When I was 11, I had two things going for me. One, I looked like Daniel Radcliffe’s Harry Potter, a nice coincidence for a kid in 2001. And two, I had the dial-in for Radio Disney memorized like the operator was an emergency contact. I was instead, of course, reaching an intern manning calls for a children’s pop station that pandered to young girls and closeted gays. My fingers would fly across the dial pad, connecting me to cheerful DJs who would listen thoughtfully to my prepubescent song requests and contest guesses; once, I won a signed Tony Hawk skateboard from them, promptly hung up, and began crying once my mom asked me if I’d given them my contact information (I hadn’t).
I found myself able to instantly summon that phone number last week when the news broke that the Walt Disney Company planned to shutter the 24-year-old station in early 2021 as part of pandemic-induced cutbacks and layoffs. For me and many other marginalized weirdos and LGBTQ loners in the late ’90s, Radio Disney wasn’t just an AM station, it was a respite from the kids at school who told me my choices were wrong, lame, gay. Radio Disney didn’t question my taste — if anything, it molded and affirmed it. Maybe it’s weird to consider a corporate radio station whose calling card was “pop music, but for kids” an early ally against those who pointed out my “otherness.” But I didn’t want to play baseball or sneak beer into school dances like my classmates; I wanted to secretly rank the A*Teens by hotness while unironically listening to Mandy Moore’s “Crush,” pretending I was the song’s protagonist. For all the ostracized kids out there, Radio Disney made that fantasy feel like a perfectly acceptable reality.
It started when my parents bought me Radio Disney Jams 4, a compilation stuffed with hits (“Blue” by Eiffel 65) and flops (Plus One’s “Last Flight Out,”) and the mononymous (Kaci’s cover of the Partridge Family’s “I Think I Love You”) alike. The CD quickly joined my “MMMBop,” No Strings Attached, and Oops!… I Did It Again cassettes in back-and-forth trades with my best friend, the only other (closeted) gay boy in my class. After he switched schools, we’d spend hours on the phone dissecting the artists the other had discovered on Radio Disney that week, from Aaron Carter to S Club 7. We’d pretend to have crushes on female singers we really just wanted to be; we’d discuss ad nauseam the merits of teen idols like Nick Carter and Jesse McCartney without admitting our real crushes on them.
Even then, I knew that I liked boys. Instead of admitting it to myself, I buried the feeling and begged it away. For the few hours a day I’d turn Radio Disney on, though, I didn’t have to feel weird. When other boys called in to request songs I loved, I lit up. When girls told the DJs about their crushes that month, I secretly agreed. Separated only by airwaves, I found an early chosen family in our shared fandom. Radio Disney gave me a language, one rooted in pop and the people who loved it, that I still speak fluently. For someone unwilling to vocalize his truth, it worked like a code: “Do you listen to Radio Disney?” meant you were safe to be vulnerable around. It worked like a preteen shorthand for “friend of Dorothy” when I’d meet new people at summer camp or sleepovers. It meant safety and strength in numbers; it didn’t always mean queer, but it meant “my people.” Other kids could spend their time talking about who beat who in team sports and who went to what base with who in the park down the street from our Catholic school; I was too busy bonding with fellow “Radio Disney listeners” over the Backstreet Boys and Britney’s “rivalry” with Christina to notice.
I stopped listening regularly when I started high school. I was 13, commuting to an all-boys school in Manhattan, and the lid was still firmly bolted on my sexual orientation. To fit in, I left pop music in the suburbs, trading it for pretentious indie bands whose songs I couldn’t now pick out of a lineup. But I never kicked the habit, scouring pop music blogs and pirating leaked Leighton Meester covers, sharing my secret with only a close few who knew my code (nearly all of whom came out years later).
To this day, I don’t feel any guilt in my pleasures because Radio Disney taught the young, closeted me that everything I liked was valid and shared by others like me out there, even if I wouldn’t find them until years later. In listening, I knew I fit in somewhere; in the language we shared, I learned I wasn’t alone.