Interview: Rebecca Sheir (WBUR's Circle Round)

CircleRoundLogo.jpg

A sign of the health of kids' podcasting is that big names are launching well-produced shows with lots of lead time to generate interest.  Case in point: Boston's NPR station WBUR launched the storytelling podcast Circle Round this summer with a pilot featuring Jason Alexander, with promises of more episodes this fall.  That is a positive development, especially when the story featuring Jason Alexander is every bit as entertaining as you might expect a story featuring Jason Alexander would be.

Well, fall is approaching, and next Tuesday the 19th the Circle Round podcast officially launches, with a parade of well-known names and voices (including Kathryn Hahn, Lou Diamond Phillips, and Sela Ward, among others) set to appear on the show in the weeks ahead.

The two people responsible for getting the show into your families' earbuds are Rebecca Sheir and Eric Shimelonis.  Sheir has been a public radio reporter and host while Shimelonis is a composer and musician.  Together, their talents align quite nicely if you want to put together a podcast featuring richly-produced retellings of folktales from around the world.

In advance of the show's official launch next Tuesday, Sheir answered questions about her own storytelling and radio-producing background, how Circle Round came to be, and what's in the show's future.


Zooglobble: What are your memories of storytelling growing up?  Were there particular storytellers -- either those you knew personally or those you knew only by voice -- that were particularly memorable?

Rebecca Sheir: Eric Shimelonis and I have always been crazy about a good story. We both had the fabulous fortune of growing up in households where the bookcases were full to bursting!

As a youngster, among my favorite storytellers was the gloriumptious Roald Dahl; the phizz-whizzing way he squibbles with language has always made me feel positively hopscotchy. And in terms of particular books by storytellers, my copy of Norton Juster’s The Phantom Tollbooth racked up a whole lot of mileage during my childhood, as did Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs by Judi and Ron Barrett. Eric and I have been reading the Barretts’ brilliant creation to our toddler since he was a baby - my exact copy from childhood, in fact, which is equal parts dog-eared and well-loved.

How did you get interested in radio production?

I came to it first; Eric serendipitously followed. It all began when I stumbled into the public-radio realm as a graduate student; I was working toward an MFA in Creative Nonfiction at the University of Iowa. While I’d been listening to NPR since my parents would blast Car Talk and Whad’ya Know? en route to my Saturday morning acting classes, I’d never thought about working in that arena.

But I got friendly with the folks at Iowa Public Radio and began writing radio essays and reporting feature stories. I loved how it combined many of my favorite things. I got to play with language, I got to stretch my acting muscles, and the whole writing/editing process brings in elements from the worlds of music and film: you need to think about things like rhythm, pacing and painting a mental picture for your listeners.

Fast-forward a decade or so, and I met Eric: a composer and sound designer in film and theater. At the time I was hosting a weekly public-affairs program for WAMU (the National Capital Region’s NPR station), and it wasn’t long before we were collaborating. Any time I needed original music for the show, he was my go-to guy!

What was the genesis of Circle Round (i.e., did you pitch the show, or did WBUR come to you with the idea)?

I’ve known Jessica Alpert, a phenomenal producer at WBUR (Boston’s NPR station), for many years now. When she learned that Eric and I had launched our own audio-production company, Sheir and Shim LLC -- and that we’d relocated from Washington, D.C., to the Berkshires, not far from Boston -- she told us about a long-held dream she had. She wanted to make WBUR’s first-ever child-focused program, a storytelling podcast that would take on a kind of radio-play style: i.e. there’d be an engaging host, dramatic scripts, gifted actors, and top-notch sound design and original music. She asked whether we’d produce a pilot episode. We all collaborated on that episode -- nabbing the amazing Jason Alexander to play our lead -- and the rest is history!

How long has it taken to get the show off the ground?

The whole thing has happened blissfully fast! Jessica called us up this past winter. We released the pilot at the start of summer, and will officially launch the show... once the school year is in full swing.

How do you select the stories you’ll use on the show?

