While podcasting for kids started off with a strong science/non-fiction focus, 2016 was the year that serialized fictional adventures took center stage, so to speak. The Radio Adventures of Eleanor Amplified and The Unexplainable Disappearance of Mars Patel both captured the attention of the tween-and-under set along with a third show that embraced the cliffhanger-a-week approach: The Alien Adventures of Finn Caspian. The show is brainchild of Chicago's Jonathan Messinger and follows the adventures of the title character and his friends on the Famous Marlowe 280 Interplanetary Exploratory Space Station. Also, there are robots.
While the adventure is fun by itself, the podcast distinguishes itself also by including post-adventure conversations with the show's editor Griffin (i.e., Messinger's elementary-aged son) and jokes and drawings from listeners. It's as if Serial had included its own "discuss-the-show" podcast as part of their main podcast. Also, there's a robot BeeBop -- and he'll probably be indignant to hear me describe him this way -- so delusional with grandeur that Messinger had to create an entire spinoff show to fill the time between Seasons 1 and 2.
Season 2 of the show started this week, so I thought this was as good a time as any to talk with Messinger about his favorite stories growing up, the advantages of cliffhangers, how parents listen to podcasts with kids, making secret podcasts, and much more.
Zooglobble: What stories -- in any medium -- do you remember growing up?
Jonathan Messinger: At the risk of outing my tastes, which have not really changed since I was eight years old, the two stories that I remember loving the most as a young kid were The Hobbit (the book, not the animated movie) and The Neverending Story (the movie, not the book). Those were the two stories that were on nonstop rotation for me, reading and watching over and again as a kid. When I got a little older, it was The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. It was one of those books that a cousin gave to me when I was too young and I loved it, and then loved it for different reasons each time I re-read it as I got older.
Do you remember anything in particular about The Hobbit and The Neverending Story that drew you in? Was it the story? The fantasy? The sequential nature of the story?
For The Hobbit and The Neverending Story, I think what I loved about both of those stories was the endless surprises. The sense, as you progressed through the story, that anything could happen, around each corner was something unexpected, and it wasn't always going to be clear if it was friend or foe.
Hitchhiker's Guide just blew my mind. Until I read it, I didn't know a book could be that funny. That you could tell a great story and make your reader laugh that hard at the same time. The first time reading it felt like discovering a secret language. (I got to meet Douglas Adams a few years before he died, and was too tongue-tied to do anything but shake his hand.)
Hitchhiker's is one of those rare books that's laugh-out-loud funny and decently plotted.
What audio do you remember growing up?
My dad collected old radio serials and comedy. He had them on reel-to-reels (!) which he also then transferred onto cassette. My brother and I used to listen to those fairly obsessively. The two that really stick out for me are The Shadow from a mystery/drama perspective, and The Baby Snooks Show from a comedy perspective. I have very distinct memories of sitting on the living room floor and cracking up to Baby Snooks. My dad also introduced me to a lot of other radio comedy, like Jack Benny and of course Monty Python.
Do you think those radio serials work differently (or better) if they're listened to in immediate sequential order like you and your brother did, as opposed to how they were originally aired?
I am a huge proponent of cliffhangers. This is a central tension in the working relationship between myself and my editor (my son Griffin). He hates cliffhangers, loves spoilers, wants the whole story immediately.
But I think the delayed gratification of the cliffhanger is valuable. It allows you to take a moment and think about what you just heard (or read, or watched), and think about the whys and hows of a story. That inevitably leads you (and by you I mean adults and kids) to think about the underpinnings of storytelling—what are the characters motivations, what are they going to do to get what they want, etc. And if the audience starts theorizing on what happens next, then they feel an ownership of the story.
There are of course exceptions, and sometimes a cliffhanger can just be a cheap trick ("Same bat channel!"), but I'm all in favor of cheap tricks.
That's what made Serial -- both seasons -- a little odd, because it was serialized without being based on the cliffhanger. They seemed to ping-pong around the topic from episode, not so much linear as your show and other more traditional serials.
I think in both seasons of Serial, they probably had the serialized approach locked and loaded, and then were slightly derailed by new reporting (which enriched both seasons, in my opinion.)
So in crafting season 1 (and 2) of Finn, were you consciously crafting cliffhangers as you went along, or did you have the overall idea of the arc and just needed to figure out where to end each week?
The writing of season 1 started off very differently, but as I read new episodes to my son to get his take, I noticed the immediate impact of writing in cliffhangers. It also made it a little more fun to write.
This is a long answer, but bear with me. One of my favorite podcasts of all time was the official podcast of Breaking Bad, where Vince Gilligan and his writers and directors talked about making each episode. And one of the things they talked a lot about on that podcast is the way they would sort of write themselves into corners, and not know how they were going to get themselves out of it. Essentially, by keeping themselves surprised and sort of trapped, it forced them to think creatively and not follow a formula.
