COLUMBIA, Massachusetts: Every couple of weeks or so when her husband can get her two young sons out of her home, Rhea Pechter sits cross-legged on her bed reading children's stories into a microphone.
"Remember, there are no pictures. You have to imagine the pictures in your mind," she narrates. "You can imagine them however you want."
She reads off a laptop resting on an overturned laundry basket covered with a quilt: "Is it morning already? Oh, I'm feeling rather unsteady."
Pechter tells the story as if sitting in front of a dozen children, the expression on her face moving from surprise to joy to sadness within the space of a few sentences.
"Why is the sun so bright today? I feel my legs might give away. My throat is sandy like the beach. My nose is clogged, my head feels weak. I sound like a frog when I speak."
Her latest story, of a little girl in denial about being sick, is the 23rd episode of the podcast for kids Pechter started producing last summer, called Little Stories for Tiny People. Twice a month on her website and on iTunes, Pechter posts a new five- to 20-minute episode that she has written, narrated, recorded and edited.
In total, the 20-plus episodes have been listened to more than 10,000 times, Pechter estimates.
Each story features characters like Sophie the Sloth and Strumbly Bear who learn life lessons as applicable to kids as they are to imaginary animals.
"The story about Grumbly Bear and Strumbly Bear is about not judging a book by its cover, and about getting to know someone," she said. "Especially for children, as well as adults, sadness often masquerades as anger, so that's a theme in a couple of the stories."
Pechter, 31, is among a growing number of people, from amateurs to broadcast professionals, trying their hand at podcasting.
According to the Pew Research Centre, the number of podcasts available for download on the online hosting service Libsyn grew from approximately 12,000 in 2012 to 22,000 in 2014.
"The cool thing about podcasting is that it's a decentralised space," Pechter said. "You can be a small player and find an audience."
Despite the growth of podcasting in terms of producers and listeners, the number of podcasts geared toward children remains limited, according to journalist Stephanie Hayes, who wrote about the shortage for a story in The Atlantic recently.
"The obvious follow-up question is why?" she writes. "Podcasts for kids seem like such a no-brainer. Podcasts could offer a solution to kids overdosing on dreaded 'screen time,' a way to entertain and educate kids without fear of burning their retinas or letting their imaginations go to ruin."
When Pechter first thought about creating her podcast, she listened to some of the few existing children's podcasts and believed she had something different to offer.
"I thought, you know what? I can do this with a more personal feel," she said.
Pechter didn't have any experience with audio production prior to starting her podcast.
She earned her master's degree in social work and worked in foster child advocacy for a few years before giving birth to her older son, Leo.
But she has always been a writer, she said, and when she was growing up, she dreamed of being a children's author and illustrator.
"I got away from writing children's stories for a long time," Pechter said.
About a year ago, Leo sparked her return to storytelling.
"If you know anything about three-year-olds, that's typically when a child's imagination just kind of goes wild," she said. "So his imagination just kind of cracked open, and he suddenly seemed like he needed stories to explain the world and explain just different things about our day."
He wanted songs too, Pechter said, so she started coming up with ditties for everything from getting your shoes on and to getting in the car.
Then, one night, Leo didn't want to go to bed.
"For him, that was kind of unusual," Pechter said "A lot of parents do deal with that every day, but usually he would actually come to us and say, 'Okay, I want to go to bed.' "
Pechter told Leo he had to go to sleep so that he could have "fantastical" dreams.
"He asked a little bit more about dreams, and I explained what they are, and that you can go on adventures in your dreams, and your brain sort of takes you wherever it wants to take you," she said. "And that actually worked."
In the following days and weeks when Leo asked Pechter to elaborate on the idea, she came up with the story of Little Fox, a character who wants to go to sleep so that she can dream fantastical dreams.
"It started as a series of pencil drawings that I would do newly every time I told the story," she said. "I would just get out a legal pad and draw, because he wanted the pictures."
Every time she and Leo went through the story, Pechter added details.
"And then eventually I started realising I was thinking about Little Fox when I wasn't with (Leo)," she said. "So I thought, okay, maybe I should write this as a proper story, and it came out as a rhyme."
Pechter worked on the story for months, she said, writing and rewriting and editing it. She started asking herself what she could do with it to get the motivation to continue writing.
"Because I was worried that that would be it," she said. "I've always been that way with creative pursuits. It's been like, now I'm painting, now I'm drawing, now I feel like writing. I just wanted to stick with it, because it felt so satisfying."
She looked into getting the story published as a children's book, but was discouraged by the process.
"It felt like this very foreign world that I wasn't a part of," she said. "You send something off and you don't hear anything for at least six months. And you'll only hear if they like it.
"I felt like that wouldn't motivate me to write," she added. "That would just give me some anxiety."
Pechter, who loves listening to podcasts, can't remember exactly how she came up with the idea of releasing her stories in podcast form, she said. She thought of it as an alternative route to self-publishing.
"Once I had that idea, it kind of gave me the push to write a lot more stories," she said. "So then I banked probably six stories, and that's when I felt comfortable starting."
Pechter's sister, a singer, lent her a microphone, and her brother, a musician and audio producer, gave her two tips to get started: one, don't put your face too close to the microphone and two, use the free software Audacity to edit the audio.
The rest of the recording and editing skills she needed, Pechter said, she taught herself with the help of the Internet.
"I like tinkering with things," she said.
So far, Pechter said, she has gotten positive feedback for Little Stories from friends, family and other kids podcasters, and has even received some fan mail.
One reviewer on iTunes wrote of the first episode of Little Stories, "Since we have added Little Fox to our bedtime routine, the evening has improved dramatically. We turn off the lights, lay back, cuddle and listen. The story is soothing and restful and has a definite calming effect on the kids. They always quickly fall asleep right after (or once during!) the podcast. We are looking forward to the next story in two weeks!"
Pechter may have to take a break from podcasting when she gives birth to her third child in a few months. Other than that, she said, she will keep writing and recording until she feels she's not meeting her own standards.
"The minute I can't do that anymore, I'll kind of say, okay, I've created this collection that can always be accessed," she said. "Kids can always enjoy it."
To listen to Little Stories for Tiny People, go to littlestoriestinypeople.com. — The Baltimore Sun/Tribune News Service
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