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JOEY AND FRED'S FOOTSTEPS 

Keeping the kids in mind

Here's a trivia question for you, and the answer is not a VIP from Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools: who visits 150 schools a year and puts out a positive message wherever he goes?In the lost tradition of famous former local kids' TV hosts, WJZY/WWWB's Jeff Johnson follows in the footsteps of the personalities that Charlotte-area boomers grew up with, namely Joey the Clown and Fred Kirby. Problem is, Johnson doesn't host an actual show, but he does front those stations' multimedia community project, called STV (Student Television, for short). He's upbeat, and doesn't mind putting on a silly get-up to make kids laugh. I'll get to back to him in a minute.

First you have to understand why local kids' TV shows are a thing of the past, namely the wholesale industry changes since the heyday of kids' shows in the 50s, 60s and 70s.

"I think that if you go back 20 or 25 years ago before cable, all stations did children's programming. Then independent stations came along, and that's where cartoons and kids shows migrated," says Will Davis, general manager of WJZY/WWWB. "Just like radio, cable is a world of specialization, and it's tightly formatted. Commercial stations these days have given it up, and do the minimum kids' programming the FCC asks them to do." Thus, we have the success of channels like Nickelodeon, Disney, and Noggin.

"Children's programming is where we try to shine," Jeff Johnson says. "In 11 years, things have changed, but it's rewarding because it works. I'm blessed to meet kids, teachers, and parents."

Along with the appearances Johnson makes each year in 26 school systems, coordinating producer Dan Kerby creates educational vignettes and public service announcements. Messages highlight getting a good education, character, as well as gathering members for the "Club STV" website.

"We've learned that we can be more effective when we include kids and parents in the messages we put out there. If you can believe it, I run into parents who were eighth-graders when STV got started who say they remember me from back then!"

On the business end of things, Club STV membership could translate into viewership. "The WB and UPN cater to 12-to-24 year-olds, so it's probably a natural progression," says Davis. Club STV has a current database of 110,000 people, both children and their parents.

What does Johnson say to the constant criticism of kids' TV, and the fact that kids watch too much of it?

"We even address that in the messages we put out. I try to get them to understand that you control what you watch and when you watch. I just think you have to accept that kids are going to watch TV, so it's up to us to put some positive messages out there."

Fred and Joey would be proud.

Only the courts can decide what will happen in the Stratton child custody case, not WBT-AM, but given the overkill on the topic by the station's three main talk shows, it's hard to remember that fact. In case you don't know the story, the county DSS removed Jack and Kathy Stratton's 10 children from their cramped home almost a year ago, citing lack of food, heat, and medical care as some of the reasons for doing so. That's public record, and that's practically all reporters and the public ever know about such cases. By law, case information is confidential.

Bringing the case before the public has been a good thing, because it has stirred debate about the touchy topic of parental rights and how the county goes about keeping families together, or in this case, why DSS decides to take kids out of a home and into foster care.

But The Rhinoceros Times' and WBT-AM's one-sided coverage, given the confidential details of the case the public cannot know, has not always been a good thing. WBT-AM's approach, "covering" the story with a mix of actual reporting and song parodies poking county commissioner Parks Helms, blurs the line between talk and hard news, and strains credibility. There's journalism, and then there's taking a topic and making it a cause celebre all day long, which smells more like marketing.

Jack Stratton, who decided to try his family's case in the media, has gotten more ink and air than even he probably expected, but as a father trying to get back his kids, well, that can be effective in America these days.

AND ANOTHER THING ... Sorry to see weekend morning news gone from WBTV in favor of more money-making fare.Steve Hardig has joined Fox18 as main anchorman, replacing Andy Dominianni, who went to Minneapolis. Also, the Columbia, SC, newscast WCCB is producing and broadcasting at its studios here is no ratings winner. In November Nielsens in Columbia, the WOLO-TV newscast did a 1 rating, down from a 3 in November 2001.

Speaking of WCCB, wonder if it will be in the hunt, as the TV contract for the Carolina Panthers winds down? WSOC-TV had the deal the last go-round, but TV games are on Fox.

Shannon ran studio camera for Raleigh's local kids' TV show, Uncle Paul, while still a toddler. Questions or story ideas? E-mail at Shannon.Reichley@cln.com

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