Not to compare my show to Breaking Bad, but I try to take a similar approach, and cliffhangers are sometimes how I do that. Sometimes an episode would end in a cliffhanger and I would say, "Huh, I wonder how they'll get out of that?" Even though I knew the general arc and where I wanted the story to go, I didn't always know how they were going to get there.
So how did the idea for doing a podcast, and Finn in particular, come about?
I'd had the idea about robots animated by children's books for a long time, and had been thinking I'd write some story around that as a book itself. But then my oldest son became obsessed with audiobooks, listening to them on car rides, at bedtime, during prolonged LEGO builds. It was really interesting to watch how immersed he'd get listening to them. So I started thinking of writing the story as a podcast, so it could (hopefully) capture some of that same magic, but could also take advantage of the openness of a podcast, letting kids have a say as to what happens on the show, etc.
Also, I'm a bit of a podcast addict, so it didn't take much convincing to make one.
What was the easiest part of putting together the podcast (in season 1)?
Writing the stories is always what comes most naturally to me, and it's what I have the most experience in. I also did a secret podcast for about six or seven months so I got used to talking on mic, basic editing, etc. I wanted to have a stronger foundation for some of the technical basics ready for day one. (edited)
Oooooooooh. Secret podcast! What was it about?
It was dedicated to Swansea City, the Welsh Premier League football club. It wasn't totally a secret, a lot of Welsh people knew about it, but I didn't tell anyone outside my wife because I wanted to have some wiggle room to learn the ropes without being embarrassed. The Welsh were very kind! [Editor's note: I'm not going to link to the podcast... but you can totally find it on iTunes.]
How do you think the show changed over the first season?
Well, I think I got more comfortable in my delivery, both on mic and in some of the sound design. And I honestly tried very hard to internalize all of the feedback I was getting from kids, what they were responding to, what did and didn't show up in emails and drawings, etc. And I tried to make the most of out of that interaction, to let them feel like they had the keys and could drive the show a bit, even more than I'd originally planned.
What was the hardest part of putting together the podcast?
I'm sure everyone would say this, but the time. I work a full-time job and have two kids and an awesome wife who I like to spend time with, so I generally work on the episodes from 10pm-2am, four or five nights a week.
I've also royally screwed up episodes in the past where I try to do something with the sound (like play with a new plugin, or record in a different manner), only to discover the problems with it very late in the process. Starting over is super-fun!
One of the most difficult technical parts of the show, for me, is that I hear from a lot of parents that they listen to the show on their smartphones with their kids. Meaning holding their phone, or putting it on the kitchen table and gathering around, not through any other speakers. I think this is pretty unique to kids' listening experiences. But the tricky thing is smartphones have a very low dynamic range, which means the sounds sort of gets squashed, and bed music can sound louder beneath narration than it would as played through headphones or in a car. So I try to mix the show to sound good as played through the smartphone first, and then constantly fret about how it sounds elsewhere.
On average, roughly how many hours do you spend on a single episode?
Probably about 20-25 hours per 20-minute episode.
What story are you looking to tell this season? How do you hope to expand on Season 1?
The first season was very much about establishing the world and the characters, and followed a very "traditional hero vs. mysterious villain" arc. The second season follows another archetype of kids' stories: The hero's quest. In the same way the first season paid homage to children's literature, this one will as well, and The 13 Clocks by James Thurber was hugely influential on this season.
Changing subjects slightly... You know him best -- what's BeeBop really like? You know, off air?
Would it surprise you if I said BeeBop was very quiet, contemplative and introspective off air? Because it should. He's almost exactly the same as on-air — funny, loud, impossible to rein in —except the difference is that he's not standing still in front of a mic. But I will say that everything I love about kids is what I love about BeeBop — his creativity, sense of humor, fearlessness, openness to the world, etc. — so we'll keep him around.
I'm guessing that BeeBop is the primary communication point for kids with the show...? True? And regardless, how do you view BeeBop's relationship to your audience?
BeeBop and Griffin are the two kid advocates on the show (one at the beginning, one at the end). I really want kids to feel like they're a part of the making of the show, not just occasional participants. Key to that is disrupting my authorial ego and authority. There's nothing worse for a kid when an adult tells them, "This is fun. You're going to have fun now." So BeeBop is there to poke me, in a playful manner, on behalf of the audience. And, naturally, kids now send BeeBop emails suggesting ways in which to do that.
There is nothing better than encouraging kids to poke adults. (See Mo Willems' Pigeon books; also, a go-to interactive point is to sing classic songs with the wrong words.) So can we look forward to more BeeBop Tales post-Season 2? And what else are you working on?
I'm honestly not sure what BBT Season 2 will be, yet. BeeBop is playing his cards close to the vest. If I had to guess, I'd say that our dimension wasn't the first he landed in after his face-off with Barron.
In terms of what I'm working on, I have a couple other shows in early development, and I'm trying to figure out a way to push those forward. And I'm working on a Finn Caspian book project, which will hopefully wrap up this month.