New  Locally Produced Podcast Features Folktales From Around The World

By Joan Goodchild

 

Fresh Air, S-Town, Up First. What are they and what do they have in common? They are all some of the most popular podcasts downloaded today.

While podcasts have become a huge media staple in many lives in the last few years, often used to as entertainment during car rides or exercise sessions, most of them are for adult listeners and tackle topics and genres like news, crime, politics, technology and health.

But Rebecca Sheir and Eric Shimelonis, a married couple who are based in the Berkshires, set out recently to change that. The couple, parents to a young toddler, have partnered with Boston-based NPR station WBUR, and executive producer Jessica Alpert, to create Circle Round, a storytelling podcast for kids ages 4 to 10. Created and produced by the team, Circle Round tells a new folktale each week in 10 to 20 minute episodes that dive into topics like kindness and generosity.

Sheir is a narrator and veteran public radio host/reporter and Shimelonis is an experienced composer for the stage and screen. WBUR wanted to tap their collective talents to create a rich, layered listening experience that would appeal to little ones. The episodes are adapted and written specifically for Circle Round by Alpert and Sheir and feature a famous actor each week. The pilot episode featured Jason Alexander of Seinfeld fame, which means they are entertaining for adults, too.

  “They are meant to appeal to a diverse age group and harken back to old storytelling,” explained Sheir. “In this day and age when there’s so much screen time, this is for your ears. We don’t offer a lot of description of characters. This podcast lets you build this picture in your mind.”

Now on episode 20 and counting, the podcast has been renewed for another season. Sheir said she is choosy about which folk tales she selects to build into an episode and they come from countries all over the world. Tales from Nigeria and the Philippines have been recent features. Liberties are often taken with characters to update them for today’s audience, including sometimes changing a male protagonist character into a female lead, for example, or a nurturing mother figure into a loving father figure. The idea, of course, is to get listeners using their imagination.

“Within the design, I use a lot of restraint to not set the scene too specifically,” said Shimelonis. “Musically, I found early on that solo instruments were the best way to score these. Solo instruments can sometimes act as other players in the script.”

Shimelonis purposely uses a different instrument in each episode, and has used a trombone for a billy goat, as well as piano, a military fife, and a baroque flute, to name a few of the other so-called musical guests.

For executive producer Alpert, she is the mother of young twins and was looking for a podcast experience she could share with them. Noting the options lacked, she was inspired to create the series. Alpert also works on the well-known Modern Love podcast, a project with the New York Times, and said she was aiming for a podcast experience for children that was equally high in quality.

“I loved the idea of making a story-telling podcast that would be very lush and beautiful, with quality stories that maybe people haven’t heard before and that have a lesson in the end,” she said.

Each episode ends with a call to action for listeners, and often prompts adults to converse with kids about the theme of the story.

“It’s hard to talk about topics like gratitude, or bullying, without a framework,” said Alpert. “We just give parents a framework. Whether they want to engage in that conversation or not, it’s there for them. I think these kinds of conversations lead to better and stronger bonds with your children.”

You can listen to and download episodes of Circle Round on the WBUR web site or on iTunes.