. I have some home movies from then that, thank God, a girlfriend of mine took. Then, he got cancelled, and there was still this small group of us who followed him. When I was 16 years old, I spent my college money to go with a girlfriend to see him in ‘Finian’s Rainbow’ in Atlanta, which my grandmother was not too happy about. But it seemed totally reasonable to me. Another time, my mother drove a girlfriend and me to Montreal for Expo ‘67, because Soupy was doing the show ‘Hell’s A’ Poppin.’
Q. Had you actually met him?
A. Oh, yeah, we were the regulars at his show, so he knew us. He was wonderful to us. He used to call me Oaky. Because the first time I went to see his show I said I was going to make him remember me, and you’re going to remember a name like Oaky. So I told him that was my name.
Q. And you continued to keep in touch with him?
A. We kind of kept in touch, on and off, over the years. He called me at home in 1976 when my mother was in a coma after a car accident that eventually killed her. He was doing a show in Long Island and my girlfriend told him about my mother. But we seriously reconnected in 2002. At that time I said to him, ‘Soupy, it’s Oaky,’ and then I told him my real name and from that point on he knew me as Kathy.
Q. You became quite close to him and his wife Trudy in recent years. Is it true you were with him during his last days?
A. Yes, and I miss him every day. My father died when I was 20, so to have somebody who knew me when I was a teenager, and with whom I could really have a special relationship. ... I’m going to cry. He was a blessing in my life the last six years.
Q. Let’s get back to ‘Kids Corner.’ Do you ever use Penn as a resource? Do you invite Penn professors and experts to be on the show?
A. Sometimes. One of the professors I really want to get on is David Eisenhower [director of the Annenberg School for Communication’s Institute for Public Service] just to talk about his grandfather [former President Dwight D. Eisenhower] and to talk about him just as a grandfather because nobody loves you like your grandparents. We’ve had professors of political science and anthropologists on the show. We’ve also had regulars from the School of Nursing and the Vet School.
Q. I can tell you love your job. But be honest, after all these years do you have to work hard to maintain a kid’s point of view of the world?
A. Sadly, no. Because I am basically 14. I am a 14-year-old, with decent financial skills.