Interview: Rebecca Sheir (WBUR's Circle Round)

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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.