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On The Table Read, the “Best Entertainment Celebrity Magazine in the UK“, Scotty Iseri describes The Imagine Neighborhood Podcast and what inspired him to create it.
Written by JJ Barnes
I interviewed podcaster Scotty Iseri about his life and career, his podcast, The Imagine Neighborhood, and the work that goes into producing it.
Tell me a bit about who you are.
My name is Scotty Iseri. I am Japanese American, a single dad, and the creator and host of The Imagine Neighborhood – a podcast for kids and their grown-ups.
How and why did you start podcasting?
I used to work for public radio in Chicago. I worked on some syndicated shows and things like that. I worked there at the time when a lot of broadcast stations were transitioning to digital, and one of my first non-producing jobs there was to figure out what this kind of “internet thing” was all about.
This is prior to iTunes (now Apple Podcasts), prior to the name “podcasting”, and prior to even the iPod. We were doing things online through RealPlayer and streaming, and other things similar to that. I think I was handed that job because I was at the age. They were like “Oh, you’re young, you must know Internet stuff. Here, do this”.
When I started working for Committee for Children, a long standing non-profit organization that is dedicated to making the world a better place for kids through social and emotional learning development, and doing a bunch of non-podcasting things, I’d had The Imagine Neighborhood as a side thing, just playing around with ideas, and brought it to my boss as a thing to try out. Mia Doces is my boss, and she’s fantastic. She said “Yeah, let’s try it”, and it just sort’ve worked out.
What is your current podcast called, and how did you come up with the name?
The current podcast is called The Imagine Neighborhood. I came up with the name kind’ve at the last minute. It was originally going to be called “Heart of the Story”, and about three weeks before we launched, we found there was another podcast called “Heart of the Story”.
To avoid any search confusion, or SEO confusion, we changed it to The Imagine Neighborhood. I like that for a couple reasons. One, it’s a little silly to say – I-mag-ine-Neigh-bor-hood. They kind’ve elide together in a way that I think is fun. But, I think a neighborhood is a really powerful place for kids. It’s not defined by any one thing, other than the people and the places around you.
So you could live in a New York City apartment, you could live in a rural area, you could live in a suburb, and your neighborhood is going to be very different, but you still have that neighborhood. It’s the people around you, it’s the librarians at the library, it’s the people who work at the bodega that you stop at, and it’s the people who work at the food store. It’s another word for community that I think is more accessible to kids.
And that’s how we came up with the name.
What platforms can we find The Imagine Neighborhood on?
We are pretty much everywhere – Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google, Amazon- all those places. It’s freely available on all sorts of podcast platforms, and our RSS feeds on our website.
What is The Imagine Neighborhood about?
The Imagine Neighborhood is an original story-telling podcast that helps kids and their grown-ups talk about big feelings, solve problems, and learn to make the world a better place. We are aligned with the award winning, Social Emotional Learning curriculum, Second Step, so every episode we do with a core educational component, where we’re helping kids talk about their feelings.
We’re also helping adults help kids talk about their feelings. We do it all through this lens of wacky stories, fart jokes, robots, dinosaurs, and all kinds of fun and exciting things. But the core of it is really to help kids develop. It often gets called emotional intelligence, soft skills, or SEL (Social Emotional Learning) But the core of it really is about developing all those skills for kids using fart jokes and funny stories.
Do you host The Imagine Neighborhood alone, or have guest hosts/partners?
I am the host of the show, and we have about half a dozen characters that appear in different episodes of the show. We have a space marine named “Matcho Supreme”, the most powerful wizard in the multiverse “Alakazambra”, and we have “Captain Marion”, the fire-pirate queen – a lot of different kinds of characters. We also do an interview show called “No Filter with Count Vacula”. Count Vacula is a robot-vampire vacuum cleaner, and he interviews guests trying to learn how to make new friends and how to get to know people better.
Do you edit The Imagine Neighborhood or have someone who does it for you?
We used to edit it in-house, meaning I used to edit it all in house. We would record with the actors, I would get all the audio, and then we would do what’s called a “dry cut”, meaning it’s a cut of the show with no sound effects or music. Then we would do another editorial pass based on that, with jokes that aren’t working or if something was too long, and then it goes to design.
Since then, we’ve been able to work with some really amazing editors, editor Jaime Roque, and a sound designer, named Mr. Music Man, Lindsay Jones, who are fantastically talented people.
They’re way better than I am, and I’m so glad they’re working with us.
Do you script The Imagine Neighborhood, or just chat as you go?
Our show is scripted. We have an amazing, talented writing team that brings so much of their personal experiences, their senses of humor, and their wit and wisdom to every episode. I am so grateful that we’ve been able to build this team of writers up A.) Because they’re smarter than me and do things better than I do, and it was just me writing the scripts and B.) It really expands the canvas on which we can tell stories.
The kinds of stories we can tell come from a more authentic place when you have more people with different voices and different lived experiences telling those stories.
How has The Imagine Neighborhood changed or developed since you began?
Not a lot. I think it’s just expanded. We had started with a handful of characters, some of which I had developed in other places and some that are brand new, and we’ve been able to add new characters based on fun ideas that we’ve had and types of stories we wanna tell. We have a huge back-log of characters that don’t really appear as main characters in the show, but they are still fun and part of the world in their own right.
We have “Jodi the Roadie”, who was an ogre that is a roadie for a heavy metal band. We also have “Sock Goblins”, which are these little monsters that steal the socks from your dryer. I think the biggest change that we’ve had, outside of scale, is after the George Floyd murder. We were able to really focus on issues of equity, positive racial identity development, and justice and injustice.
