The Local Dad Behind ‘Eleanor Amplified’
One of the hottest podcasts for kids is made right here in Philly.
Like most parents, John Sheehan was sick of listening to the same song — in his case, Raffi on eternal repeat — all the time as he carted his young daughter around. Unlike most of us, he did more than change the station.
Sheehan, a producer of WHYY’s Fresh Air With Terry Gross, created a podcast for kids. He started from scratch, wrote the script himself, and recruited local actors to do the voices. The charming result, The Radio Adventures of Eleanor Amplified, debuted last summer and drew an enthusiastic audience for its 10-episode first season, topping the iTunes kids’ podcast chart for weeks.
The series follows the hard-nosed journalism of radio reporter Eleanor Amplified, who’s on to the biggest story of her life. She fights villains, champions truth, and travels all over, from Congress to outer space. Imagine Nancy Drew crossed with Lois Lane, and you’ve got the idea.
Sheehan starting thinking about a podcast for kids after wishing during the Raffi marathon that “there was something we could all enjoy together.” He’d toyed with starting a fiction project, and when he started preparing for the birth of his second child, he figured writing was something he could do in his head.
“I knew all my time was about to be obliterated,” Sheehan said.
What emerged was a throwback to the shows Sheehan loved as a child: Saturday morning cartoons and adventure stories, “on the Indiana Jones spectrum,” he said. But what to do with the heroine? He considered doctor or private detective, then realized those would require research — and, by definition, time he didn’t have. So she became a radio reporter.
Eleanor has an old-timey radio feel, with a breathless announcer, noxious villain, and tons of sounds to help move the action along. The characters’ names — including super bad guy Professor Ignomi and his henchman, Lars Torso — inspire giggles all on their own, and adults will delight in some of the jokes aimed just at them.
But it’s not all old school homage.
“I also needed it to sound as contemporary as possible, so the kids wouldn’t sort of tune it out,” Sheehan said. “I felt like I had to sound at least in the same realm as whatever they’re consuming — so, contemporary cartoons.”
The first season was written, he said, in the spare moments of a busy working parent’s life: he’d come in a little early and knock out a few pages, write a little more at lunchtime, then squeeze in a bit more after dinner and bedtimes. Once the writing was done, he recruited some actors he’d worked with before, including Christa D’Agostino (the voice of Eleanor) and Scott Johnston, who plays several characters, including Professor Ignomi and Conn Seanery.
Sheehan met Johnston years ago, when he worked on a radio story about a local burlesque troupe. Johnston is the group’s emcee and a larger-than-life figure.
“He’s one of those kind of characters where if you meet someone in a dark alley at two in the morning, they’ll say, ‘Oh, I know Scott Johnston,”’ Sheehan said.
Johnston helped bring in two other actors. Jim Barton, who is the voice of the announcer and rounds out the case, is Sheehan’s former neighbor.
Sheehan does the sound effects himself, with the help of a program that’s packed with all kinds of sounds. Each episode, he said, takes about two weeks to put together.
The podcast is entertaining, and sneaks in plenty of life lessons amid the mayhem, including the value of telling the truth and including more than one point of view. (Corporate greed is a big topic, too.) Listen with your kids, and you’ll have plenty of fodder for interesting conversations.
So what’s next for Eleanor? Season two is coming, and in the meantime, Sheehan said he’s working on two episodes that will fill in Eleanor’s back story.
“We’re going to meet Eleanor in high school,” he said.
The show’s loyal fans will be waiting. Sheehan said he’s been gratified by the positive response, not just from the circle of kids he’s used as a kind of test audience, but from children around the country who’ve written him letters. (His daughters are now 18 months and almost 3 years old, so they’re not yet part of his target audience, which is ages 8 to 12.)
“There are enough of them that it feels really rewarding,” he said. “These kids are just so into it, and they just want to know what happens next, and they’re just so angry that season two isn’t out yet.”
Want to check it out? WHYY put together a special “road trip edition,” so you can listen to all the episodes on your way to grandma’s house.
Photograph by Gwyneth K. Shaw. Logo courtesy of WHYY.