Brains On: An Award Winning Podcast

8 mins read

Do you love science, or did you find it boring in school? Either way, as long as you’ve got a curious mind, Brains On is the show for you.

 The content is driven by the fascinating questions kids submit, and each week, a co-host joins Molly Bloom to answer them. “We wanted to honor kids’ curiosity,” said Marc Sanchez, a producer of the show.

“From the start, we asked kids to send their questions, and putting that out into the universe has paid off. The first question we got was ‘How does paint stick?’. The child who submitted it became our first listener co-host.

“Now, we get hundreds of questions every week. We will often reach out to kids who asked particularly creative questions to see if they are interested in co-hosting,” Molly explained.

In spite of the pandemic, the show must go on. The Brains On team sends a remote recording kit to each co-host. One silver lining of this unprecedented time is that the net of kids who can co-host has widened to include those who live in rural areas, rather than being limited to those who live close enough to get to the studio.

Molly added, “We have a pretty broad view of science. For example, one episode focused on the question, ‘Why do we have crushes?’. We see science as a springboard for exploring a variety of areas, including psychology and social science, as well as history and cultural stories or folklore as it relates to a particular topic.” 

There’s never a dull moment on this show. Molly gave us the scoop on how the team puts it all together. “We feel strongly about having ‘furniture’—features of every episode that kids can use as anchors. Even if we get a little wacky and do some things that they haven’t heard before, they know the Mystery Sound will be coming up and the Moment of Um will happen at the end of the show. This format helps to keep them grounded.”

The Mystery Sound, theme song, and sonic-type effects that help make each episode truly entertaining are the product of Marc’s ear for the right sound for the show, his musical talents, and his background in recording. He’s worked in almost every genre in public radio, from magazine shows to classical music programs.

Brains On was actually born 10 years ago, while Marc and Molly were working at Minnesota Public Radio (Molly has actually worked there for practically her entire career). She, Marc, and Sanden Totten, who edits and writes for the show, have each worked in public radio for 15 years.

Molly recalled how the show got started. “Our jobs didn’t typically require a whole lot of creativity, as we were doing a lot of news reporting and producing. Since we were looking for a creative way to play with audio, I suggested doing something for kids, because I also have a keen interest in education. I’ve always wanted to do a kids’ show. I care a lot about children, and I think they’re awesome. I love helping them see the world in cool ways.

“At the time I proposed the idea of a kids’ show, there were no podcasts for children but our music station, The Current, hosted live events for kids that were hugely popular, so we knew public radio listeners would probably be interested in high-quality programming for kids.”

In the show’s intro, you’ll hear the words “We’re serious about being curious,” and it’s true. The Brains On team even joined forces with the Science Museum of Minnesota to study podcast listening for children, with the support of a grant from the National Science Foundation. 

Subsequent grants have provided the impetus for them to produce content about the Coronavirus and the pandemic and also investigate the information needs of families during the current crisis. The findings have revealed the kinds of questions children are asking about the pandemic, and parents have reported that their kids feel calmer as a result of having their questions answered.

Molly observed that this was a turning point for the team, too. “We typically do stuff that is evergreen, but the Coronavirus topic pushed us to look at other newsy topics, like George Floyd’s murder, which was heartbreaking to us. So, we did an episode on injustice and anger. We’ve realized we can produce timely content about the big issues kids are facing.”

A study on joint media engagement is also in the works. The focus will be on family conversations about podcast content in the car, once the most popular place to listen to Brains On. Interestingly enough, the team has found that listening habits have changed, as people are in their cars far less than they were before the pandemic. It seems that their audience now listens around the table at lunchtime, during screen-free time in the afternoon, or at bedtime. 

The popularity of the show keeps growing. What started as a labor of love that they worked on during nights and weekends turned into Sanden, Marc, and Molly’s full-time occupation four years ago, and producer Menaka Wilhelm joined the team in 2019.

It’s been a gratifying journey for the Brains On team. “We often get drawings sent in to us, and we used to put them on a wall in the office. It became a go-to place for anyone in the building to get away from everyday stresses and see the pure joy in these kids’ drawings.”

Recognizing that some topics are better understood visually, Molly, Marc, and Sanden have authored a Brains On book, It’s Alive, and more publications, including a picture book, are in the pipeline. They are also eager to have a live show and more forums where kids can talk to one another.

The Brains On mission is to prove that science is for everyone through a show designed for everyone. It’s an invitation to a party, and you’re invited… so take a listen with your kids!


June 2021 Issue

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