If you look at my list of podcasts for kids, you'll note that while there are a lot of story podcasts -- shows that tell many different stories -- there are relatively few what I call "audioplays," which is an amorphous term in my list, but which includes serialized audio dramas.
Starting tomorrow, that list of serialized audio dramas officially grows by one as The Radio Adventures of Eleanor Amplified begins its first season. It's a show grown under the auspices of Philadelphia public radio station WHYY and it features... well, according to the podcast's iTunes page, it features:
Eleanor Amplified, the world-famous radio reporter, as she foils dastardly plots, outwits crafty villains, and goes after The Big Story. Listen in as Eleanor's pursuit of truth takes her into orbit, out to sea, through a scary jungle, and even to the halls of Congress!
That doesn't intrigue you? How about a trailer?
There will 10 episodes (not including the trailer above), with episodes 1 and 2 hitting your podcast player tomorrow, June 29, and the remaining episodes released weekly.
For many reasons -- not just the story, but also the story behind the story -- I wanted to find out a little bit more. So I dropped John Sheehan a line. He's the creator of Eleanor Amplified. His day job, as it were, is as a producer for Fresh Air with Terry Gross at WHYY. How did he get to WHYY?
I played in rock bands all through college. One night, I was working the door at a venue and began talking with a woman who, as it turned out, was a producer at WHYY... I was newly into public radio, and very enthusiastic about it, and she invited me to come by the station and try editing some audio. I was familiar enough with audio software from my band experience, and I bluffed my way into a part-time job. I freelanced for years and eventually was hired on Fresh Air with Terry Gross - that was 2008.
Asked about the genesis of show, Sheehan cites an inspiration and a limitation:
First: A looong family car trip made me think, "Hey, I should do a podcast that kids and parents could listen to." Second: Fiction was all I had time for. My wife and I had just learned our second daughter was on the way, and I officially had zero free time outside of work. So I had to come up with a podcast that I could make from my desk, right before work, during lunch breaks and on my walks home. And with the exception of recording the actors, that's exactly how I did it.
As for the creative and audio inspiration, Sheehan listed Saturday morning cartoons, Indiana Jones, and Flash Gordon:
Obviously, I'm borrowing the form of old radio serials and radio theater, but I wanted it to sound contemporary. I wanted the tone and the feel of the series to be something kids today would recognize. I use a lot of music, snappy dialogue, and a lot of sound design.
Lest someone think that this is just a response to the sudden attention paid to the need for more kids' podcasts, it's taken about a year for Eleanor Amplified to get to this point. Sheehan pitched the "very vague" idea of "children's adventure stories about an intrepid reporter" to an internal WHYY podcast competition. After about six months, during which time Sheehan made some test episodes (and his wife and he had their second daughter), the station finally gave the go-ahead:
When it was ultimately approved, I was able to hit the ground running: I cranked out scripts, brought the actors back for whirlwind recording sessions, and started making episodes... I honestly enjoyed every step of the process, but having the actors in the studio breathing life into the scripts was amazing.
Another reason why Eleanor Amplified is a big deal is that it's the first kids podcast I'm aware of that's receiving foundation support. As you might suspect, advertising in kids podcasting poses challenges that aren't there in podcasts for adults -- it'll be a significant component of what the audio producers in Kids Listen will grapple with. So the fact that Eleanor Amplified has funding from the Sutherland Family Foundation -- not to mention the support of WHYY itself -- is a precedent that a lot of other producers no doubt hope is a successful one. Sheehan himself says there's "definitely an audience for family friendly content" and hopes there's more foundation support for similar efforts.
In the end, though, the 6-year-old listening to Eleanor Amplified doesn't care about the economics of kids podcasting -- she cares about the stories. I hope it's successful purely as a listening experience. And Sheehan?
If it sparks some imaginations I'll consider it a complete success. Growing up, I loved cartoons and adventure stories. I'd even say I needed them. I would think about a thrilling scene or a plot twist or a cliffhanger-ending long after the episode was over. And if Eleanor can generate even a little of the kind of excitement I felt as a child, it'll be 100% worth it.