We work in this education field called social emotional learning, which has often had concerns and problems dealing with the issue of race, and after the George Floyd murder, we were able to really bring in conversations about identity and race, and talk to kids about their race and identity and make them feel proud of it and help them celebrate the diversities in their neighborhood. While I am sad for the need for that change, I’m glad we were able to do that, and I’m looking forward to doing more of that.
What are your biggest challenges with The Imagine Neighborhood?
I think it’s a lot of self-imposed challenges to be honest. We produce a lot. We’ve produced over 100 episodes now that are fully-scripted, with sound design and actors, and we’ve been putting out a show every week. While I think we have a really good process in place to make it the best show we can, it’s also nice to have that deadline so we don’t fiddle something to death.
You can rewrite and rewrite something until you’re blue in the face, so I think at some point, if you don’t put it out in the world, all your work is for nothing cause no one will ever hear it.
I think our biggest challenge is just sort of keeping ahead of the reaper of the clock – making sure that we are working far enough ahead so that the content is available for families when they are waiting for it. We try to be very careful about when we are taking breaks and be explicit with the audience, saying “We will be back this month” or “We will be back in two weeks”, because I feel like the shows I listen to, if they skip a week, I’m like “Where’s my show?”. So I want to make sure we are there for our audience every Monday as much as we can be.
What are your favorite podcasts to listen to?
I have 2 that I absolutely love and recommend to a lot of people. The first is called Coverville, which has been going on for a long, long time, hosted by Brian Ibbott. It is a music show where he brings in interesting covers of different songs. He will do shows that are themed, like an all Beastie Boys cover where he plays different artists that covered the Beastie Boys all together. He’ll also do themed ones around Fathers Day, or something like that. It’s a really fun show. I love cover songs. I love hearing artists play another artist’s song, so that’s a fun one.
A recent one that I had found during quarantine, is What Had Happened Was. It’s kind’ve a deep-dive interview with hip-hop artists about their careers. The first season is all about Prince Paul, one of my favorite artists of all time. It makes me kind’ve giddy to get the inside scoop from these artists that I love and get to hear.
How and where do you promote The Imagine Neighborhood?
We have not done a great job of this to be honest. We’ve tried to do some ad buys on social media and those were an abject failure. For some reason, our show is seen as controversial by people who don’t think kids should be taught about race, diversity, and equity. We got some very ugly messages when we tried those promotions.
We do have an Instagram page, and we call that our “Infinite Refrigerator”. Kids will send in drawings of the characters – what they think the characters look like- and we put it up on our “Infinite Refrigerator”.
I think the main place we do promote is through our email List. We have a growing email list of listeners, where we also provide talking points for parents and little activities they can do throughout the show, and we see that growing fairly recently.
Do you earn money from podcasting, or is it a hobby?
I am so lucky that this is my full-time job. I am an employee of Committee for Children. We have also been very lucky to have received a grant from the Allstate Foundation to support our work around equity, so I am very lucky to get to do this as my full-time job.
What’s something you never expected about podcasting? What have you learned that surprised you?
I have been surprised by the kids. It’s not a lot of kids, but there’s certainly some that have me as their favorite character on the show. This is a show that, as I said, has tons and tons of wacky, amazing characters – “Doctor Apocalypso”, who plays in a heavy metal band and rides a motorcycle, and “Princes Donnasaurus”, who is a dinosaur and princess, and wizards and space marines and all this cool stuff, and there’s a very small percentage of kids for whom I am their favorite character and they’ll send in a drawing of me.
And as the host, I am part of the fun and action, but I find it surprising that the boring, middle-aged dad is their favorite, but ya know, pleasantly surprised as they say.
What is the first piece of advice you would give to anyone inspired to start podcasting?
My main advice that I give people is “Don’t just do one episode. Plan for 6 or 12. Plan for a few. If you only do one, you’re going to put a lot of work into it and it might deter you from doing more. Or you’ll work and worry that one episode so much that you’ll think all the episodes have to be that much work. If you plan to do 5,6,7 or more, you’ll start to think about how to make this into a routine and how you can make this so that it’s easy to do multiples of these.
You’ll find, as well, that your first episode, no matter how good it is, your second one will be better, your third will be better than that, and your fourth one will be even better. So if you give yourself a sort of timeline of doing more than just one, you’re allowing yourself that process to improve.
The other piece of advice I give is to buy a good mic and get used to using it. There’s podcasts out there where people just record their Zoom calls, and that’s fine, but when people are listening, their ears get tired really quickly. People are much more forgiving of bad video than bad sound. When the sound is bad, it’s really painful in a different way.
Invest in a good mic and do more than one episode.
And, finally, are you proud of what you’re accomplishing with your podcast? Is it worth the effort?
Yeah, it is, and I’m incredibly proud of it. I’m incredibly humbled by the audience that we have and the people we’ve been able to bring on board to work with us. It’s a silly idea- fart jokes and robots and dinosaurs- but it’s all towards this notion of helping kids talk about their feelings, which I feel is a noble goal.
The fact that we’ve been able to bring on a really amazingly talented team of people to build this, and the fact that there are tens of thousands of families that listen to our show every week, helps me put a lot of this into perspective. We get emails from families, and letters sometimes, about what the show means to them or questions to the characters.
We had one family who wrote in because their cat had died, and they had listened to an episode about death and grieving. They talked about how it doesn’t bring their cat back, but it does make them feel better about their grief, and man, I couldn’t have felt more honored by the fact that this show we made was able to help someone through a very difficult time.
So, yes, I am very proud and humbled by the work that we do.
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