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Sex and the Single Mouse

Radio Disney: Tune in and turn on.

At last week's Grammy presentation, Jennifer Lopez turned plenty of heads -- and caused others to become engorged, thanks to a practically nonexistent dress that seemingly defied every law of Newtonian physics. (How come there's never a stiff breeze when you need one?) But she's hardly the only current pop tart to come under scrutiny (close, close scrutiny) for skin exposure at awards shows like the Grammys (also referenced in the CSNY review in this week's issue). Teen trollop Christina Aguilera accepted a Best New Artist Grammy adorned, more or less, in sheer, clingy garb apparently made of lightly tinted Saran Wrap, while the almost-as-youthful Britney Spears turned up at the recent American Music Awards ceremony in a gown that teasingly exposed bulbous breasts rumored to have been surgically enhanced -- a suggestion Spears vehemently denied in an interview with People magazine last month. After screening a shot of Spears's AMA outfit during a segment on the February 25 Today show, Katie Couric disapprovingly declared 2000 "the year of the boob."

What's wrong with that? Plenty, according to many observers. Aguilera and Spears, both former cast members on The New Mickey Mouse Club, are among a crop of flirty, provocative young stars being aggressively marketed to children who critics insist are far too young to fully understand the transparently sexual imagery in which they often traffic. A handful of right-wing groups have seized on this issue; for instance, Mississippi's American Family Association called for a Britney boycott after Spears appeared on the cover of Rolling Stone last year done up like a naughty schoolgirl eager for deflowering. Yet countless parents without political axes to grind are equally concerned that the most prominent female role models for the current generation all seem to be not just vapid but in heat.

Stuck in the middle of this issue is Radio Disney, a national syndicator (heard locally on KADZ-AM, at 1550 on your dial) that touts itself as kid-friendly, yet includes generous helpings of Christina, Britney and their allegedly wholesome but obviously horny brothers and sisters. Rather than deal with such questions head on, however, the higher-ups at the company, which is based in Burbank, California, choose to dodge it. Radio Disney press contact Melissa Gorup initially seemed cautiously receptive to the idea of arranging a conversation with head of operations Robin Jones, but reversed field upon learning that Westword is the sister paper of the Dallas Observer, a publication that ran an at-times unsympathetic article about Radio Disney last June that Gorup said was "riddled with inaccuracies." The spokeswoman subsequently announced that "Radio Disney is not granting any interviews at this time."

Fortunately, Rhonda Sheya, the just-hired general manager of Radio Disney-Denver, was more talkative -- possibly because her exchanges with Westword took place prior to the corporate declaration. In contrast to her California cousins, Sheya, who was named to her new post after nine years of running her own public-relations firm and, prior to that, management positions at KIMN-AM, KOOL-FM and KMGH-TV, came across as open, forthright and unshakable in her view that Radio Disney is doing nothing wrong and everything right. "It's safe radio, family radio," she says. "We are attempting to keep Radio Disney as clean as it can be, in keeping with the Disney tradition."

Just how original the notion behind Radio Disney is has been a matter of debate in a couple of courtrooms over recent years. In the early '90s, Children's Broadcasting, a Minneapolis-based firm, developed a kids' radio system dubbed Radio Aahs; it debuted in Denver on KKYD-AM/1340 in December 1993 and was also heard in Chicago, Los Angeles and Detroit, among other cities. Just short of two years later, in November 1995, Children's Broadcasting and ABC Radio signed a pact in which ABC, which is part of the Walt Disney Company family, agreed to help Radio Aahs in a variety of business areas.

But the accord was short-lived: ABC nixed the deal on July 30, 1996, the same day that Radio Disney hit the airwaves. Disney's deep pockets spelled doom for Radio Aahs, which went off the air in Denver on January 31, 1998 (KKYD is now part of the Catholic Family Radio system). Children's Broadcasting didn't go quietly into the night, though: The operation sued ABC and Disney, and in late 1998, a Minneapolis jury ordered Disney to pay $20 million for stealing trade secrets, among other things. That verdict was set aside by a U.S. district court judge in early 1999 and is currently under appeal.

Radio Aahs's corpse was barely cold when Radio Disney came to Denver in May 1998; it bowed simultaneously on 1550 AM, formerly a religious station, and 1690, a signal on the expanded AM stereo band. But whereas Radio Aahs mainly stuck to kiddie music of the sort sold in children's bookstores (the noxious, cloying Raffi was a favorite), Radio Disney served up a broader musical menu that included tunes from the Disney library of animated films, rock novelty numbers by the likes of David Seville, the Coasters and "Weird" Al Yankovic, and, most crucially, contemporary pop by emerging performers targeting the teen and preteen audience.

This timing was auspicious: In 1997, a year after they'd conquered Europe, the Backstreet Boys broke in the States, ushering in a new generation of defiantly prefabricated acts made up of sexy lads and lasses whose machine-tooled R&B was built with accessibility in mind. Mega-sales followed, making careers even as it lifted the profiles of Radio Disney and the Disney Channel, a cable outlet that also embraced teen pop.

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