If 2016 was the year kids' podcasting became a thing, 2017 may just be the year kids' podcasting becomes a big thing. The Unexplainable Disappearance of Mars Patel won a Peabody Award, the advocacy group Kids Listen (of which I'm a member) released the first batch of data from its listener survey, and the list of kids podcasts grows monthly (my own list of kids podcasts is, as of mid-May, up to 90).
But the 2017 event that may be most important to the visibility and growth of podcasting for families is the release today of the first full episode of Wow in the World, the first podcast for kids and families directly released by NPR. (Here's the link on iTunes, hint hint.) There are other kids podcasts released by NPR member stations, but to have the public radio mothership, as it were, enter the kids podcasting world is, I think, a leading indicator that that list of mine up above is going to get even more crowded in very short order.
Even better, the podcast itself comes from two radio veterans. Guy Raz worked with NPR for two decades as a correspondent, Weekend All Things Considered host, and co-creator and host of two NPR podcasts (The TED Radio Hour and How I Built This). And Mindy Thomas, in her roles as Program Director at Sirius-XM's Kids Place Live and host of its Absolutely Mindy program, has entertained hundreds of thousands if not millions of kids and adults and championed high-quality kids music.
Together, Raz and Thomas previously created the Breakfast Blast Newscast, which aired on Sirius-XM, and now they've expanded their efforts together to create Wow in the World, which zooms around the world with curiosity. Their first episode takes little over twenty minutes to explore, among other things, the existence of a mysterious Planet X and the (scientifically-shown) importance of gratitude. To those folks who have listened to both of them, you will not be surprised to hear that Raz plays more of the straight man to Thomas' zany character, but there's a general sense of playfulness and, well, acting that you don't get to hear much from NPR-produced podcasts.
Anyway, although Thomas and Raz are super-busy (look at those resumes up there), they still found time last week to share some thoughts on imagination, the path to their program (and brand-new production company Tinkercast), and which movie character Mindy Thomas pretended to be a version of growing up.
Zooglobble: What are your storytelling memories, either fiction or non-fiction?
Mindy Thomas: I wish I could say that I grew up in a rich storytelling environment with tales passed down to me from generations of ancestors, or that I had grown up on a steady diet of talespinning masters like Bill Harley and Bil Lepp, but most of the big stories in my life as a child were happening in my own mind.
I was a super imaginative kid, and for me, reality just served as a vehicle for whatever I was pretending in the moment. I was, and still am, a huge daydreamer. On the outside, I’d be cleaning my room, while on the inside I would be working at my own dry cleaning shop. If we were on a long car trip, I would annoy my whole family by pretending that I was a tram operator, loudly pointing out everything we passed along the way whether it existed in reality or not. And walking into elementary school, I spent YEARS pretending to be some version of Diane Keaton’s character in Baby Boom. Schoolwork was much more palatable when I was pretending to be a "busy office boss lady." I would go to sleep every night coming up with pretend stories and fictional narratives in my head... some building for weeks and months at a time.
These memories might not equate to "storytelling" in the traditional sense, but they directly impact my life today, both as a parent and as a “busy office boss lady” making imaginative content both for and with kids.
Guy Raz: My mom used to read to me at bedtime every night. She had this incredible Children's Bible that for the life of me I can't remember which one. It included the New Testament but because we are Jewish, she sort of stopped in the middle of the book! But every night, she'd read me a different Bible story. While I'm not super religious today, I love that I have a foundation in those stories.
Where do you remember learning about new things (besides in school) growing up?
GR: I was a quiet kid -- kind of a loner. I loved big heavy books with pictures. And my parents had a full set of the Encyclopedia Brittanica which they bought in the 1980s. I loved spending hours just looking through them. It was a color edition and I remember the pictures just popping out of the pages. The other book that I devoured was called Front Page and it was 100 years of the front pages of the Los Angeles Times. I'd go through it page by page and look at the amazing pictures and articles -- the Hindenberg explosion (later a Led Zeppelin cover!), the photo of Nixon walking up to his helicopter after his resignation, the election of Reagan. I loved reading the stories and learning about history. I also loved reading World Magazine. Back then, the world seemed so far away and World Magazine was an incredible resource for kids. It took me on a journey to places I could never imagine I'd actually one day visit.
MT: Mostly just eavesdropping on grownups. Just kidding… [but] not really. I was super nosy curious as a kid, and knew very early on that the adults had the best scoop when it came to all of the interesting things that life had to offer. I learned a lot from listening in on adults’ conversations, and probably gathered a lot of misinformation as well, but it was all just so fascinating! (As I write this, I’m realizing that this is probably NOT the answer you’re aiming for.) [Ed.: Yes, it totally is.]
