Radio Disney: A Place For Music That's Both Safe and Cool

Filed under: Music, Activities: Big Kids, Activities: Tweens

Ernest Martinez is the creative director at Radio Disney. Credit: Disney/ABC Photo, Craig Sjodin

Every day, at any hour, kids in America can spin a dial or log on and land on a kid-friendly radio station with great beats. No surprise -- its antennae are shaped like mouse ears.

With a morning show that offers up an alternative to the morning zoo format available in most markets, daytime shows for the preschool set and a steady rotation of celebrity interviews, call-in contests and listener feedback, Radio Disney is one station still devoid of sex and drug references -- but they've got the rock and roll.

So how do they meet the demands of the tween target audience, satisfy parents and still fill in some programming for kids as young as 3? ParentDish talked to the station's creative director, Ernest "Ernie D." Martinez, a father of three kids ranging from 3 years old to 14, via a phone interview about the new Disney generation's music.

ParentDish: Is it a big challenge to have such a wide range of ages listening to you?

Ernest "Ernie D." Martinez.: Yes! It's a big challenge -- mainly because my goal every time I go on the air is not just to entertain the kids but also to entertain the parents.

PD: Do you feel that you're providing a musical education to kids?

ED: To a certain extent, yeah. I think we're letting them know especially when new artists come in. We have this thing going on called Next Big Thing which airs on the Disney Channel and on Radio Disney . . . kids can vote on who's going to be the next big artist. It's along the lines of letting them know who they are -- it's more educating them about those types of artists, newer artists. But mainly, I think my main responsibility of being on air is making sure they have fun listening. It's not really education; it's more in between. It's education and entertainment.

PD: What do you notice the kids tune in for?
ED: We have artist takeovers. It's funny to see our call volumes spike whenever Justin Bieber comes in or Demi Lovato comes in or Selena Gomez is a big one, too. The kids just get so much more interested, and I don't want to say listen more intently but take more of an initiative to call and interact when they get to talk to Selena Gomez or Demi Lovato or Justin Bieber or somebody like that.

PD: How has being a dad influenced what you do at the station?
ED: I've been here for a little over 12 years, so there were times when I really wasn't thinking about it. But now, as a parent, it's changed my whole perspective of how I do my show in particular. Not only do I have to provide that safe zone for families, but it also makes me think about how much harder it is to do that kind of entertainment and still be relevant. You have certain artists or certain people doing certain things that really aren't acceptable for most families, but I think the trick is in that finding a fun entertainment environment that's also fun and safe for kids in a fun way that they like taking part in.

PD: Talking about safe zones, is there an advantage Radio Disney provides?
ED: The biggest thing is just the name, just the name recognition. Being under the Disney umbrella is a big responsibility. Not a lot of people realize how big a responsibility it is to uphold all those Disney values. That's at the forefront of everything. The name Disney is just synonymous with family entertainment.

PD: Why is it important for kids to have their own channel?
ED: They've never really had one before. Personally, this is the way I conduct my show -- it's not about me, it's about the audience that's listening. When you sort of take that viewpoint and apply it into radio, what the caller is saying to you automatically becomes more important than anything you have to say. Whenever I go to edit a phone call, I always try to take as much of myself out as I can and keep the conversation going ... It's not about the DJ on the air or the artist who's playing.

PD: When people hear Disney, they think Disney princesses, Winnie the Pooh, Hannah Montana. Do you find people turn it on and don't expect to hear the other bands, the Carrie Underwoods, etc.?

ED: Yes, my 14-year-old daughter says, "Oh I didn't know you played this song." She doesn't really realize that all of that falls into being relevant and being relevant not only for the kids in the car but the parents, too. We sort of have to appeal to both audiences ... the kids that call in and interact with us and request a song, those are the ones we listen to. We take their song requests and put it in our database and it churns out the music from there.

PD: What's the challenge of having kids call in from all over the nation?

ED: The biggest thing is we can't get to all of them. We'd love to sit there and talk to every kid that calls in from around the country. It's virtually impossible. We have 10 lines in the studio and they're all ringing constantly.

PD: What else do you wish people better understood about Radio Disney?
ED: I think the common misconception is that we aren't for everybody. Like you said, when people hear the name Disney, they're thinking Disney princesses and Hannah Montana, "High School Musical." We don't just play Disney music. We play Selena Gomez. We play Rascal Flatts. We play all these other artists that are also up and coming and in the mainstream. And inside of all of that we take care of our main audience, which is families.

PD: Are people surprised by how much say the kids have and how developed their own tastes are?
ED: It's funny because I had this conversation with my wife when I was on vacation. Abby's my oldest daughter and when we were her age, we were listening to Guns N' Roses and Def Leppard and Run DMC and stuff that's not really appropriate. But now we listen to "High School Musical" and Hannah Montana and Selena Gomez with the kids in the car. When they get to a certain age, they venture off on their own to explore what they really like and what they really want to listen to.

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AdviceMama Says:
Start by teaching him that it is safe to do so.