There’s an endless number of fantastic folktales out there, so luckily we have plenty to choose from! When selecting which tales we’ll adapt for our listeners, we want to ensure there’s enough of a story arc to sustain a 15-minute podcast; when we go to a break in the middle of the show (what we call “midroll” in the podcast world), we need to leave our listeners teetering at the edge of a dramatic cliff. We also want to make sure our stories come from countries and cultures all over the globe, and that they help our listeners come to some sort of new discovery or realization about the world... and about themselves!

How are you selecting the performers?  Are you finding it easy to get well-known actors like Jason Alexander to participate?

We’re lucky to have Amy Lippens, C.S.A., on our team; she’s the one coordinating our big-name actors from stage and screen. Performers have been very excited about this opportunity; it’s not often that you get to hearken back to the good old days of radio plays and portray a fairy, king, giant or dragon in the process!

Very roughly, how many hours of work does it take to put together a single 15-20-minute episode?

The amount of labor (it’s hard for us to call it “work,” since it’s so much fun!) varies per episode. We spend a lot of time poring through folktale books, to find the ideal stories to turn into Circle Round episodes. Once we’ve selected a tale, we’ll spend a few days adapting it: fleshing out characters, bulking up visual descriptions, considering sound-design possibilities, and punching up the language to make it as attention-grabbing -- and attention-holding -- as possible.

From there, we go through the character list and consider who might be a strong fit for each role. Casting director Amy Lippens and executive producer Jessica Alpert take care of recording our big-name actors. Because Eric spent so many years composing music and designing sound for theater -- and because I spent so many years covering theater as a public-radio reporter -- he and I have an extensive network of performers, theaters and theater companies we can all upon.

After all the actors have recorded their lines, Eric starts working his magic. He reads each script carefully, and finds ways to add depth and texture to certain moments through sound effects and music. And fun fact: in addition to composing all the music, Eric also plays nearly every instrument you hear on each episode of Circle Round! So for a few days, our home studio is full of the wonderful sound of music.

How many episodes have you already finished, and how many episodes do you have planned for the first season (assuming you’re breaking this up into seasons)?

We have a total of thirty episodes planned for this first season. We’re also planning some live events, where audiences will get to watch a story unfold in front of them - replete with live musicians and actors, right there on stage!

What are your goals for the show?

It’s the mission of public radio to tell stories, so our main goal with Circle Round is to inspire younger listeners to build and develop that same love of storytelling. At the same time, we’re seeking to create an experience that’s entertaining for adults; we often call Circle Round a podcast “for kids and the grown-ups they love.”

At the end of our episodes we invite our audience to take part in some sort of activity -- telling a story, creating a dramatic scene, drawing a picture -- that reflects on the themes in the tale they just heard. We invite them to share their story, scene, picture, etc., with someone they love: a family member, a friend. So another goal is to spark dialogue, and provide a way for children to make connections with others, as they delve into virtues and themes that have been shared around the world, throughout history - from kindness and generosity, to persistence and perspective.

A Postnoceros About the Rocknoceros Podnoceros

Rocknoceros: Boogie Woogie Bennie, Coach Cotton, and Williebob

Rocknoceros: Boogie Woogie Bennie, Coach Cotton, and Williebob

(Pretty sure nobody's typed that before.)

I was happy to find out that DC-area kindie rockers Rocknoceros have stepped in the paths of Andrew and Polly and the Sugarcrash Kids and... hey, wait, why haven't there been more kids musicians who've tackled the podcast medium?  I know of at least one more in the works, but, still, there should be more.

So, yay for Rocknoceros, who have started their own podcast called the Rocknoceros Podnoceros.  Just one episode released so far, a celebration of all things summertime (a topic broad enough to cover both ice cream trucks and hydration and sweating).

Coach Cotton -- lead singer (usually) and the guy with the whistle in the picture above -- says that they're hoping that the podcast is a "broad platform through which [they] can find the 'thing' that excites... an audience."  He cites the enthusiasm of bandmate Boogie Woogie Bennie (their multi-instrumentalist) for podcasts as being contagious for the rest of the band.  They're hoping to educate and entertain, and hopefully read a wider audience, too.

And once you've had enough of summer, the next episode -- they hope to publish monthly -- will be a large topical shift -- it's all about Alaska!

Anyway, having listened to the first episode, I think if you've got kids between the ages of 4 and 8 -- in other words, Rockno's core audience demographic -- it's worth giving it a listen.  You can subscribe in iTunes here or listen below...

