Inside Iowa State
April 16, 1999
Treat kids with respect
by Skip Derra
Children are smart and they should be treated that way, says WOI Radio's Charity Nebbe, producer and co-host of Chinwag Theater.
Chinwag Theater is a children's program, but you won't hear "kiddie music" or poems in cute little voices, Nebbe said. The whole idea behind Chinwag Theater, a story-telling, theme-exploring, family-friendly radio program, is to treat kids they way they should be treated -- with respect. The theater does, however, keep one eye dutifully cast on having fun.
The program, which airs Saturdays at 5 p.m. (WOI-AM 640), is the product of Nebbe and NPR veteran Daniel Pinkwater, who also is the author of more than 70 children's books. The two spend 30 minutes, spinning yarns, making points and laughing contagiously at each other's sometimes silly offerings.
"We wanted to create a program that was smart, respectful and challenging to kids," Nebbe said. "We wanted it to be a program that we would go out of our way to listen to, something that would fit the definition of 'good radio.' There are things on Chinwag Theater that kids will not understand. That is part of growing. It's part of exploring.
"When you listen to the program, you can tell we are having fun and we love what we're doing," Nebbe added. "That's why people enjoy listening. They have fun with us and they don't feel they are being insulted. Not to mention, it's funny."
Chinwag Theater, now in its second season, is syndicated to 50 stations across the United States. The show's topics are as wide-ranging as its listeners' demographics. The books read on the show sometimes go up to a 10- or 12-year-old reading level, but the age range of Chinwag Theater enthusiasts is far greater.
"The program can appeal to anyone from 7-year-olds on up," Nebbe says. "By up, I mean all the way up."
Chinwag Theater's audience includes a 3-year-old in San Francisco and an 83-year-old who has sent Nebbe fan mail.
"More than half our audience is families," Nebbe said. "Kids don't listen to the radio all by themselves. That's a fact. You aren't going to get a 4-year-old saying, 'I need my public radio.' So, one of our goals is to make it a program families can listen to and everyone in the family will enjoy. It is something that brings families closer together."
The show's format includes Pinkwater reading from a book (many of which are his own creations), followed by a conversation between the co-hosts. The conversation will include music -- primarily jazz, classical and folk -- and an eclectic mix of features such as poetry, commentary and humorous skits. The show is a mix of high-grade poetry and low-grade humor, Nebbe said.
The attraction of the show is in the mix of ideas and interesting places the co-hosts take it. In the "Doodleflute" episode, Pinkwater read from his book of the same name. The story is about sharing. But when it was time for discussion, Nebbe and Pinkwater didn't mention the "S" word. Rather, they explored what was in Pinkwater's desk -- a plethora of wind instruments.
"The trick is to come up with a topic or several topics that are related to the story, but that still are surprising, entertaining and educational," Nebbe said. "We don't like to do the predictable thing."
Each program takes seven to 10 hours to brainstorm, plan, script, record and edit, Nebbe said. Some programs, those that don't come close to following the script, take far longer to edit.
While Pinkwater and Nebbe have been working on Chinwag (slang for "talking") for better than a year and their chemistry is apparent to listeners, the two have not met face-to-face. Recording is done over the telephone, with Pinkwater in Hyde Park, N.Y., and Nebbe in Ames.
"The best part is the recording because we have so much fun doing it," Nebbe said. "It's always exciting just to find out what's going to happen."
Until recently, Chinwag Theater had been an unsupported endeavor. The first year of shows (39 in all) was done on a $12,000 budget. Neither Pinkwater nor Nebbe was paid for the effort. Amazon.com will underwrite a good portion of this season's shows, including salaries for Pinkwater and Nebbe.
Now Nebbe wants to expand the listener base. With 50 stations in the fold (and no cancellations), the goal is to get to 100 stations by June 2000.
"We were very successful our first year," Nebbe said. "We are very proud of the product. Some say children's programming is never going to make you money, that nobody is going to carry it. I hope we are proving them wrong."
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