Anywho! My dad was and is a bit of a mad scientist. He spent his career designing visual systems for flight simulators, and I grew up with an airplane fuselage in our garage. He is one of the most curious humans I’ve ever met, and I’d like to think that I’ve picked up a bit of that quality from him. We had a joke growing up, that if he was ever in a bad mood, I would ask him about atoms. This would lead to a teaching conversation long enough to make him forget whatever he was mad about in the first place. Ask me anything about atoms - I could go on for days! I can’t wait for him to hear this show!
How did you start getting into radio?
MT: When I was in third grade, living in Tampa, Florida, our local public access television channel put a video camera in the studio of the Q-Morning Zoo, a Top-40 radio morning show, and it was the most exciting thing in the world to me. I woke up early every morning to catch as much of it as I could before school. It was the first time I had ever seen a radio studio, and I was completely fascinated. I loved their voices, the jingles they used between songs, the way the said certain words, and played "Happy Trails" at the end of every show, I couldn’t get enough. My brother and I would make our own radio shows, with microphones made out of toilet paper rolls with golf balls glued to the tops, and a broken rotary phone for guest callers. We made up characters and commercials, and would record our voices onto his little Black & Decker tape recorder. I would give anything to find those tapes again. I’ve been in this business for 18 years, and I think back on those days often. I think my 9-year-old self would have been proud, and not the least bit surprised by what I’m doing today.
GR: I grew up in a home where we listened to commercial talk radio when it was actually great -- the 1980s. This was before the anger and vitriol that now dominated commercial talk. Back then, in L.A., we had amazing voices like Ken and Bob who created this magical morning news/features program on KABC. I would listen to KROQ and the legendary DJs of the 80s like Richard Blade. My parents were not NPR listeners and I didn't discover public radio til I got to college. My first radio job was at WFNX in Boston (actually in Lynn, Massachusetts); I was an intern for one of their DJs, Julie Kramer. I actually applied to be an intern at NPR twice and was rejected twice. Finally, after I graduated, I was accepted to be a fall intern with All Things Considered in 1997.
You’ve already worked with each other on the Breakfast Blast Newscast -- what was the origin story for Wow in the World?
MT: Well, after almost two and half years of Breakfast Blastin', we reached a point where our simple idea for an off-the-cuff three to five minute news segment had evolved into a nearly twenty-minute, fully-produced piece that was starting to sound more and more like its own show. And while we were both having so much fun with it, it was becoming unsustainable given the resources and time we had available. (Guy also hosts TWO other shows for NPR, the TED Radio Hour and How I Built This, and in addition to my daily live show, I was also programming Kids Place Live) So, once we faced this reality, Guy approached me about going out on our own and creating something bigger, and since I can't say "no" to a crazy idea, I said "Yes! Of course we should do that!"
We spent the better part of the rest of last year trying to figure out how to do it. In short, there were lots of obstacles, ideas, pivots, freak-outs (both good and bad), and in the end, trust falls. But here we are! One year later, we own a small production company (Tinkercast), have pulled together the most incredible little team of talented and generous friends, and with our incredible partner, NPR, we're finally releasing this first show into the wild! For me at least, it still hasn't quite sunk in. I wake up every morning thinking, "how did we get here?!" It's been such a ride, and I'm so glad we had the guts to take it. Hopefully this is just the beginning!
What are your audio (and other) inspirations for Wow in the World? What tone are you aiming for?
MT: I think old-time radio dramas, though not one specifically, are a big influence in the way we create this show. Wow in the World is very visual, and heavy on physical humor, thanks to our producer, Jed Anderson. He's like a modern-day digital foley artist in the way he helps to create the worlds using scoring and sound. In a lot of ways, we're taking a page from one of the oldest forms of media, and recreating it with a contemporary twist for this current generation of kids and parents.
Our roles on the show are animated versions of ourselves. Guy is the earnest, almost deadpan, geeky professor, and I'm sort of the outlandish, smart but scatterbrained proxy for the kids listening. I was once told that our dynamic is reminiscent of George Burns and Gracie Allen, from The Burns and Allen [radio] Show from back in the 40's.
In terms of tone, we see this show as being optimistic, smart, and humorous, with a healthy dose of absurdity. In terms of content, we want it to live up to the "WOW" in it's name. For those twenty-five minutes, I want kids and parents to find themselves on the same level, learning incredible things that will spark their interest and curiosity well beyond the show.
How do you plan to make the money you need to put the show together?
GR: God only knows! We will probably do some rain dances and shake down some imaginary money trees. But in reality, we will have to figure out how to make this sustainable. For now, we're focused on getting a great show out that we are proud of. It's a labor of love and a passion project for both of us. We are fortunate to have friends and colleagues who are helping us with production and other things because they too are committed to this project. We hope that if we can reach a big audience of kids, we might be able to attract some great sponsors that share our values and commitment to science, technology, wonder and screen-free entertainment for curious kids.
Can you tell me a little bit more about Tinkercast, the production company you’ve both founded?
GR: Our hope is to help create more new kids programs if Wow in the World can become a sustainable show. We'd love to offer parents and caregivers (and kids!) a screen-free alternative.