And if you just want to groove to new Rockno tunes, check out "Summertime" below...

Top Kids and Family Podcasts (August 2017)

It's been about three weeks since the last time I looked at ranking podcasts for kids, and things are looking good for kids' podcasting.  (For those of you interested, here is July's list of top-ranked kids and family podcasts.)

If you're looking for a podcast for kids, you could -- and should! -- of course look at my list of podcasts for kids (now above 115!), but if that's a bit overwhelming, try the podcasts listed below.   Popularity isn't always synonymous with quality, but you could do much worse than dipping into the shows ranked below to start out.

August's ranked list is one less than July's list -- 16 ranked shows -- and 3 down from the all-time high of 19 in June.  (That means 16 shows that appeared in the top 100 of both the iTunes and Stitcher "kids and family" charts.)  The total number of podcasts listed below is 36, however, up 1 from last month and a new record.  A total of 4 podcasts below hit the overall iTunes Top 200 (same as July's total), while in the Top 200 Kids & Family chart on iTunes, the total of 45 was up 6 (!) from July and beat June's record by 3 shows.  The Stitcher total of 21 is down (6) from last month, however.

As always: this is a blunt instrument, combining pure rankings from two fairly opaque charts, and for a variety of reasons has only marginal value as a measure of quality.  (Results compiled from Top 100 podcasts on United States iTunes and Stitcher "kids and family" charts on Thursday, August 17, 2017.  Podcasts that appear on both charts are ranked below; remaining podcasts only appeared on one list.  Of special note: Dream Big appeared on iTunes' overall Top 200 and is #1 on the Kids and Family chart, but not at all on Stitcher's family list, so for that podcast at least, this list certainly underplays its popularity.)  Anyway: grain of salt noted.

Two other reminders:

1.  If you're looking for a list that has most (or all) of these podcasts, check out my comprehensive list of podcasts for kids.

2. If you're interested in the future of podcasts for kids, you might be interested in Kids Listen, a grassroots organization of podcasters and folks like me interested in helping high-quality audio for children thrive.  We're looking for other interested folks -- producers or otherwise -- to join in!

With that out of the way, let's get to the chart.

1. Wow in the World

2. Brains On!

3.  Stories Podcast

4. Storynory

5. The Unexplainable Disappearance of Mars Patel

6. Story Pirates

7. Story Time

8.  (tie)  The Alien Adventures of Finn Caspian

8. (tie) Tumble

10. Eleanor Amplified

11.  But Why?

12. Spare the Rock, Spoil the Child

13. Peace Out

14. Ear Snacks

15.  Short and Curly

16.  What If World

Others (listed alphabetically): 1001 Classic Short Stories & Tales, Activated Stories, Biddy the Duck's Bedtime Stories, Children Stories and Joyful Podcast, The Children's Corner, Children's Fun Storytime Podcast, Disney Story Central, Dream Big, Family Folk Tales, Little Stories for Tiny People, Official Adventures in Odyssey, The Past and the Curious, Podcast Kid, The Radio Adventures of Dr. Floyd, Road Trip Radio, Saturday Morning Theatre, Sparkle Stories, The Story Home, That Story Show, The Cramazingly Incredifun Sugarcrash Kids

Top Kids and Family Podcasts (July 2017)

It's been a month since the last time I looked at ranking podcasts for kids, and the increased visibility of such podcasts, if not increasing, has maintained its momentum.  (For those of you interested, here is June's list of top-ranked kids and family podcasts.)  If you're looking for a podcast for kids, you could of course look at my list of podcasts for kids (now above 100!), but if that's a bit overwhelming, try the podcasts listed below.   Popularity isn't always synonymous with quality, but you could do much worse than dipping into the shows ranked below to start out.

In terms of big developments on the content side, I'm going to go with the debut of In Sight Junior, a kid-friendly spinoff of the popular In Sight podcast.  For those of you wondering when the burgeoning true crime genre would come to kids podcasting, the answer is "July."  (Note: it's not so much true crime as it is mysteries and legends.  Really, I've listened -- totally fine for listeners age 8 or so on up.)

