- James Buck
- "But Why" host Jane Lindholm (left) and producer Melody Bodette
"Did you know that elephants have 42,000 muscles in their trunks?" Jane Lindholm asked me recently. I had to confess I did not. Humans, the Vermont Public Radio personality went on to explain, have about 650 to 800 muscles in their entire bodies, depending on how you categorize the muscle groups. Just four muscle groups interact with our noses. She paused, then reiterated with genuine, almost childlike wonder: "Elephants have 42,000 muscles in their trunks!"
Recently, childlike wonder has become Lindholm's stock-in-trade. For almost three years, she's hosted VPR's "But Why: A Podcast for Curious Kids," a program in which she, producer Melody Bodette and experts answer questions posed by inquisitive children from around the world. As a result, she has become a fount of knowledge both obscure and interesting — and not just about the nasal musculature of pachyderms.
The elephant episode, which aired on February 1, also answered why giraffes have purple tongues; most episodes tackle several questions related to the broader topic. Other recent episodes have addressed the floating garbage patch in the Pacific Ocean, why we sometimes see the moon during the day, what it's like to be an adult and, in a lively episode that surely elicited giggles from kids of all ages, why we poop and fart.
"My Google search history is weird," joked Bodette, who, along with Lindholm, spoke to Kids VT last month at VPR's studio in Colchester.
Since it debuted on April 1, 2016, "But Why" has become an ascendant program for VPR, with 3.5 million total downloads. In 2018, subscribership on platforms such as iTunes and Spotify grew 70 percent; downloads went up by 82 percent. Lindholm and Bodette have received questions from kids in all 50 states and from at least 48 other countries.
"There was no expectation that it would be particularly popular or successful," said Lindholm of the podcast. And yet it's clearly a hit. Which prompts a question: But why?
The answer likely starts with Lindholm, who is also the Harvard-educated host of VPR's popular midday news program, "Vermont Edition." On air and off, she carries herself with a bright, pleasant and studious demeanor. Those who only know Lindholm by her calm, made-for-public-radio voice may be surprised to learn she currently sports a shock of metallic purple hair. "My midlife crisis," she joked.
Lindholm, who lives in Monkton with her husband and their two small children, traces the origins of "But Why" to a friend who was listening to VPR in the car one day with her kids. Following a report on U.S. government employees carousing with Colombian prostitutes, a question issued from the back seat: "Mommy, what's a hooker?"
"She said, 'Oh, jeez. I guess I can't listen to public radio with my kids in the car anymore,'" recalled Lindholm, who at the time had been brainstorming how to enter the booming podcast market.
"I think I'm the only person in America who realized that podcasts were exploding," quipped Lindholm.
Jokes aside, her friend's conundrum inspired an idea: Solicit questions from curious children and, with the help of Bodette — who is also a mother of two — research the answers.
"I thought, Why don't we produce something that's public radio for kids, that's designed for them?"
In a given week, "Vermont Edition" covers topics from the push to commercialize marijuana in Vermont to the history of bird watching in the state — y'know, grown-up stuff. To be conversant on such a broad range of topics from day to day requires considerable preparation and, just as importantly, insatiable curiosity. The same is true for making "But Why."
That meticulous approach is what distinguishes her podcast, which airs every two weeks, from the rising tide of content flooding children's entertainment channels. Just like other public radio programs, such as "Invisibilia" and "Planet Money," "But Why" is entertaining and informative. It's undoubtedly geared toward children, but it never panders — the occasional poop joke aside. To the undying gratitude of Peppa Pig-addled parents, it is engaging for grown-ups, too.
"The style is different from other shows we listen to," said early childhood educator Tara Gravelin. The Burlington mother of two puts on the podcast for her 6- and 4-year-old sons during quiet time. "It's humorous and playful," she continued, adding that she finds Lindholm's voice "captivating."
"There are a lot of kids' podcasts out there and some of them, for me as an adult who has small kids, I find them very hard to listen to," Bodette explained. "So we definitely make ours with an eye towards it being interesting for parents as well."
"It's a fine line for us because we're not making it for the parents, so it's not tongue-in-cheek," said Lindholm. "We want it to be something they enjoy listening to, too, but we're not making it with the irony that an adult sense of humor would have."
Still, parents will likely learn a thing or two by listening. As an example, Lindholm cited the podcast's very first episode, which featured Vermont naturalist Mary Holland explaining how and why bears hibernate in the winter.
"That's still one of the favorite episodes for adults," said Lindholm, "because you learned things that you didn't really feel like you had permission to ask about: How do bears hibernate? How do they not go to the bathroom for that long? It's a question that you probably wonder but you feel silly asking."
"I learn a lot making the podcasts, too," Bodette added. "Because a lot of it is stuff that adults probably should know but don't want to ask, because adults assume they should know everything," she explained. "Kids assume they don't know everything, but they want to know everything."
Lindholm and Bodette don't shy away from complicated questions on topics like death and how babies are made, or topical issues such as school violence and hurricanes, all of which they've addressed on past episodes.
"For our audience to trust us, we have to answer difficult questions, too," said Bodette. "We could do every episode about elephants and giraffes and have a great podcast." But, she noted, kids ask uncomfortable questions. "I think about the way I would want to answer those questions for my own kids, and what would I do if I had all the time in the world to research them?"
"I want to be able to give kids the answers that they deserve," added Lindholm. "They trust us, and we want to live up to that trust. And we also want to treat their questions with the honesty that they deserve. Because part of the problem in adulthood is that we get squeamish about things that kids aren't. They just want to know the answers, and they want to know the truth."
