Sawyer Lester with his father Andrew.

Sawyer Lester with his father Andrew. Credit: Courtesy of Traci Lester

Sawyer Lester was seven years old when he first called radio host Jack Forman, who was hosting a program called Live from the Monkey House on Sirius XM’s Kids Place Live.

“How long have you been listening?” Forman asked Sawyer, who lives in Centereach.

“My whole life,” Sawyer said.

Forman called Sawyer a “long time listener, first time caller,” before playing an interactive conversation game called “Grocery Grab,” in which the cat-loving Sawyer sped through an imaginary store to find four favorite items: cat box litter, chocolate chip donuts, barbecue Pringles and cat treats.

It was a magical tour of Sawyer’s imagination, with encouragement from Forman.

For 11 years, Forman bantered and played games with thousands of kids — until last week, when he and fellow Kids Place Live host Kenny Curtis lost their jobs, two of 160 jobs Sirius XM eliminated. While Kids Place Live as a channel still exists, both hosts’ shows were canceled.

It came without warning for Forman, Curtis and their kid listeners who saw the two as friends or family. There wasn’t even a chance to say goodbye.

“We miss Kenny and Jack and we want them to come back,” Sawyer, now 11, said. “Kids radio is important. It helps kids interact with other people and it makes me feel happy . . . The show is just gone. That doesn’t make any sense.”

Sirius XM made a business decision that may have made business sense, even if it makes no sense to kids like Sawyer. But it comes at those kids’ peril.

As a radio station with live call-in shows for kids, Kids Place Live was a rare gem, an old-style form of children’s entertainment. Forman played hundreds of games with listeners; Curtis ran an “Animal Farm” where kids could talk to animals, voiced by him, including Lorenzo, a llama who didn’t like to be touched, and Dirk, “the fourth and forgotten chipmunk.” (Think Alvin, Simon and Theodore.) They found extraordinary ways to make kids use their imaginations, tell stories, deal with difficult situations, and giggle — a lot.

That stays with kids.

As too many spend too much time staring at screens, as we rightly worry about their mental health, our children need every opportunity to converse, share, imagine and grow.

Kids Place Live “was about celebrating playfulness and modeling creativity and modeling how to talk to kids in a way that doesn’t talk down to them, how to respect kids as full and equal partners,” said Forman, a former teacher. “Childhood is such an important time — and kids get overlooked.”

Sawyer and his parents, Traci and Andrew, listened to Kids Place Live together, even using it as fodder for dinner table conversation.

“It spurs fantastic moments of family time that you’re not getting otherwise,” Traci Lester said. “It gives him a sense of confidence, a sense that there are other kids out there who are just like him.”

Now, Kids Place Live has just one live show remaining — the wonderful kid-friendly “Absolutely Mindy.” Beyond that is an enormous hole filled by computer-chosen music. Parents and kids are protesting; whether anything changes remains to be seen.

Previous generations of kids mourned the on-air departures of television personalities like Captain Kangaroo and Reading Rainbow’s LeVar Burton, although they often lived on in reruns, or other programs filled the void. This hole seems harder to fill, but Forman is already making plans for an interactive kid-oriented podcast. We owe it to kids like Sawyer to try.


 COLUMNIST RANDI F. MARSHALL’S opinions are her own.

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