July's list is ever-so-slightly smaller than June's record-busting list -- there are 18 ranked shows below, as opposed to 19 in June.  (That means 18 shows that appeared in the top 100 of both the iTunes and Stitcher "kids and family" charts.)  The total number of podcasts listed below is 35, tied with June.  A total of 3 podcasts below hit the overall iTunes Top 200 (down from 4 in July), while in the Top 200 Kids & Family chart on iTunes, the total there (39) fell short of June by 3 shows.  The Stitcher total of 27 is a new record, however.

As always: this is a blunt instrument, combining pure rankings from two fairly opaque charts, and for a variety of reasons has only marginal value as a measure of quality.  (Results compiled from Top 100 podcasts on United States iTunes and Stitcher "kids and family" charts on Thursday, July 27, 2017.  Podcasts that appear on both charts are listed with numbers; remaining podcasts only appeared on one list.  Of special note: Dream Big appeared on iTunes' overall Top 200, but not at all on Stitcher's family list, so for that podcast at least, this list certainly underplays its popularity.)  Anyway: grain of salt noted.

Two other reminders:

1.  If you're looking for a list that has most (or all) of these podcasts, check out my comprehensive list of podcasts for kids.

2. If you're interested in the future of podcasts for kids, you might be interested in Kids Listen, a grassroots organization of podcasters and folks like me interested in helping high-quality audio for children thrive.  We're looking for other interested folks -- producers or otherwise -- to join in!

With that out of the way, let's get to the chart.

1. Wow in the World

2. Stories Podcast

3.  Brains On!

4. Storynory

5. (tie)  The Unexplainable Disappearance of Mars Patel

5.  (tie)  The Alien Adventures of Finn Caspian

7. Story Pirates

8. Tumble

9. Story Time

10 . Eleanor Amplified

11. Peace Out

12. Ear Snacks

13.  Little Stories for Tiny People

14.  What If World

15.  But Why?

16. Short and Curly

17. Spare the Rock, Spoil the Child

18.  The Cramazingly Incredifun Sugarcrash Kids

Others (listed alphabetically): Activated Stories, Bedtime Stories, Biddy the Duck's Bedtime Stories, Book Club for Kids, Children's Fun Storytime Podcast, Circle Round, Disney Story Central, Dream Big, Family Folk Tales, Goop Tales Stories, In Sight Junior, Official Adventures in Odyssey, Road Trip Radio, The Radio Adventures of Dr. Floyd, Saturday Morning Theatre, Sparkle Stories, The Story Home

Top Kids and Family Podcasts (June 2017)

It's been maybe 6 weeks since the last time I looked at ranking podcasts for kids, and it feels like things are continuing to change for the better. (For those of you interested, here is May's list of top-ranked kids and family podcasts.)  If you're looking for a podcast for kids, you could of course look at my list of podcasts for kids (now above 100!), but if that's a bit overwhelming, try the podcasts listed below.   Popularity isn't always synonymous with quality, but you could do much worse than dipping into the shows ranked below to start out.

In terms of big developments on the content side, I'm going to go with the debut of Circle Round, the new storytelling podcast from public radio's WBUR in Boston.  With just one episode (a pilot with Jason Alexander), the show already cracked this list.  When the show fully debuts in the fall, I'm sure it's going to move considerably higher.

The bigger development is really the overall health of the ecosystem.  May's list set or tied records regarding the number of shows in these lists, but June's list blew way by those records.  There are 19 ranked shows below -- meaning 19 shows that appeared in the top 100 of both the iTunes and Stitcher "kids and family" charts -- just 2-3 months ago we usually only saw 10 or 11.   The total number of podcasts listed below is 35, by far a record high.  A total of 4 podcasts below hit the overall iTunes Top 200, while in the Top 200 Kids & Family chart on iTunes, the total there (42) exceeded last month's record by 9 shows.  (The Stitcher total of 25 tied the record.)  It's not clear if it's summer vacation, road trips, smart home speakers, or something else, but way more people know about kids podcasts now than did just a few months ago.

As always: this is a blunt instrument, combining pure rankings from two fairly opaque charts, and for a variety of reasons has only marginal value as a measure of quality.  (Results compiled from Top 100 podcasts on United States iTunes and Stitcher "kids and family" charts on Monday, June 26, 2017.  Podcasts that appear on both charts are listed with numbers; remaining podcasts only appeared on one list.)  So: grain of salt noted.

