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Mobtown Beat

Some Kind of Wonderful

Baltimore Outfit Hopes to Make Old-Time Radio the New Wave in Kids' Entertainment

By Brennen Jensen | Posted 11/7/2001

"Turn on the transistorizers! Switch on the master broadcast blaster! Open the studio doors for all of our friends! Welcome boys and girls and all the ships at sea!"

So begins My Wonderful Radio Show, a locally produced children's program that purports to emanate from the mythical station KIDS, but actually has been broadcasting weekly since early last month on WWLG (1360 AM). The 27-minute show, geared to the elementary school set, airs Saturday mornings at 7. Baltimore-based Uffington Productions has invested "mid to high five-figures" to create 10 episodes of the prerecorded show, company founder Trish MacDonald says--aural pilots she hopes will get national attention and, eventually, syndication.

"There is nothing on radio for kids out there," MacDonald says. "We're not saying, 'Turn away from computers' or 'Turn off the TV.' We're saying this is a spectacular presentation and a way to listen and concentrate. A way to use your imagination."

The show is tantamount to a radio adaptation of Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood, as hosts Trish (played by MacDonald) and Doug (local actor Kyle Prue) interact with a variety of recurring characters, some human, some animal, and engage in humor-tinged discussions of topics including cooking, travel, and money management. Shows are built around themes ranging from the importance of recycling to the emotional value of laughter. Each show also features a radio play, replete with sound effects and original music. If Wonderful recalls a famed TV program, the producers invoke a more distant inspiration, describing the show as a throwback to a pre-TV age when, MacDonald says, "radio was a force in people's lives." And today, they contend, children are especially underserved by the medium.

"This kind of children's programming is lacking," producer Susan Allenback says. "All the little kids have to listen to is Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera."

The 10 episodes were recorded in two weeks in September at the Invisible Sound Stage studio in Highlandtown. (Post-production editing of the shows is ongoing.) They were produced in the old-school manner, with the cast--all members of the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists--assembled together in one studio. "The unique thing about the show is that everything has been created for it," MacDonald says. "We're not putting on records or pulling in a story someone else has already done."

Uffington tapped a variety of local performers for the cast, including local kiddie-TV vet Royal Parker, who appeared on Mr. Poplolly, The Biggest Fun Show on TV, and other '50s and '60s programs on WAAM and its successor at channel 13, WJZ. Baltimore jazz stalwart Ethel Ennis sings the theme song, "Something in the Air," and appears in segments discussing music. And a show whose theme is "A Penny Saved is a Penny Earned" includes an interview with state Comptroller William Donald Schaefer. ("He was fabulous," MacDonald says.)

"Playing a young goofy kid was a lot of fun, " says Prue, a member of Everyman Theatre's resident ensemble who's more accustomed to performing the works of Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller. "I've done a lot of voice-over work but never an old-fashioned radio drama. We had 10 or 11 actors behind mics in the same studio, and it made me imagine what it must have been like during the golden age of radio."

MacDonald, a classically trained actor and veteran voice-over performer, founded Uffington in 1991. The company has previously created children's audiotapes and the animated holiday TV special A Very Special Present, which has aired on local CBS and ABC affiliates and garnered a regional Emmy nomination. Five years ago MacDonald put together a demo of a radio show for kids, but shelved the concept to concentrate on other projects until mutual friends introduced her to Allenback last spring.

Allenback, whose background includes stints as a corporate trainer, print-shop manager, and Los Angeles radio personality, shared MacDonald's interest in kids programming. They put their heads together, and My Wonderful Radio Show was born. The program, they stress, strives to strike a balance between education and entertainment. It doesn't attempt to teach reading, math, or other basic skills (à la Sesame Street), but does provide lessons in variety of topics, such as music or geography. The pair designed their show to be a breath of innocence amid modern TV cartoons, which they view as increasingly brash, flashy, and violent. "We're trying to kick-start children's brains and imaginations when they get up in the morning, before they turn on the TV," Allenback says.

MacDonald and Allenback hired local freelancers to shape their concept and characters into scripts and bought time on WWLG to air Wonderful. Now they're looking for advertisers; the show's 27-minute length is designed to leave room for commercials, but so far no one has signed on. The next step, MacDonald says, is a promotional package and demo tape designed "to attract either a company or an individual that does syndication that can help us sell it to stations or land major sponsors." (She and Allenback say they have no interest in taking the program to public radio, out of concern that such a move might come with content restrictions.)

The show and its on-air home might seem an odd match, WWLG being known primarily for a big-band/golden-oldies format targeting an over-50 crowd. But Wonderful's creators maintain the station is a good setting for a kiddie show; they figure WWLG's senior listeners will come upon the program and introduce it to their grandchildren. Indeed, they say they are getting calls from older listeners who enjoy the program themselves, often because it reminds them of radio shows of yore.

"It's a very well-produced show with the potential to do well," WWLG station manager Bob Pettit says. "But it's very challenging to get syndication. They have to establish themselves in Baltimore first and show that it's not just a concept, but that an audience is there. The first thing syndicators look at is the audience numbers."

While she acknowledges that attempting to take the show national from a single nonmajor market is a "gamble," Allenback says she and her partner "do believe we can get kids to listen. When they wake up in the morning they don't even have to get out of bed, they can just turn on the clock radio."

Not that the pair is relying entirely on low-tech. They plan to develop a Web site to tie in with the show, allowing for greater promotion and audience feedback. The idea of reaching back to radio in an Internet world, MacDonald says, is simply to "give children another choice in the entertainment stream." And she doesn't lack for confidence about making it work. When Allenback says that in a year "I'd like to see us on at least 150 radio stations across the United States," MacDonald demurs.

"I want us to be on 10,000 stations," she says, "and bouncing off the satellites."

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