'Rock stars' of the children's podcast world

WEST STOCKBRIDGE — To pry children's eyes away from screens, Rebecca Sheir and Eric Shimelonis are stimulating kids' ears.

In partnership with Boston NPR affiliate WBUR, the husband-and-wife team produces a children's podcast in their West Stockbridge basement studio. Each "Circle Round" episode mixes music and adaptations of little-known folk tales from around the world. With the help of some local actors and famous ones (Jason Alexander and Kathryn Hahn, to name two) lending their voices for various roles, "Circle Round" was ranked 11th among audio podcasts in iTunes' "Kids & Family" category as of Tuesday. According to Sheir, the podcast is averaging more than 100,000 downloads per month since its weekly releases began in mid-September.

"We're kind of like rock stars in that world now," Sheir said on a recent Wednesday afternoon in the couple's studio, her legs propped on a couch. "After we did the performance in Brookline [a live recording of an episode on Nov. 12 at the Boston Jewish Film Festival], people stopped us on the street to, like, shyly tell us how much they enjoyed the show."

That episode, titled "Princess in the Mirror," is based on an Israeli folk tale about a princess who agrees to marry the winner of a challenge she creates for three brothers. In the podcast's adapted version, the princess is an independent world traveler who will allow one of three brothers to accompany her on her next trip if they win the contest.

"[It's] a perfectly gender-equal, platonic way of [changing it]," Sheir said. "Most stories like that end with the king wanting to marry off a daughter or the brave prince saving the damsel in distress, and we're trying to make things a little more equal in this day and age for modern-day audiences."

The couple's goal is to not only captivate young minds with global tales and tunes, but to also relieve parents from repeatedly uttering the same popular children's stories' lines. Yet, it wasn't their idea to start the podcast. WBUR Managing Producer for Program Development Jessica Alpert came up with the concept, according to Sheir. Alpert had heard that her friend Sheir, a public radio veteran, and Shimelonis were moving to Massachusetts from Washington, D.C. (they bought their West Stockbridge home in May) and that they had started their own audio production business, Sheir and Shim LLC. Its services matched Alpert's writing, music, sound effects and casting needs.

"We kind of check off all those boxes," said Sheir, who has been a host and reporter on "All Things Considered" and "Marketplace," among other programs.

Sheir narrates the stories. She also writes the scripts, adapting the tales from secondary sources and various versions (never just an author's original piece, she stressed). West Stockbridge Public Library has been an invaluable resource throughout the creative process since the couple moved into their home in May.

"I've probably taken out 160 books of folk tales," Sheir said, noting that the library orders them from around the state.

Composing the stories has been a surprising forte for the 40-year-old, who earned an MFA in creative nonfiction from the University of Iowa.

"I've been a journalist for so long. Fiction was never my thing, let alone children's stories," she said, a few paces from the closet where she and some of the local actors, such as Maizy Scarpa and Thomas Whaley, record their parts.

Shimelonis, a 45-year-old musician and composer, arranges the audio clips, and adds music and effects to accompany the narratives. He sat facing Sheir in a swivel chair, the green peaks and valleys of an Adobe Audition mixing session looming on the iMac behind him. Records filled two towering bookshelves that helped frame the makeshift studio. (The couple is aiming to build a more substantial room once they're settled.) Instruments, including some new bagpipes, lined the red carpet's perimeter.

"I found first that a solo instrument was the best way to underscore these because, with just one voice, it could play more of a role. It could be another character," Shimelonis said.

In the pilot episode, "It Could Always Get Worse," Shimelonis used a piano. Alexander starred in the Yiddish tale about expectation-setting and gratitude, providing three different interpretations of a struggling young father's voice.

Shimelonis was impressed with Alexander's raw tape, which was recorded remotely. Ultimately, Sheir recalled them saying, "Just be George," alluding to George Costanza, Alexander's character on the hit TV show, "Seinfeld."

The successful pilot led to a 30-episode first season that is a ways from being finished.

The couple has challenged themselves throughout the creative process. For example, Shimelonis plays a different instrument for each episode. Sometimes, it's tied to a story's cultural origins. He used an mbira, "a kalimba on steroids" with African roots, for "The Lion's Whisker," an Ethiopian story. Other times, "it's a sort of sound choice and emotional choice for what the instrument communicates and the character each has," he said, noting that a big orchestral bass paired well with a dragon.

Meanwhile, Sheir aims to choose a story from a different country or culture for each installment. Venezuelan, Romanian and Nigerian narratives are among those currently available to download.

The podcast is Sheir and Shim LLC's second project. Its first was "Placemakers," an 18-episode Slate magazine podcast about individuals making differences in communities around the U.S. In 2018, the couple will also help Wine Enthusiast magazine refine its food-and-beverage podcast.

"We're versatile," Sheir said.

But their objective remains the same for each project.

"We have a big focus on narrative storytelling. There are plenty of podcasts out there that are two people sitting around a microphone gabbing, and there is value to that. We are not interested in that. We want to tell sound-rich stories, and that sound includes beautiful tape from out in the field, [and] it includes Eric's sound effects and music," Sheir said.

The business of podcasting does more than blend the two's interests; it has allowed them to be totally devoted to raising their son, Igor, who was born in December 2015, just a couple of months before the couple started working on "Placemakers."

"The entire time we worked on 'Placemakers,' I was gone from Igor for a total of two nights," Sheir said.

"And I still was with him," Shimelonis added, a baby monitor at his side as Igor napped upstairs. "He's had babysitting for like three or four hours total in his life so far."

Throughout the interview, the couple didn't finish each other sentences so much as they transitioned seamlessly between them. Their rapport doesn't stem from a long relationship, though. After living parallel existences — both growing up outside of Cleveland, living in New York City, visiting the Berkshires as young professionals, moving to Washington, D.C. — mutual friends introduced them. Sheir was often working on theater stories for public radio at the time; Shimelonis was involved in a number of productions. They would often see each other at openings. Eventually, Sheir asked him to a networking lunch in 2013 that turned into a four-hour first date. Later that week, she sent out a desperate Facebook request to her friends for an instrumental version of "Mr. Blue Sky" to play during her radio show. Shimelonis, who was recording some jazz at the time, responded, sending her an MP3 with him playing the music. Less than eight weeks later, they were engaged. Sheir remembers that first collaboration fondly.

"But little did I know that just a handful of years later," she said, "that we would officially be collaborating on something we love while raising a family. ... I would've said it's too good to be true."

Benjamin Cassidy can be reached at bcassidy@berkshireeagle.com, at @bybencassidy on Twitter and 413-496-6251.


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