Columbia News Service
Mar. 16, 2006 12:00 AM NEW YORK -- Before Pattie Belle Hastings hopped on a train with her 7-year-old daughter, August, to visit family 300 miles away in Virginia for Thanksgiving, she did what an increasing number of mothers are doing: She loaded up the iPod.
Until that time, August had only listened to music on her tiny iPod Shuffle digital audio player, but her mother wondered if there were child-friendly podcasts for her daughter to listen to.
Podcasts are audio broadcasts that are downloaded onto iPods or other MP3 digital audio players. The programs are similar to radio programs, but because they are downloaded on the player, they can be listened to whenever it is convenient.
But when Hastings logged on to the podcast page of the iTunes Web site and clicked on the "family" menu, a long list of programs came up, including some that were labeled "explicit."
With more children using MP3 players, a growing number of parents are looking for podcasts for their children that are educational, age appropriate and fun. Without any regulations or content restrictions on the material, though, finding the right podcasts can present something of a minefield for parents.
According to the Consumer Electronics Association, a quarter of U.S. households own an MP3 player. Seventy-one percent of those households have children, roughly half of whom are 12 years old or younger.
The Web site for ITunes, the popular Apple software that allows users to download audio files from the Internet, features a page with recommended podcasts within genres like sports and comedy, but there is no specific link to children's programming.
However, an increasing number of podcasters are using this new format to create fun and educational podcasts that are generating raves among both children and their parents.
Before they hopped on the train, Hastings discovered the "Crazy Dave Kids Show," and August is now hooked on it. The show was created by Dan Wardell and Brad Kuennen, who in college began doing a call-in radio program for kids and moved the show to a radio station in Des Moines, Iowa, after graduation.
Wardell presides over an hour and a half of silliness each week as Crazy Dave, engaging kids as young as 4 years old. Wardell and Kuennen decided to try podcasting their show, and have been overwhelmed by the response.
The site gets around 120 downloads a day, and children call in from all over the country to chat with Crazy Dave, his sidekick Goofy Gil and a cast of frequent visitors. A discussion of favorite animals on a recent episode featured a call from a brother and sister from Tasmania, Australia, who shared the eating habits of koalas and Tasmanian devils (koalas eat gum leaves, but not bubble gum).
"The Radio Adventures of Dr. Floyd," which bills itself as the "Web's first family friendly podcast," follows the "world's most brilliant scientist" Dr. Floyd and friends as they travel through time to thwart the evil Dr. Steve and his "sock-shaped assistant."
The short serial episodes, reminiscent of the style of "The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show," are created by Grant Baciocco, a 31-year-old standup comic out of his one-bedroom apartment in Burbank, Calif. The site now gets about 5,000 downloads a week.
"We want to make it so parents and kids can listen to together," said Baciocco. "It's not like a parent watching 'Barney' so many times that they bash their head against the wall."
Some of the podcasts for children focus more on an educational message, while still aiming to entertain.
Andy Bowers, a podcast producer for Slate, the online magazine, started a podcast with his 5-year-old daughter last year based on a character he had created at the dinner table to encourage her to eat healthy food. The Sugar Monster encourages children to eat junk food instead of vegetables and other good-for-you foods that children tend to shirk.
"It's reverse psychology incarnate," Bowers explained. He and his daughter now place pins in a map to mark all the countries where the podcast has been downloaded. So far the Sugar Monster has been giving bad advice in every continent but Antarctica.
Another podcast, recorded by Dr. Sam Carin, an Arizona psychologist, features Elwood, a ventriloquist puppet diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Podcasting may seem like an odd medium for ventriloquism, but Carin points out that Edgar Bergen and his wisecracking dummy, Charlie McCarthy, were a huge radio hit for nearly 20 years beginning in the late 1930s.
In fact, the radio waves used to be full of programs for children before the advent of television. Children's podcasting has grown out of a long tradition of dummies, cowboys, orphans and other characters that entertained children through sound and stories for decades.
According to child development experts, using this new technology to embrace an old-fashioned style of broadcasting may be good for kids.
"In radio you don't have visualization in front of you the way you do in TV; you're left to visual imagination," said Dr. Fred Rothbaum, chairman of the child development department at Tufts University. "It's got that in common with reading."
For parents, finding quality podcasts for their kids remains a challenge, but some online directories now offer suggestions for kid-friendly material.
A British site (http://recap.ltd.uk/podcasting) has an extensive list of educational podcasts for children. Another site, Family Friendly Podcasts (www.familyfriendlypodcast.com) features podcasts on subjects for adults ranging from home improvement to bluegrass music but also highlights a few children's options.
The podcasts are screened by Penny Haynes, a podcast consultant in Atlanta who created the site. Haynes is planning to create a site with recommendations just for kids.
"I want to create and provide a completely safe atmosphere where children can discover and enjoy the world of podcasting," she said.
Podcast Web sites: