For children at play, in the car, with friends, doing their chores, reading a book or learning on their own and with their parents, a whole new world of possibilities has opened up over the past decade - the world of recorded music and stories.
The signs of this boomlet for little people can be found everywhere. Record stores have grad-ual-ly expanded sections devoted to the tape-and-CD creations of Raffi, Greg & Steve, Caren Glasser and, of course, the Disney folks, from Mickey and friends to phenomenally popular sound-tracks like "Beauty and the Beast" and "Aladdin." Sometimes toy and clothing stores have a few selections.But the real inroads have been made in bookstores, which aren't just for books and book lovers anymore. Larger bookstores have puzzles and planners, games, paper dolls - and a growing variety of recorded read-alongs and songs on tape and sometimes CD for preschoolers, young readers and their parents.
And in scattered cities around the country, radio is starting to tap into the children's market and the recordings, new and old, that can fit into such a format.
"Our (potential) audience is huge, with moms and kids (and sometimes dads) listening," says Scott Curran, program director for Salt Lake City's KKDS-1060 AM, "The Imagination Station."
"Yes, there's far more children's product available today," affirms Sharon Weisz of W3 Public Relations, which represents Kid Rhino, a record company devoted to the category. "I think many of the major labels have realized there is a market for this product and are beginning to give children's artists an opportunity to have their music heard."
Yet many of those taking a chance on this growing market admit it's slow and sometimes arduous going. Although youngsters, music and the technologies to bring the two together have been around for a long time, the phenomenon seems to have taken off only in recent years.
"The Imagination Station," for instance, was once a part of "The Imagination Stations," plural, a network of like-minded radio stations. Outlets in Orlando and St. Louis fell by the wayside, but Salt Lake City's 2-year-old KKDS persisted. And a new attempt at a network, "Radio Ahhs," based in Minneapolis, is about to hit the airwaves nationwide, including those in Utah.
KKDS will join the "Ahhs" network in the evenings, but in the daytime will continue to offer its own mix of live programming, such as Curran's "Great Scott" morning show; interactive phone-in programs; and an automated mix of music and taped informational tidbits.
And while Curran, for one, is optimistic about the future for children's radio, "The Imagination Station" remains a skeleton operation, he acknowledges.
Advertisers, or rather the agencies that represent them, continue to be wary of the medium, he says. "The advertisers are not as liberal as they think they are; they're not really ready to take a risk." And he thinks maybe they should. "I've learned a lot about advertising to kids. Repetition is the key, more so than with adults, as is honesty and speaking directly to them."
The amount of children-oriented material available is also impressive, Curran says. "There's a lot of good stuff out there," and not only the albums being turned out by the major record companies. "A lot of local people - not only here but around the country - have made cassette tapes of children's songs. We'll play them if it's appropriate - anything - because we want a good, diverse mix."
KKDS is also working with the local Pegasus music stores, Curran notes, creating "Imagination Station" sections among the album bins so listeners can find those things played on the radio.
While children's radio may still be in its infancy, so to speak, and some record labels are only testing the waters, such is not the case with Walt Disney Records.
"Walt Disney has been doing this for 36 years, so we're vastly different than the other labels," acknowledges Amy Malsin, the record company's public relations manager. Disney is dominant, and that fact is evident everywhere tapes and CDs for children can be found. The label's releases sometimes seem to account for 80 percent to 90 percent of those visible in the racks.
And while no industry magazine tracks sales of children's albums, Disney manages to regularly launch a couple into the Billboard Top 200, usually soundtracks like "Beauty and the Beast" (now at No. 37) and the new "Aladdin" (at No. 40). "We find ourselves a couple of times a year on that mainstream chart," Malsin says.
Malsin says the building emphasis on music and read-alongs for children is real and the direction is strong. There's a huge number of children out there - most with baby-boom parents interested in both entertainment and advancement for their offspring.
"I think there's a lot more attention being focused on children and quality entertainment, and there's certainly been a lot of activity in terms of the industry, with all the new labels," she says. "Parents are definitely interested in providing music they can appreciate and that their children will like."
And Disney isn't ignoring the parents themselves - as the new three-CD or three-cassette retrospective "The Music of Disney: A Legacy in Song" and earlier albums like the all-star "Mad About the Mouse" anthology demonstrate.
"Walt Disney Records tends to think of itself as a family label," Malsin says, "so product like that is definitely part of our overall nature. We provide music for the entire family, which is children and parents."
When Scott Curran of "The Imagination Station" talks about the potential of it all, he almost sounds at heart like an excited kid.
"The future is very, very bright. In fact it's growing in leaps and bounds!"
Here's a sampling of recent child- and family-oriented albums:
VARIOUS ARTISTS, "Country for Kids" (Disney).
An all-star cast including Merle Haggard, Patty Loveless, Mary-Chapin Carpenter, Glen Campbell, Emmylou Harris, Oak Ridge Boys and Buck Owens combines for this blend of traditional and original songs. There's plenty of guitar and banjo and lyrics that kids can relate to ("So Many Questions, So Little Time" or "If You Can't Find a Reason to Be Happy" or "Clean Room Blues"), with blues, ballads and uptempo beats all represented. But there is nothing self-consciously "kidsy" about the album, no sense of writing down to kids. Parents will enjoy this one as well.
MICHAEL DOUCET and others, "Le Hoogie Boogie: Louisiana French Music for Children" (Rounder).
