WASHINGTON is something of a hotbed for children's radio programming: there's Children's Radio Theatre and Joyce Hill's "Can You Imagine?" (both broadcast on WPFW). Today at 4 p.m., a new 13-part radio series, "Songs Jumping in My Mouth," kicks off on WETA-FM 90.9. A 30-minute family program directed at 6- to 10-year-olds--and drawn out of extensive workshops held in area schools--"Songs" brings together elements of cross-cultural storytelling, family folklore, music, history and language. Loosely thematic programs are built on the voices and imaginative tales of hundreds of children, with a wonderful trio of animal characters to serve as guides, instigators and narrators.
"Songs" is the latest project of Washingtonian Pamela Brooke, who worked for many years in the D.C. Schools Radio Project; her recordings of city kids resulted in seven Ohio State Awards and a Peabody Award for her innovative children's productions. " 'Songs' came from that work," she says. "I met an 8-year-old child in 1968 who said that music tasted like songs jumping in his mouth; I carried that image around and wanted to make it into a series." When she left the school system in 1975, Brooke "contacted WETA and every other radio station in the area, but nobody was interested in children's programming then."
WETA finally did call in 1978, and Brooke began a long round of fund-raising (nine months getting an NEH grant, another year raising matching funds through the B. Dalton Bookseller and National Public Radio's Satellite Development Fund). She also spent a year in Africa working with Kenyan children, which helped shape her concept of "blending environment and the spontaneous comment of kids into a highly produced 16-track program. Nobody else has done that, they just haven't had the time or staff." Africa also suggested one of the three animal characters: Hootenanny Granny, the 309-year-old owl who always wants to know "whooooo, what, where and most important why." She's joined by Ndovu, an escaped zoo elephant, and Fe-Fy-Fly, an international spy who captures children on his miniature tape recorder.
"Fly and his tape recorder solved a problem I'd had over 10 years of broadcasting," Brooke says. "If you jump themes and stories around and have narration but don't actually have the narrator go out, you're montaging, constantly breaking up the sense of what's going on in the program. If you do everything just children montaged together, then you're not relating it back to content. And if you're funded by my funders, you'd better relate it back to content."
Though Brooke always had avoided working with animal characters, "Fe-Fy-Fly solved that problem because he goes out with his tape recorder and spies on kids: so now I can go out in the field and bring back anything and still have it integrated to the sense of place that I'm trying to establish. History was something else I didn't know how to integrate without being preachy, and that's where Hootenanny Granny came in. You can expand time and space through those animal characters and I began to do that."
Work on the series finally got under way in October 1981. "We sent out letters to the schools and got back boxes and boxes of original writing, thousands of pieces, to help us select kids for the workshops. Then there was another breakdown from the workshops to get kids to come do things in the studio." Because studios can sometimes intimidate, Brooke and her crew (Bonnie Schwartz, Michelle Ward and Janice Sonkin Newman) went back into the schools with a portable tape unit and "got kids right on floor, that's the only place we could get the really spontaneous stuff." Altogether, there were 26 content workshops with more than 600 interviews and tapings.
The scripts reflect the experiences and fantasies of many children, as well as long hours spent at a Library of Congress desk poring over 500 children's books, "pulling out elements that would be most fun to work with and not relying on stock stererotypes." "Songs," produced at WETA, also features contributions from Barry Louis Polisar and Michelle Valeri, two popular local singers who work in school programs, and the Urban Chorus from Howard University's Children's Theatre. It will be hosted by Kelly C. Smith, a 13-year-old from Hyde Middle School, and 18-year-old Yeardly Smith, a performer at Arena Stage.
With "Songs," scheduled for national distributuion in October, there already are backup study guides and write-in contests, some of which include kids drawing the animal characters ("the whole idea is it's the kids' animal and it should be left to their imagination"). And after years of close encounters with the fervent imagination of children, Brooke still finds it "incredible. That's why I stick with it. That imagination is constantly renewing, and you never reach a bottom point."