Kids Pods: The Radio Adventures of Eleanor Amplified
In this rapidly expanding podcast world there are shows of all genres, but mostly those genres encapsulate similar target audiences. Many early podcasts were just public radio shows, repurposed to fit inside a phone. Those shows largely sounded the same, were made by similar types of people, and were listened to by mostly older, mostly white audiences. Many of those shows are fantastic, first-click-in-the-morning shows, made by the best radio professionals in the business, but the diversity issue is still a problem the industry is grappling with - how can it attract new audiences, which, in turn, will foster the next generation of podcast creators? I’m an industry junkie, so I love these conversations (and I’d recommend Nick Quah’s fabulous “Hot Pod” weekly newsletter if you’re also a weirdo), but instead of getting too technical, I’ll make my pitch for the best show I’ve heard this year, which targets an often-forgotten demographic: Kids.
So I’ll set this up a bit: I’m producing on a new show for a friend at the moment, and it’s about children and parenthood. “Screen time” is a topic we’ve discussed a lot with expectant mothers and new parents. I’ve listened to a lot of other shows on parenthood while we’ve been producing our program, and the one thing I hear a lot is how shoving a screen in front of a kid is like a pacifier. It’s the last resort for parents; when they’re out of ideas and need some peaceful quiet, they shove an iPad in front of their toddler and it shuts them up. Other parents, as we heard during our interviews, have found that podcasts are actually a great way to keep a child’s attention without the parent feeling as though they’re turning their child into a television drone. So, the need is gigantic, and the market huge, for those types of children-centered shows. It’s a lucrative business model on its own: Recreate the smash-hitness of Serial in a children’s program, and you’ve got yourself a hit.
Enter The Radio Adventures of Eleanor Amplified, a show created by John Sheehan, a producer at WHYY in Philadelphia. On its website, the Amplified team writes that its show is appropriate for children of all ages but is recommended for kids ages 8-12. I’d go further to say I think everyone should download this show. It’s 10 episodes, all varying in length from eight to 13 minutes or so. You can go through the whole journey in a trip home for Thanksgiving.
And a journey, it certainly is. Sheehan - who produced the show on his lunch breaks at WHYY - creates a real, alive world for the characters in his story, which centers around radio reporter Eleanor Amplified, a talented journalist who attempts to take down Angela Brandt, the evil CEO of Megablurg (this is a kid’s show, after all). “Getting the story,” in this case, takes Eleanor into outer space, out to sea, and into a jungle. She meets interesting characters in each of her stops - a Scottish ship captain hilariously named Con Shaunnery was my favorite - and in each place, Sheehan transports you there.
I cannot stress this enough: The sound design of this show is beautiful. The voice acting - outside of a strange, nerdy doctor - is superb. The writing is natural and not too cheesy and even has the humor of a great Pixar movie, which is to say it’ll make your kids laugh but it has a few great jokes for you, too. It should win every award. All of them.
Sheehan's said in interviews that his own experience with his daughter - she only wanted to listen to Raffi, over and over again - was part of the reason he created Eleanor Amplified. While there are adult themes thinly hidden in the writing, while the show is obviously written by an adult (and produced by a professional), it’s a kid’s show, and it’s all the better for it.
-Sampler, a Gimlet Media show about podcasts, ended its run a few weeks ago so the company could focus a new show around host Brittany Luse, the host of the wildly popular For Colored Nerds. Lots of Sampler shows are good listens, but I’d recommend the last 15 minutes of its penultimate episode, a show about the cultural expectations of women. The discussion about being single and about marriage is a worthwhile one.
-Speaking of best episodes of the year, the StartUp podcast - stories about how to really start a business - turned its spotlight back on itself, back on Gimlet, the company that produces the show. The third episode of their recent miniseries was basically the podcast version of a bottle episode, focused on the inner monologue of CEO Alex Blumberg. It was heavy, intense, intimate, and completely beautiful.
-Away from public media for a second, even after I mentioned the industry’s diversity questions above: The Dollop, the American history podcast by comedians Dave Anthony and Gareth Reynolds, is wonderful. I’ve been going through their back catalog and at work today was laughing so hard at this episode with Patton Oswalt that I was actually crying. I needed napkins to wipe the laugh tears from my face.
Next week is a politics week and a plea to producers to keep producing important politics podcast journalism even after WE ALL VOTE on Nov. 8.