Exclusive: Radio Disney Moving Off Air to Digital

The Walt Disney Co. is looking to sell 23 more radio stations and move its Radio Disney kids programming exclusively to digital distribution.

The shift comes because young viewers have adopted satellite radio and online platforms when listening to music and other programming.

"Radio Disney will increase its investment in both digital distribution platforms and music-centric programming to optimize the network for long-term growth and to better reflect the habits of its listeners, a national audience of kids and families,” a Radio Disney spokesperson said in a statement.

The stations Disney plans to sell cover 42.2% of the country as measured by Nielsen. The biggest of the stations are in major markets including New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, Dallas, San Francisco, Boston, Atlanta Houston and Detroit.

A person familiar with the situation said Disney plans to sell the stations effective Sept. 26. The sale is expected to result in layoffs of about eight people per station.

Disney will hold onto its station in Los Angeles, KDIS-AM. The national feed of Radio Disney will originate from the station.

The company believes that getting out of the station business will allow the company to focus on programming, marketing and creating revenue producing events such as the Radio Disney Music Awards and Radio Disney’s Next Big Thing, which has featured emerging artists including Shawn Mendes, The Vamps, Becky G and Fifth Harmony.

Radio Disney has been on Sirius/XM satellite radios for 12 years. It recently signed carriage deals with Harman’s Aha Radio, Slacker and ShowMobile. Radio Disney also streams via the Watch Disney app and Radio Disney Junior is available on the Watch Disney Junior app. The company expects to sign other digital distribution agreements in the next few months.

There are about 159.8 million digital radio listeners, according to an estimate by Statista. The total is expected to hit 183.4 million by 2018. Those numbers are big enough for Disney to consider digital radio a mass medium.

According to someone who has seen the figures, Disney’s internal research finds that among Radio Disney listeners six years old and up, 37% listen to the radio via satellite, 35% listen to radio via the Internet and 31% listen using mobile devices. By comparison, just 18% listen to radio via AM and FM broadcast.

Disney has been packaging Radio Disney with its TV and online properties for advertisers. This year, the Radio Disney Music Awards was televised on the Disney Channel. The telecast was seen by 3.2 million viewers and dominated the younger demographic ratings. It beat other music award shows including the MTV Video Music Awards, Billboard Music Awards among kids 2-11, kids 6-11 and tweens 9-14. It topped the Grammys with kids and tied with tweens.

Disney has been divesting radio assets for years.

In 2010 it sold six AM stations and one FM station that had been part of the Radio Disney Network. In 2013, it sold another seven stations in markets including Kansas City and Milwaukee.

In 2006, Disney sold the ABC radio network and 22 stations to Citadel broadcasting for $2.7 billion.

Disney still operates ESPN Radio, which owns stations in New York, Los Angeles and Chicago and has 500 terrestrial affiliates.

Jon Lafayette

Jon has been business editor of Broadcasting+Cable since 2010. He focuses on revenue-generating activities, including advertising and distribution, as well as executive intrigue and merger and acquisition activity. Just about any story is fair game, if a dollar sign can make its way into the article. Before B+C, Jon covered the industry for TVWeek, Cable World, Electronic Media, Advertising Age and The New York Post. A native New Yorker, Jon is hiding in plain sight in the suburbs of Chicago.