#BigThingsThursday is a weekly series of short interviews with people who are doing big things for the community and for the world. If you know someone who's doing big things and should be featured, let me know: BigThings@LucyKalantari.com.
Meet Kathy O'Connell: A force of nature and the energetic zest that delivers Kids Corner–the award-winning, live-broadcast radio show on WXPN, Philadelphia. Not only have I gotten the pleasure of meeting Kathy and spending time with her, but I also had the honor of being introduced by her on stage TWICE in the same year. Something that stood out to me was, not just the beautiful introduction that made me want to carry a portable Kathy in my pocket for all future shows, but the realization that when Kathy listens to music, she really listens. She treats each song like a best friend, learning all the ins and outs of what makes them tick. She "gets" it. She got me. But we just met! How'd she do that?
And this is just one of the many great gifts Kathy shares with the world.
Being a radio personality brings great power. And as we know, with great power comes great responsibility, and Kathy respects this responsibility while honoring her gifts and talents. She warned me that her answers were long, and I'd like to mention that I'd be more than happy to read an entire book about her!
Q. BIG THINGS begin with an intention, what is yours?
A. Never has a life felt so little guided by intention. I usually just kind of fall into things or react to things that fall on me.
The Marshall Chapman song “Why Can’t I Be Like Other Girls?” ends with the question “whoever told you you could be you?!” I believe kids know who they are pretty early. It’s the baggage life piles on that distract them from that core. My intention is to be the one who lets kids know “you can be you.” Where they take that becomes up to them, eventually.
My other intention is where my deficiencies as a role model arise: to make people laugh. I am the product of Carol Burnett and Soupy Sales. Working with kids in 2017 means there’s an extra responsibility to toss in some education to the entertainment, but I truly believe anyone who gets up in front of an audience has to have one intention: to entertain. I happen to do it best by being funny. I also get in trouble sometimes by being funny.
Q. How are you fulfilling this intention?
A. I have a big mouth. I have always had a big mouth. My mother used to stand at the back door watching me walk home from the bus stop, talking to myself. I am in the most personal medium there is. One person talking to another person through a microphone, yet still talking to myself.
I am a very imperfect and unworthy role model, but I’m a great pointer. I point at science, history, books, nature, humanity…a wide variety of subjects that may reverberate with my listeners. My hope is to point at something or someone that will echo in the long term beyond a one hour radio program or interview.
I also point to kindie music by playing songs that express the concepts of tolerance, acceptance and individuality that are so important to me. And sometimes playing other people’s songs has gotten me into trouble.
Q. What barriers have you encountered, and how have you dealt with them?
A. My biggest barrier has been closed minds. Kids’ media is not a high priority until you need it, so opening minds to both the idea of radio, public radio, and public radio for KIDS has been a big challenge.
Closed minds take on another form, and that's where that big mouth of mine comes in. I play songs about boys who wear pink and play with dolls. I play songs about families with all kinds of combinations of parents. I play songs that celebrate historical rabble rousers. And sometimes---but not often---I’ll get a complaint.
I pretty much knew who I was when I was 10 years old and lip-synched Carol Burnett records in talent shows. I got sidetracked by real life for a long time, but radio brought me back to that kid. That was where I learned I could be me. Falling into radio for kids has empowered 10 year old Kathy while I hope I’m helping empower my listeners.
The biggest barrier is that kids’ radio is a very small slice of the small world of kids’ entertainment. And yet it’s the most powerful entertainment force in the long run.
I am who I am because I turned on the TV one day in 1964 and discovered Soupy Sales. He’s the reason I have 2 Peabody Awards and anyone cares what I have to say. He took an approach to talking to kids that made me who I am.
Anyone working in either public broadcasting or kids’ media faces financial barriers. Finding solid financial support from WXPN’s listeners and community partners has been essential in addressing that barrier. [Editor's note: Donate to WXPN, right here!]
Extra: Share a favorite quote that keeps you motivated.
“It ain’t no mystery. If it’s science or history. The thing you gotta know is everything is show biz.” –Mel Brooks “The Producers” (the musical) sung by Roger De Bris
Thank you, Kathy, for your tireless efforts to remind kids that they can indeed be themselves. And thank you for your humor, understanding, attention and love in all you do. We all love you so much!
Join Kathy on Kids Corner Live, Monday through Thursdays 7-8pm. http://kidscorner.org