If your kids are into French (or Cajun), they might enjoy this collection put together by Michael Doucet of the group Beausoleil and several of his family and friends. The "Hoogie Boogie" (Hokey Pokey) and the ABC song are the only really familiar tunes, but the others have the traditional Cajun lilt and spice that can get the toes tapping. There are interesting sound effects on the "Zydeco Gris Gris Rap," and kids may relate to the notion behind "Johnny Can't Dance."
Lyrics and translations are included, but the songs are all in French. If nothing else, it could be an interesting cultural experience.
LITTLE RICHARD, "Shake It All About" (Disney).
With the wild man of rock 'n' roll at the piano, there are 12 traditional kids songs like you've probably never heard them before. Included are such favorites as "On Top of Spaghetti" "He's Got the Whole World in His Hands," "When the Saints Go Marching In," and "She'll Be Coming Round the Mountain." Kids will also like the silly knock-knock jokes on "Keep A Knocking." There's a whole lot of shaking going on in this first full-length children's album from Little Richard.
DINOSAURS, "Big Songs" (Disney).
They've waited 6 million and three years to record this album, based on the popular TV show. The songs, done by the Sinclair Family, are all originals. And kids will get a kick out of some of the messages. Charlene and friends envision a perfect world in which they can shop and date with doo-wop flair; Jason has his own ideas in "I Wanna Be King." Who wouldn't like the idea that "I'm a Dinosaur (I Can Do Whatever I Want)," and there's "I'm the Baby (Gotta Love Me)." It's billed as pre-hysterical fun, and that it is.
CRAIG N CO., "Morning N Night" (Disney).
Craig Taubman, a young new talent, has written both the words and the music for this day's worth of songs. The first half features exuberant songs with upbeat rock 'n' roll flavor for morning: "Good Morning," "What a Day," "P.B. and J." Then the second half slows down with soft songs and soothing lullabyes. "Say Thank You," "It's Okay." "Rock-A-Bye Sheep" is a cute play on the old counting sheep idea.
The catchy beats, humor and contemporary themes all work together very well. Lyrics are included for kids who want to sing along.
NORMAN FOOTE, "If the Shoe Fits" (Disney).
With gentle voice and witty lyrics, Norman Foote chronicles the antics of a singing goat, a woeful seagull, a man who ran away with the moon, nursery rhyme characters who tell their sides of the story and more. This slightly wacky songwriter turns music into a fanciful adventure that will appeal to kids with a sense of humor. The 14 mostly original songs blend jazz, blues, rock and country styles.
VARIOUS ARTISTS; "Fun Rock" (Kid Rhino).
"Fun Rock" is an old idea updated for the '90s - novelty tunes, ranging from the cute to silly, compiled for tots from the days when their parents - maybe even their grandparents - were kids themselves. Pre-Rhino collection labels like Ronco and K-Tel did the same thing when records were large, black vinyl things.
These songs include No. 1 hits like Larry Verne's "Mr. Custer," the Tokens' "The Lion Sleeps Tonight," the Hollywood Argyles' tribute to cartoon character "Alley-Oop" and the Lemon Pipers' Byrds-ish "Green Tambourine." All of the other songs - basically from the novelty-mad eras of the early and late '60s, were top 10 hits, too. Four of tracks - "The Name Game," "Green Tambourine," "Simon Says" and "Nashville Cats" - have been re-balanced in stereo, so listeners can turn the knob to one side and sing along with the music. Lyrics are included for all of the songs.
PARACHUTE EXPRESS, "Over Easy" (Disney).
Parachute Express (Donny Becker, Janice Hubbard and Stephen Michael Schwartz), a group put together by the Gymboree Corp. for its play programs, is generally noted for songs that get the kids moving. But on this album they turn to quiet songs for quiet times. From "Warm Woolly Blanket" to "Fi-Fiddle-Diddle-I-Ay" to "Living on a Planet I Love," the album's 12 original songs are filled with a pillow-y soft charm. Just the thing to help children relax and unwind.
VARIOUS ARTISTS, "Reggae for Kids" (RAS).
Steel drums and strong bass characteristic of Jamaican music carry over into this collection of children's songs put together by a variety of Jamaican artists. Part of the proceeds from the album go to benefit a children's home on the island.
The songs are both familiar and not-so-familiar. For example, the tunes on "Safari" and "This Old Man" may ring a bell, but the words have a different twist. On the other hand, "Puff the Magic Dragon" and "Over the Rainbow" have the words you've heard before, but the melodies are certainly not the usual. Many of the songs address social and environmental issues in a light-hearted, positive way. One of the lasting messages that kids may take away is "If we only could live in peace and love, what a great world this would be."
VARIOUS ARTISTS, "The Cowboy Album" (Kid Rhino).
It used to be that every kid wanted to grow up and be a cowboy, just like all his pals on TV. Those days may be gone, but they're not forgotten on this collection of songs from Rhino's archives. The album features such singing cowboys as Gene Autry, Tex Ritter and Roy Rogers. The Sons of the Pioneers offer up their version of "Home on the Range" and "The Cowboy's Lament." Marty Robbins sings of "El Paso," and Frankie Laine provides the theme from "Rawhide."
The cassette is arranged a bit oddly, with six songs on one side and four on the other. But the CD offers a couple of bonus cuts, "Prairie Lullaby" by Michael Nesbitt and Tex Ritter's "High Noon."