Two other reminders:

1.  If you're looking for a list that has most (or all) of these podcasts, check out my comprehensive list of podcasts for kids.

2. If you're interested in the future of podcasts for kids, you might be interested in Kids Listen, a grassroots organization of podcasters and folks like me interested in helping high-quality audio for children thrive.  We're looking for other interested folks -- producers or otherwise -- to join in!

With that out of the way, let's get to the chart.

1. Brains On!

2. Wow in the World

3. Stories Podcast

4. Storynory

5.  The Unexplainable Disappearance of Mars Patel

6. Tumble

7. Eleanor Amplified

8. Story Pirates

9. The Alien Adventures of Finn Caspian

10. Story Time

11. But Why

12. Peace Out

13.  The Cramazingly Incredifun Sugarcrash Kids

14.  Ear Snacks

15. Short and Curly

16. Children Stories and Joyful Podcasts

17.  Circle Round

18. Spare the Rock, Spoil the Child

19. The Radio Adventures of Dr. Floyd

Others (listed alphabetically): 1001 Classic Short Stories and Tales, Activated Stories, Bedtime History, The Children's Corner, Children's Fun Storytime Podcast, Disney Story Central, Dream Big, Family Folk Tales, Little Stories for Tiny People, Official Adventures in Odyssey, Podcast Kid, Saturday Morning Theatre, Sparkle Stories, The Story Home, That Story Show, What If World

The Best of Kids Podcasts from May 2017

As we begin to wrap up June 2017, it's time to take a look back at some of the very best episodes from the kids podcast world in May 2017.

Now, if you want to get the background on how I'm using the RadioPublic iOS app to publish these lists, feel free to go back and read my list of the best of kids podcasts from March 2017. (Or if you want to hear what you missed last month, here's the best of kids podcasts from April 2017.)  But otherwise, just know that you can listen to these specific episodes from the RadioPublic app or right here by using the widget below.

There were way more episodes I considered or listened to than the (admittedly arbitrary) ten-episode limit I'm imposing on myself.  So while this is maybe a sampler as much as the "best," strictly speaking, I won't steer you wrong, I promise.  With that, let's begin with the list from May 2017!  (Use this link to listen from the RadioPublic website.)

[P.S.  I don't know why the Brains On elevator piece is still showing up, and why the Ear Snacks and Past and the Curious pieces aren't in the full playlist, but individual links show up below...]

[P.P.S.  If you've stumbled upon this list more than a month after I've posted it, the overall list has probably been updated, but you can stream each episode below.]

(In no particular order)

Sparkle Stories: "Cats New Home" [Another good introduction to a well-loved series of tales from Sparkle Stories.]

But Why: "Why Are Some Animals Pets and Others Are Lunch?" [I think this is an excellent discussion of ethics of pet ownership, a good match for a Short and Curly episode on a similar topic.]

Story Pirates: "Ep. 51: Eat a Spider Day" [I loved this.]

What If World: "Ep. 32 - What If Sharks Had Legs?" [Star Wars and bad puns.  You've heard of dad jokes and dad rock?  This is dad podcast.]

Story Time: "A Longish Tale written by Michael Ryan" [A shaggy dog story, except it features a long-tailed marmoset.]

Good Stuff Kids: "Episode #70 - Frances England" [Always happy to hear kids musicians talk about their work on this podcast.]

Hello, World!

Jamie Johnson Football Podcast: "Episode 9: Jurgen Klopp, Georgia Stanway & Nikita Parris" [I'm more of a Bundesliga guy, but this great for the Premier League fan in your house.]

Wow in the World: "Corn Your Toes and Blast-Off To The Moon!" [Yay for NPR, Mindy Thomas, and Guy Rax.  75% science, 25% silly.]

Ear Snacks: "Extra: Facts! (Steven Drozd)" [Not one but two musician interviews in this playlist.  This one with Steven Drozd is pretty silly.]

The Past and the Curious: "On The Move: Nelly Bly, Henry Box Brown, All Around this World" [Listen to this episode then listen to the Deedle Deedle Dees songs about the people, too!]