The Radio Disney of 1996 is vastly different from the Radio Disney of today. “It was a very kid-focused radio station,” Sean Cocchia, senior vice president and general manager, Radio Disney, says of the station’s early days. “So when you turned on Radio Disney back then, you would’ve heard deejays talking about being in a tree house, you would have heard a lot of songs like the ‘Cha Cha Slide’ and the ‘Hamster Dance,’ you would have heard a lot of chipmunks. A lot of chipmunks. It was a very niche opportunity.”
Since then, the station has become more contemporary, more kid directed, more family focused. “The team took a step back and took a look at what Disney Channel was doing by creating contemporary music for the audience, music that kids were watching and listening to on Disney Channel with their parents,” says Sean. “When they took a look at research, they realized about half our audience is moms and parents. If you think about the Radio Disney experience, it’s in the car with mom on the way to school or on the way to practice. So if you look at the playlist now for Radio Disney, it is comparable to a Top 40 radio station like KIIS-FM. The only difference is that everything that we play would be appropriate for Disney standards. Mom feels safe about it.”
The station has also transformed with its ever-evolving audience. “I think the one big change we’ve seen over the last three years in particular with Radio Disney is we have branched out and embraced a lot of new technology, a lot of the new ways that people consume content,” Sean explains. “We still have our 32 stations that drive a significant amount of our listenership, but in addition to that, we now have a Facebook page that has more than 50,000 fans. We have a Radio Disney app on iTunes and on Android that has two million installed. You can listen to the stream, see all the local events that are happening in your area—about 5,000 local events a year across our 32 stations.”
Taking a page from Disney Channel’s playbook, Radio Disney’s programming team also now creates original content like My Dream, a daily series that introduced serialized one-act radio plays to a new generation. Some of the most popular original programs are also often featured on Disney Channel and Disney.com including Total Access and NBT (Next Big Thing), a daily multiplatform program that puts the spotlight on young, unsigned artists, giving them national broadcast and online exposure. “It is our first kids-focused talent show, and every year it’s gotten bigger and bigger,” Sean says of NBT. “Before the (season) actually starts on October 16 on Disney Channel, we’re doing a summer-long series of concerts and events to really drive awareness of our five acts. We’ll go all through the fall with our contest and then choose the winner in early December.”
On Friday afternoon of the 2011 D23 Expo, the NBT Season 4 contestants—Zach Montana, Ladina Spence, Shealeigh, Tay Barton, and the band Hollywood Ending—took the stage at the Disney Channel Pavilion to give guests a sneak peek of what to expect this fall. Each artist performed two songs for a crowd filled with enthusiastic listeners of all ages. Also in the Disney Channel Pavilion, guests were invited to upbeat dance parties held each day during the Expo. Dressed in red and full of pep, the Radio Disney Road Crew taught the audience dances, invited them to sing along, and passed out prizes to those who correctly answered trivia questions.
Ernest Martinez, known to Radio Disney fans by his on-air moniker “Ernie D,” has been with the station for 14 years. In his role as Radio Disney’s creative director, Ernie is responsible for the presentation of Radio Disney’s programming, which includes feature and on-air promo content. “This has been the best job I’ve ever had,” says Ernie about his tenure at the station. “It’s been really interesting just to see the changes that have gone on during the last 14 years. One thing that’s always stayed constant within Radio Disney is the fact that the adults love to listen. Even though they have kids in the car, they keep it on when the kids get out of the car. We have moms calling in to request songs that they love, too. It’s really cool to still stay true to our audience, but still change and evolve.”
Though he’s had many memorable moments throughout his career, including eating pickles with Selena Gomez and trash talking with the Jonas Brothers, Ernie’s first broadcast on Radio Disney still stands out in his mind. “My first show on the air trumps any interview that I’ve ever done and any event I’ve done, because I can remember being so nervous that day,” says Ernie with a laugh. “I remember listening back to my show after and I was like, ‘You can’t understand anything I said during the entire four-hour shift.’ Even though I had been on air in other places, that was probably my most memorable moment.”
To mark Radio Disney’s 15th anniversary, the station had a celebration in March with a lineup of stars including Selena Gomez, Willow Smith, Jordin Sparks, Greyson Chance, Cody Simpson, Ashley Tisdale, and Austin Butler, in addition to cast members from Disney Channel’s Shake it Up, Lemonade Mouth, and Good Luck Charlie. The programming team also dug into its archives and pulled fun stuff from many of the big artists over the years, including Britney Spears, Backstreet Boys, and Will Smith. One flashback song is being played each hour.
“[In the next 15 years], I think the next eventual step up is just more distribution,” Ernie muses about Radio Disney’s future. “Probably an FM signal somewhere. That would be kind of awesome. And maybe even a TV-type show. I think that would be really neat… It just depends on whether we want to do it, and if we can.”
By D23′s Sarah Smith