Thirty years after joining WXPN-FM as host of Kids Corner, Kathy O'Connell is one of Philadelphia radio's most recognizable voices. But in 1988, it came down to hiring O'Connell or buying a new tape recorder.
"Our former general manager used to joke, 'Kathy, every time I see you, I see a tape recorder I'm not getting,' " O'Connell said.
O'Connell joined XPN after a layoff at WNYC in her native New York, where she hosted Kids America, a show similar to Kids Corner. With funding for the program pulled around Christmas in 1987, she found herself jobless during the holidays and unsure of what to do next. XPN changed that with a job offer over the phone, but O'Connell didn't see her stint in Philadelphia lasting this long.
"I was like, 'Yeah, I'll give Philly a year, sure,' and it's 30 years later," she said. "Yet it feels like a moment in time."
Producer Robert Drake, who is also known as a prominent DJ around Philadelphia, has been along for the ride with O'Connell all these years — minus one day. He joined the show as a volunteer the day after its debut on Jan. 4, 1988, and worked his role into a full-time paid gig over several years.
"I was fascinated by what it was," he said. "I called up and showed up the next day to help answer phones and haven't found the exit since."
Every Monday through Thursday from 7 to 8 p.m., O'Connell handles hosting duties and Drake does "all the real work," as O'Connell put it. Today, Kids Corner, which won a Peabody Award in 1990, is a place for kids to listen to music, play games, and talk with O'Connell about whatever strikes them — just as it was in the '80s.
"It's still an oasis like it was 30 years ago," Drake said. "It's an hour that is dedicated to them. I think it's become more of a clubhouse than it ever has been."
This month, Kids Corner celebrates its anniversary with a concert featuring performances from such kids' music favorites as Trout Fishing in America, Billy Kelly, and Lard Dog & the Band of Shy. O'Connell, naturally, will host.
We caught up with O'Connell and Drake ahead of their anniversary show and spoke about what's next for them at XPN and why they've never had to broadcast their show on a delay.
Over the years, you two have become inseparable. How do you describe your relationship?
Kathy O'Connell: Was that inseparable or insufferable? I say this with all the self-love I can muster up: I am a lovely person. I'm very talented. I am wonderful at what I do. However, I am not a manager. I'm not Ira Glass, who, by the way, was one of our interns on Kids America. I'm basically: Put me in a room and turn on a microphone, and we'll have fun. Luckily, Robert is a natural producer.
Robert Drake: I think it's been publicly stated that Kathy and I are like an old married couple. Our union is with each other, and we hope the people we work with and associate with join the party. If they don't, that's their loss, because the party is us.
KO: Kids Corner is a very fun place to be around that one hour a day. Even the times when maybe we could have murdered each other if there had been weapons around in that moment.
What do you think the staying power behind Kids Corner is after all this time?
KO: Certain basics of kids, of being a kid, don't change. Kids respond to being dealt with respectfully as human beings. They respond to funny. It's like, 'If you build it they will come' — if you give them something good, they'll get it, and a lot of generations now have gotten it.
Has your approach to doing the show changed much over the last 30 years?
RD: When we started the show in the late '80s, kids didn't feel comfortable talking about themselves. There weren't that many outlets in 1988 for kids to share their thoughts. Now, we do a lot of Kathy and the kids. We've gone back to the root of what the show is all about.
It's more Kathy and the kids talking, and that could be as serious as issues about family or social dynamics, or as their favorite desserts. Technology has forced this generation of kids to be more comfortable sharing their opinions, which they maybe wouldn't have done 30 years ago.
The show has talked kids through a lot of big, challenging current events, like 9/11 or the rise of school shootings. What is the show’s role during those times?
KO: To be there and to be a presence you can count on in whatever way we can respond to world situations. For example, with 9/11, we were able to be there in a very real way through our contributors. In 1986, when the Challenger blew up, I was doing Kids America, and what I went to for comfort was Kermit the Frog doing "The Rainbow Connection." Sometimes stuff happens in life, and you don't know why, and you just want to sit back and figure things out.
Is it true that you have never broadcast the show on a delay?
KO: Now I find out.
RD: Now with Kathy, I'll have to.
KO: Robert does control all the buttons. But in 30 years, exactly one curse word ever got through.
RD: We haven't operated on a delay primarily because no one would want to annoy Kathy O'Connell. Kathy is to Kids Corner what Santa is to the North Pole. You're not going to annoy her.
Has your approach changed much in the face of the current political climate?
KO: I don't think so. But things have gotten very ugly in the way people speak to each other. This is why I'm so thankful for my job. We have these wonderful conversations, and we talk about things, and kids express themselves, and it's civil. I say at the end of every show, 'Please be kind to each other.' That's all, just be kind.
Thirty years into doing the show, what do you look forward to when you go to work?
KO: My grandmother stood all day on her feet in a hat factory. I am a wonderful driver in storms. Right Robert?
RD: Yes, indeed.
KO: Because growing up on Long Island, you still have to get Grandma to work at the hat factory. That's how I learned how to drive, and look what I get to do. All the real work gets done by Robert — I get to sit there and talk on a microphone and people are nice to me.
What’s next for Kids Corner? Can we expect another 30 years?
RD: Beyond 30 years, I think we just keep doing what we do. When we hit our 10-year anniversary, we didn't stop and say, 'Well, what do you want to do now?' It will just keep going and going.
KO: Who would leave? Who ever would leave?