by Michael J. Kramer
Move over, Barney. Don't tickle me, Elmo. There is a new sound in town, and it's the sound that's made by worms. That's because "Sound of Worms" is the most requested song on WFMU's "Greasy Kid Stuff," a kids' radio program entering its third year on the metropolitan area's only free-form radio station (91.1 FM). "Greasy Kid Stuff" (Saturdays, 10am-12pm) is not only the best kids' program in the New York area, it just might be the best radio program of any sort. Quirky and original, the program is stuffed with personality--something that's often hard to find on the New York radio dial.
Over hot chocolates (note: not coffee), I spoke with Belinda Miller and Hovakim Najarian (known to most as Hova), the hosts and masterminds of "Greasy Kid Stuff," about the history of their show, and about their philosophy for putting together a kids' radio program. Belinda and Hova are both thirtyish and hiply urban, but very friendly.
"I'm very childish--I prefer to think I'm childlike--but actually I'm more childish," says Belinda. "So doing this show was very natural." Miller and Najarian began "Greasy Kid Stuff" as a one-hour program on Saturday mornings, after volunteering at the noncommercial station for eight years. "We wanted to put together a show that didn't talk down to kids" Hova explains.
Radio is all about tone, and tone is the key to "Greasy Kid Stuff." Belinda and Hova don't talk down--or up--to kids. Their show is far from the obnoxious banality of Barney-like corporate kids' programming, but it doesn't worship kids as mini-model citizens either. "Greasy Kid Stuff" is playfully ironic instead of insipidly sentimental; it is sincere without being mawkish. Belinda and Hova let kids (and a fair number of adults too) in on a secret club, with special rituals and a shared bemused attitude. "Kids are in on the irony when we play old-fashioned children's music, some of which we really like, but they'll also listen to weird punk rock," Hova notes.
In place of trite characters and saccharine music, "Greasy Kid Stuff" consists of Belinda and Hova gently teasing each other while they string together themed sets of music that, as Hova indicates, transcend musical categories. The hosts only pause from their inventive DJ'ing to play interview snippets with kids "via the magic of casette recording," to introduce "Uncle Randy's Story Minute," which traces the surreal adventures of a character named Lance, and to present the "Real Life Review" from the brother-sister team of Max and Kate (who, at 8 and 6, are a miniature Belinda-and-Hova pair).
"Greasy Kid Stuff" moves fast, and much of its richness stems from the way in which Belinda and Hova assemble sound clips and songs. A line from an interview about the world's grossest pizza segues into a warning alert announcing an upcoming gross song, followed by a punk rock song about cockroaches, which then moves into a song about wanting to drive the Zamboni machine, and, after a few more songs, ends with chickens squawking "Born to Be Wild." Part of the fun of the show is trying to read Belinda and Hova's minds to figure out what theme is guiding each set of music.
"Building the record collection was a challenge," Hova notes. "But now," Belinda interjects, "our friends, listeners, and fellow WFMU DJs send us things all the time." One of the successes of "Greasy Kid Stuff" is the mixing of old standbys with new finds. "Though our listeners really like and request a few songs," Belinda continues, "we try to keep things fresh too."
Unlike most kids' programs, you won't hear your typical cheesy Casio beats on "Greasy Kid Stuff." You might hear well-done Casio beats, but Belinda and Hova aren't afraid to play the loud guitars and screaming vocals of old rockabilly or recent punk versions of Saturday-morning cartoon theme songs also. "Most of the kids in our audience have FMU-listening parents, so they are often pretty hip musically, but our audience seems to be growing all the time," Hova explains. "We try to keep it honest, and we think kids like that." "Greasy Kid Stuff" is a youthful extension of WFMU's guiding principle of free-form radio. Belinda and Hova transform rock songs that you never thought of as kids' songs into kids' songs; they also reenergize outdated kids' music. "Kids are open to the possibilities of hearing some lovely Disney lullaby next to Shonen Knife punk rock," Belinda posits. "They like variety."
Kids also like to participate, and Belinda and Hova do an excellent job of incorporating youngsters into the show. "My favorite part of 'Greasy Kid Stuff' is doing the interviews," Belinda explains. "You really get to show off these amazingly talented, clever kids. They are so great." "That's how Max and Kate started," Hova notes. "And now, they're a part of the show every week."
Belinda and Hova take Jonathan Richman--the Lou Reedish punk turned happy guy--as their patron saint, and they follow Richman's philosophy of enjoying the simple joys of life: roller coasters, the ice cream man, sleeper cars, and imaginary dinosaurs. Many radio shows possess a certain distance, an elitism that comes from suppressing the thrill of speaking into a microphone to millions of potential listeners. But "Greasy Kid Stuff" crackles with immediacy, creativity, and a kind of homemade pleasure. Belinda and Hova don't hide that they are amazed and excited by all the radio equipment, phone calls, and wacky music at their disposal. They fumble and tumble through their two-hour broadcast like (what else?) two kids absorbed in discovery and fun.
At the end of each show, after the hard-rocking theme song, an old-fashioned voice announces, "Now beat it, you little mountebanks, back to Whimsy Town with you." It's a great way to end "Greasy Kid Stuff," which if anything, presents a kid's view of the world--sassy and brazen, but also whimsical and good-natured.