Let's get serious about being curious
Over the last few months, every time I have logged on to social media, I have stumbled upon a conversation about podcasts — whether it was the last episode of Serial or its latest season, the newest science on Invisibilia , or closer home, food talk and more by the people behind Audiomatic. A Google search revealed a range of podcasts for children: from science shows to plays to dramatised storytelling, there’s a whole aural world out there.
I couldn’t help but wonder if podcasts would appeal to children who are constantly surrounded by screens, enveloped in a dense fog of audio-visual clutter. Getting a child to listen to a podcast would be as impossible a task as winning a round of Candy Crush Saga in the first go. But after tuning into some of the podcasts, I changed my mind. Okay, kind of.
When it comes to podcasts for children, science seems to rule the roost. There’s Brain On! , which claims to be “serious about being curious”. Produced by MPR News and Southern California Public Radio, the science show for kids is hosted by Molly Bloom along with two children co-hosts. Topics bounce from what makes a spider a spider and the science of baking to the language of cats and dogs. There are songs, skits, and interviews with some really cool people. What’s really fun is the Mystery Sound section: try guessing the sound, it’s really hard.
Then there’s The Intersection , a show produced by Audiomatic, which is all about science, history, and culture. Journalists Padmaparna Ghosh and Samanth Subramanian set out to explain the complex gravitational waves, inform about ISRO’s indigenous navigation systems and trace mysteries such as the case of the stolen data and bird samples by the famous ornithologist Richard Meinertzhagen. While the show is for adults, the science and history is something that young adults will enjoy listening to. It helps that both Subramanian and Ghosh talk in an easy, casual manner, blending facts with stories and interviews. “As it is, science has a bad rep for being dry and boring,” said Ghosh. “But at the end of the day, everything is a story and the trick is in how you tell it: turning an invention into one person’s quest or explaining deep space through sounds.”
Ghosh points out that children first come across stories when parents read it to them. “Voice is a very intimate medium, especially if it is a voice you get to trust and even fall asleep to,” she said. “It is disembodied, yes, but friendly and warm. It can take us places. Voice leaves space for imagination, which I feel is very important for kids. It lets you travel to places and through time.” Ghosh recommends a few podcasts as well: Stuff You Should Know, StarTalk Radio Show by Neil deGrasse Tyson and NPR Science Friday .
If your child is obsessed with all things culinary, then Vikram Doctor’s The Real Food Podcast will whet their appetite about Indian food history, culture, and agriculture. For older children, The Secret Ingredient by Raj Patel, Tom Philpott and Rebecca McInroy chooses one food per episode to talk about its history, production, and impact on our lives. The topics are often serious and dense, and the format of the podcast is usually one-on-one interviews, so it’s definitely for much older children who are interested in agronomy and food history.
While there are plenty of audio books to choose from, Story Pirates stands out for taking children’s stories and turning them into “awesome radio plays”. Story Pirates “celebrate[s] the words, ideas and stories of young people”. The group is comprises actors, comedians, improvisers and musicians who first narrate the original story written by the child, and then adapt it with music, dialogue, and lots of jokes. Story Pirates gives free rein to a child’s imagination, bringing it to life with their words and music. One such story by a third grader is about two dino bank robbers who decide to well, rob a bank. The Coposauras’ give chase only to find out that the robbers stole the money for charity. Robin Hood dinos!
For fans of TEDTalks, there’s TEDTalks Kids + Family podcast, an audio version of the videos. There’s a lovely one by McKenna Pope, who at the age of 13, started an online petition for a gender-neutral toy oven. Why? Because her younger brother loved to cook but all of Hasbro’s Easy-Bake Ovens were “for girls”. She ended up meeting the American toy company who started a new, inclusive oven line. Her talk, “Want to be an activist? Start with your Toys” is powerful and evocative.
One of my favourites is BBC 4’s Natural Histories , a set of 25 beautifully narrated stories about 25 groups of animals and plants, which has been produced in collaboration with the Natural History Museum, London. Literature, movies, and legends come together with interviews and anecdotes to explore how nature had influenced human culture. Host Brett Westwood is introduced by saying that he has fewer chromosomes than a gorilla or a potato. In one episode, they dramatise an extract from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World to introduce dinosaurs. In another, Westwood talks about Billy, a stranded Northern bottlenose whale in central London who was actually a girl! The episode includes the history of whaling, the book Moby Dick and what it reveals about human relationship with these sea creatures, and the need for conserving the species. There’s an entire episode on fleas, about these parasites that can leap stupendously, along with archival interviews with naturalist Miriam Rothschild, and discussions on the fleas’ reputation of being disease-carriers.
Most podcasts have a lot of engagement with their audience, making sure that young minds don’t tune out. “In India we are used to radio only as a source of entertainment — songs — and not news or information,” said Ghosh. “Listening for stories is not something we are habituated to. On the other hand, radio is a great medium. It is passive, so you can easily multi-task while someone is reading you a story unlike, say, reading or watching a documentary. It can be creative and challenging too.”