For both the babies and death episodes, Lindholm and Bodette made a point to cover a range of experiences. For death, specifically, they tried to make the show comfortable even for listeners who recently experienced a loss.
As Lindholm does for episodes that tackle difficult topics, she opened the podcast by issuing an advisory for adults to preview the show before allowing kids to listen — or, alternatively, to listen with them. Then — as she and Jana DeCristofaro, an expert from the Dougy Center: the National Center for Grieving Children & Families in Portland Ore., navigated questions about what it feels like when you're dead, what happens when we die and why we die in the first place — the show took quiet breaks meant for contemplation or for kids to ask their own questions.
"That was in the back of our mind: If there's a kid listening who's just lost someone, are they going to feel safe listening?" Lindholm explained.
As for how babies are made ...
"Babies are made in a lot of different ways," said Bodette. "There's adoption, gestational surrogates, reproductive technology, families with two moms, two dads, single parents."
"We continually hear feedback from families who tell us that this was the first thing about how babies are made that included their families," said Lindholm. "That episode particularly was designed to be a show that really envelops everybody." At the top of the show, Lindholm assured nervous parents that the episode was created with "our youngest listeners in mind." Indeed, mentions of sperm, eggs and other reproductive parts were handled directly, but tactfully.
Gravelin appreciates that Bodette and Lindholm tackle tough questions. "It's real and it's raw, but it's done in a way that's educational," she said.
"It has to be age-appropriate; we're not trying to scare kids," said Lindholm. "But if a child is asking, 'What happens when you die?' they deserve an answer that's honest."
Providing those answers often means finding people who are willing to reveal intimate details about their lives. Four-year-old Ethan lives in Utah and suffers from a rare heart defect called heterotaxy. After listening to a "But Why" episode about how the heart works, he and his sister urged their mother, Ali Chandra, to contact Lindholm to share Ethan's story. She reached out to Lindholm through social media and Ethan was subsequently featured on a special follow-up episode of "But Why" called "Heterotaxy and Hearts" on April 20, 2018.
"Any time that we're able to get the word out about heterotaxy, that's another family that we're able to reach," said Chandra, who runs a support group called Heterotaxy Connection. "And that episode reached even further than I think even Jane expected."
"It makes me emotional sometimes to think about it, because you do want kids to feel represented and families to feel like their experience is valuable and counts," said Lindholm. "And I think we can be fun and offer kids science facts and tidbits. But when we're able to actually give families a feeling of inclusion, and give other families an idea of the variety of experiences out there, that feels really important to me."
Chandra said she and her two kids became fans of "But Why" because the podcast takes them seriously.
"It doesn't talk down to them at all," she explained. "It's like, 'You're a curious kid, and I'm going to find an expert grown-up who is going to explain this to you not in a condescending way or a way that assumes you won't get it.' And that really empowers kids to ask questions."
One recent question came from 6-year-old Simon of Chicago: Why is tape sticky? His mom Anne Fisher, an accountant for, of all things, a tape manufacturer, recorded her son asking the question on her phone and submitted it to "But Why." She never told Simon, a superfan of the show, that Lindholm would answer his question. Fisher and her wife videotaped their son's surprise when the episode aired on April 27, 2018.
"Now he tells his friends that he was on the radio with his friend Jane," said Fisher, a self-professed "public radio nerd."
Fisher explained that Simon is drawn to questions about science and bugs, and typically listens to each episode many times.
"He really likes them and absorbs new things every time," she said. That Simon's repeated listening doesn't drive her crazy is a testament to Lindholm, she added.
"She does a fantastic job of explaining things in a way that kids can understand, but also that doesn't make me want to jump out the car window," said Fisher. "And I usually learn new things, too."
While "But Why" started in Vermont, Bodette and Lindholm knew it would eventually have to attract listeners beyond the state to work long-term.
"There aren't enough kids around, even if every kid in Vermont listened, to sustain the podcast forever," Lindholm explained. "So it was going to have to be something that was relevant outside Vermont.
"We want to be a podcast that has a sense of place in Vermont, and then sends that sensibility out into the world," she continued.
Within a year of launching, Lindholm and Bodette were fielding questions from kids all over the globe. They use Vermont experts whenever possible, but certain questions require broadening their scope, which, they say, bolsters the program's wider philosophy of inclusion.
"We make a point to present kids with a really interesting cross-section of adults in the world, or other kids from around the world, so they really get this sense of diversity in the world," said Lindholm.
As a recent example, she pointed to Lisa Desamour, a female firefighter from Philadelphia, who helped answer a dozen fire- and firefighting-related questions on the August 31, 2018 episode "Why is Fire Orange?" (It has to do with the presence of sodium in wood, BTW.)
"It was nice to have a woman's voice representing firefighters because it gave kids a sense that there are a lot of different ways to be a firefighter in the world," said Lindholm.
To submit to the show, listeners record audio of their children asking questions — typically with a smartphone — and send the clips in via email. With more than 4,000 questions from listeners around the globe since the program started, and more coming in all the time, Lindholm and Bodette are in no danger of running out of material. Still, there are certain questions they might prefer parents tackle themselves.
"We never mentioned the word 'sex,'" Lindholm confessed about the babies episode. The omission drew a pointed critique from one listener.
"Somebody was like, 'How can you have a show about how babies are made without ever mentioning sex?'" Lindholm recalled. "And I was like, 'Well, sex isn't required in all cases.'" Then she added with a chuckle, "And if that's your family's experience, you can tell your child about that."