Is the Podcast Mightier Than the Book? by Sheela Chari
This year, walking outdoors has been my exercise, my solace, my home away from home. When I walk, I always bring my headphones. It’s me, nature, and a good podcast.
Podcasts are audio files you can download from the Internet onto your computer or mobile device such as a smartphone. They can be on any topic, from stories to talk shows to music commentaries. A podcast is the voice in my ear that explains and delights, that comes with me where ever I go — on a walk, in the car, or even to sleep.
I’ve been thinking a lot about podcasts lately. This past year, I was invited to novelize “The Unexplainable Disappearance of Mars Patel,” a popular and brilliantly produced podcast serial mystery for kids. There are three seasons in total, and each episode is short, funny, and gripping, as characters come instantly to life through snappy dialogue and flashy sound effects. Kids around the world tune in faithfully to find out how Mars Patel searches across time and space for his missing friends and the elusive billionaire inventor, Oliver Pruitt, who might be responsible.
As an author, working on this project has made me take off my walking shoes and think more about what it means to tell a story. Podcasts are not books. Books require you to stay in place and partake in the solitary pleasure of reading. They’re about immersing yourself in someone else’s written words. You can’t multi-task with a book. Well, at least you shouldn’t read and drive (that’s what audiobooks are for).
Podcasts aren’t Instagram or YouTube either. Instead, podcasts invite us to hear what we aren’t seeing. In these Zoom-filled days of remote learning and socializing, podcasts are a welcome relief. They’re also a wonderful way to encounter a story alone or together, in a home or in a car, in a virtual classroom or a physical one. They don’t require us to sit still or stay in one place. Podcasts are like movies that take place in the theater of our minds.
With today’s access to free software like GarageBand and Audacity, anyone can make a podcast. In fact, podcasts are a great way for children to practice storytelling, interviewing, or documenting their own lives. There are podcasts specifically made for kids like The Story Seeds, Kids Ask Authors with Grace Lin, or any of the serial dramas produced by Gen-Z Media, the originators of the Mars Patel podcast.
Does that mean that the mighty podcast has replaced the book? This seems to me like apples and oranges. We can’t and shouldn’t compare two very different things. But I do believe a marvelous synergy arises when you put them together. Podcast and book. Reading and listening.
On Twitter, teachers have been sharing their use of podcasts like Mars Patel to generate storyboards, scripts, and character sketches for class discussion. For them, podcasts offer fresh, exciting material to engage reluctant readers and students who might get easily distracted. Unlike audio books, podcasts are short and often free, which is great for a limited budget. Podcasts can be used for a whole classroom, in groups, or with an individual.
But podcasts and books can also work together to help students with word recognition, listening and reading comprehension, and overall literacy. For students learning English as a second language, books and podcasts together are a bonus for decoding content.
As a creative writing teacher, I think podcasts and books offer another added benefit. Just looking at how podcasts are different from books is perfect for discussing dialogue, narrative, and point of view. For me, adapting Mars Patel was not just transcribing what I heard. I had to re-imagine every character, consider their backgrounds and backstories, and the thoughts they were thinking but not saying out loud. It was a new type of imagining, and the process has only made me a stronger writer.
Recently, I met the voice actors from the Mars Patel podcast while we recorded an interview for Comic-Con at Home. During the recording, the actors read out loud a scene I had written in the book. Hearing my words come to life by these seasoned actors was pure magic!
As storytellers, teachers, and students, it’s important to experience stories in new ways. Sometimes we learn by listening, and sometimes by speaking into a microphone. Together, podcasts and books offer us a deeper and richer means for enjoying the stories of our lives. And that makes this writer (and walker) very happy.
Sheela Chari is the author of FINDING MIGHTY and VANISHED, which was nominated for an Edgar Award. Her latest middle grade novel, THE UNEXPLAINABLE DISAPPEARANCE OF MARS PATEL, based on the Peabody-award winning podcast, is out this October from Walker Books US, an imprint of Candlewick Press. Sheela teaches creative writing at Mercy College.