LeVar Burton wants to be heard
By Laurel Graeber
LeVar Burton has spent much of his career encouraging children to read. Now, he is urging them to listen — really listen.
They can develop that skill, along with an ear for mysteries, in “Sound Detectives,” a new podcast for audiences of elementary-school age that is part whodunit, part science exploration and part comic adventure. Co-produced by SiriusXM’s Stitcher Studios and LeVar Burton Entertainment, “Sound Detectives” features Burton as a fictionalized version of himself, an inventor with the same name.
“In a certain sense, ‘LeVar Burton’ has reached iconic status,” Burton said in a phone conversation. “And it’s fun for me to lean into that.” He added, “It’s also an opportunity for me to introduce ‘LeVar’ to another generation.”
Many adults recognize Burton as the actor who played Kunta Kinte in “Roots” and Geordi La Forge on “Star Trek: The Next Generation.” More recently, fans pushed for him to be named the host of “Jeopardy!,” a role for which he very publicly campaigned. But to large numbers of today’s parents, he is most familiar from their own childhoods as host of the Emmy-winning public television series “Reading Rainbow,” which explored books for young readers from 1983 to 2006.
The LeVar Burton of the 10-part “Sound Detectives,” which debuted Wednesday (SiriusXM will release a new episode every week thereafter), is an audiophile planning to open a magnificent institution, the Museum of Sound. But he discovers that sounds are becoming separated from their sources and going missing.
To resolve the crisis, he hires a Philip Marlowe-style sleuth, Detective Hunch, and sends him an assistant in the form of one of his own inventions: Audie, a 3-foot-5 walking, talking ear. In each episode, Hunch and Audie must analyze an errant sound, identify it and return it to its origins, while also trying to unmask the Sound Swindler, the human culprit who is causing the disappearances.
“Sound Detectives” is the real LeVar Burton’s first podcast for children, but he stressed that he did not see it as a long-awaited return to young people’s entertainment. “I don’t feel like I’ve ever left it,” he said.
Burton, 66, who has remained active in children’s literacy through founding Skybrary, a digital library of e-books and videos, said he had not ruled out a young listener’s version of “LeVar Burton Reads,” his SiriusXM literary podcast. (According to the company, it has been downloaded more than 54 million times since its premiere six years ago.)
But what appealed to him about “Sound Detectives” was that he did not have the burden of being the podcast’s sole maker or its star. Independent producers Joanna Sokolowski and Julia Smith (Smith is also the producer of “LeVar Burton Reads”) created the podcast and developed it with Burton before pitching it to Sirius XM. “Sound Detectives” focuses more on the private eye — and the accompanying ear — than on the famous voice that gives them their missions.
Burton also admired the plan for each episode’s end: Once the missing sound is returned, young listeners hear an on-location interview with real experts who deal with it in their work.
The podcast “appeals to the innate curiosity in a child about the world around them,” Burton said, and “it introduces them to parts of the world that they might not have yet been exposed to. And those are the key precepts that were the drivers to ‘Reading Rainbow.’”
“Sound Detectives” visits places such as Yellowstone National Park, the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory and the streets of Bengaluru, India. When creating the missing-sound mystery for each half-hour episode, Smith and Sokolowski said in a video interview that they sometimes started with a site they found intriguing, and at other times with a sound. The sounds they chose can be challenging to identify; one example was recorded on Mars.
“We hadn’t heard of another show that was dealing exclusively with sound as, like, the main narrative driver for a podcast,” Sokolowski said. “And it just seemed like a wonderful way to not only engage kids in the format, but also in the method and delivery and style and every aspect of the show.”
Although the podcast industry is undergoing retrenchment, “Sound Detectives” is entering a children’s market that seems nowhere near saturation, said Megan Lazovick, a vice president at Edison Research, an analytics company in Somerville, New Jersey.
Edison’s first national study of the children’s market (conducted recently with advocacy organization Kids Listen) found that 29% of children ages 6-12 had listened to a podcast the previous month. That figure rose to 42% if their parents had also listened to one.
Lazovick predicted that Burton’s association with “Sound Detectives” would be a big draw for parents. She mentioned how the new “Disney Frozen: Forces of Nature” podcast capitalized on the popularity of the “Frozen” film and its offshoots. “In the kids’ space, bringing in brands that are already trusted is sort of a no-brainer,” she said.
Adam Sachs, SiriusXM’s senior vice president for entertainment, comedy and podcast programming, said Burton was also a “huge factor” in the company’s commitment to the project.
“Not only is he just a great podcast talent to work with, and we have a great track record with him,” Sachs said, “but he also has so much experience working in the kids’ content space that this sort of felt like the perfect opportunity for us to dip our toe in.” (SiriusXM declined to disclose the budget for “Sound Detectives.”)
Sokolowski, who has a background in documentaries (among them, the films “Ovarian Psycos” and “Very Semi-Serious”), and Smith, who has experience in comedy (including the podcasts “Judge John Hodgman” and “Bubble”), are parents who wanted “Sound Detectives” to be as layered as possible. In addition to investigating physics and acoustics, the podcast includes information on auditory biology (even most adults probably aren’t aware that the ears influence taste) and an episode that examines how deaf people experience sound as vibration.
The two women, who wrote the scripts with Isabelle Redman Dolce, also decided that the dialogue would be partly improvised.
“I like the energy that it brings, and the ideas that will sort of come forth that would probably never emerge in any other way,” Smith said. They sought actors with improv experience, and Vinny Thomas, who voices Detective Hunch, proved to be an authority on animal characteristics (such as the fact that whale sharks lead solitary lives).
“Hunch is kind of like an eccentric uncle,” Thomas said, “and what eccentric uncle isn’t a know-it-all?”
Jessica McKenna, who portrays the ever-curious Audie, improvised song interludes as well as lines, using her skills to collaborate with composer Adam Deibert on the jazzy “Sound Detectives” theme. “It’s a really goofy niche I’ve carved out for myself,” she said.
In addition to being an ear, Audie personifies a child who is maybe “solving the case before the adult,” Sokolowski said.
The creators of “Sound Detectives,” who have built a podcast website with related sleuthing activities, intend young listeners to become just as engaged as Audie in the seasonlong investigation.
“One of the attractive exercises that we’re engaging in here is getting kids to listen critically to the world, right?” Burton said. “To use their powers of discernment, which is one of my favorite words.”