As an attorney for 3M, it's no surprise that Bill Childs has books on tort and product liability in the basement office of his St. Paul home.
He also has some gear not normally used to practice law: high-end radio station quality microphones with windscreens, a processor, mixer and hundreds of music CDs.
On a recent Sunday afternoon, McKnight Fellowship recipient Siama Matuzungidi and his wife, Dallas Matuzungidi Johnson, sat before the microphones in Childs' basement. Childs recorded them singing soukous-style dance music and Matuzungidi talking about his journey from performing in bars in the Congo to becoming a children's musician in Minnesota.
Later that day, Louis & Dan and the Invisible Band dropped in. Louis Epstein (a music professor at St. Olaf College) and Dan Groll (a philosophy professor at Carleton College) sang a bolero-beat song about rodents. That was followed by St. Olaf choir conductor Tesfa Wondemagegnehu singing a tribute to barbecue.
You can hear what it all sounded like by tuning into an upcoming show of "Spare the Rock, Spoil the Child." That's the syndicated weekly radio show for kids and their grownups that Childs has hosted for nearly 17 years.
The show, billed as "indie music for indie kids," can be heard on about a dozen stations around the country. Childs' goal is to avoid a "kids will listen to anything" assumption in presenting music for children.
Instead, he aims to find the best of music aimed at kids by artists like Dan Zanes, Elizabeth Mitchell, Lunch Money, Pierce Freelon, Secret Agent 23 Skidoo and They Might Be Giants. He mixes that in with kid-friendly tracks from adult music greats like Ella Fitzgerald, Brian Eno, Elvis Costello or Earth, Wind & Fire.
Radio on the move
"Spare the Rock" got its start in August 2005, when Childs was a law school professor in western Massachusetts. He saw a flier from a 500-watt nonprofit community radio station, Valley Free Radio in Northampton, that was looking for volunteer hosts.
Childs had worked for the student radio station when he was at Macalester College. He liked music. His daughter, Ella, was 5 at the time, and he was inspired by a New York Times Magazine article about music for kids, music that was diverse, complex and not condescending.
So he created a two-hour show geared for kids that initially aired live on Saturday mornings on the neighborhood radio station. Ella Childs, now 23 and in graduate school, remembers walking over to the station with her dad pulling a wagon full of CDs for the show.
"I liked hanging out with my dad. I liked listening to music," she said. Younger brother Liam, now a student at Macalester, also helped Childs host the show, which was later aired by a commercial radio station, WRSI, in Northampton.
When the family moved to Austin, Texas, Childs kept doing the show, recording it at home in a broadcast-quality home studio. It evolved into a one-hour weekly live-to-tape program, syndicated to radio stations around the country.
KUTX Austin eventually became the flagship station for "Spare the Rock," which continued after the family moved to Minnesota in 2020 when Childs took a job with 3M. Locally, it can be heard on WFNU-LP Frogtown Community Radio in St. Paul and The Current's Rock the Cradle streaming radio for kids. It can also be streamed on demand at sparetherock.com.
"I'm still having fun with it," Childs said. "Seventeen years. It's the longest I've done anything."
Raising radio nerds
Ella Childs said the show aired music from the perspective of kids, exploring everything from social issues like bullying, to songs about bugs and everything in between. There are also regular in-studio appearances of local and touring kid acts, from the Okee Dokee Brothers to Todd 'n' Tina, sometimes performing in Childs' basement studio and sometimes giving a mini concert in his backyard.
"This is a really well-loved and lauded program that we've been hearing about for years," said Dallas Matuzungidi Johnson. "He has a great reputation in the industry."
The rock band They Might Be Giants was even inspired to write a sort of theme song for the show: "It's Spare the Rock with Bill and Ella. It's Spare the Rock, and sometimes Liam. ... "
In addition to being a radio DJ, Childs has become a sort of kids' music impresario. He hosted and coproduced KindieFest, a family music conference and festival in Brooklyn, and a family music and book festival in Northampton, the River's Family Music Meltdown and Book Bash.
He also started a record label, Spare the Rock Records, which has released four benefit albums, resulting in donations of more than $200,000 for causes including Haitian earthquake relief and LGBTQ youth work.
The albums produced by the label include "Science Fair," which features females performing tracks with references to phytoplankton, Madame Curie and Heisenberg's uncertainty principle, promoting science for girls. Childs has also produced tribute albums featuring the music of Woody Guthrie and David Bowie.
With nearly 900 shows under his belt, Childs, 51, has seen the diversity of kids music grow, with more artists of different backgrounds and a range of genres from hip-hop to jazz. He makes an effort to reflect that in the show.
"It is good radio, period, not just good-for-kids," according to Childs. "We're radio nerds, and we want to raise another generation of radio nerds."