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These Young Podcasters Are Growing Up on Mic

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Before Tai Poole could kick off the third season of his podcast for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, “Tai Asks Why,” he needed to address a change in the show’s sound. Specifically, his voice.

“If you’ve been a longtime listener of my podcast, you may be thinking, ‘Hey, Tai sounds a little bit different this year,’” the 14-year-old host said in the season’s opening episode. “My voice is changing. Even I can hear it. As much as I may try to fight it,” Tai let out a wistful sigh — “I’m growing up.”

Mirroring the industry they joined at a very young age, Tai and other child podcasters have matured on mic. Some have dropped out as they got older, like the host of “Chloe’s Friendship Circle,” who ended her three-year career in 2018 at the tender age of 8. But podcasters like Tai have no plans to forsake the medium.

CBC Radio listeners were introduced to Tai as a 9-year-old “math whiz kid” in 2016. That’s when he appeared in three episodes of the show “Sleepover,” in which strangers were brought together for a night to learn about each other’s challenges and offer advice from their own perspectives. Tai was one of the few kids featured in it, and his precocious charm and insatiable curiosity stood out enough that the show’s producers tapped him to host “Tai Asks Why,” in which he asks family members, experts and scientists life’s big questions, like, “What happens after you die?” He was 11.

“My voice was like, really high,” Tai, now in ninth grade, reflected over Zoom, imitating his podcasting debut in a childish whine. Listening to his earlier seasons, Tai detected not just a change in pitch, but a change in himself as host.

“I noticed that my questions I was asking seemed to have changed,” he said. “My attitude was different, too. I’m kind of like, what’s up with that? So I thought, let’s do an episode about how my questions are changing and how my teen brain is changing.”

Where his 11-year-old self asked existential questions like, “What is love?” and “Why do we dream?” the Tai on mic today is narrowing his focus to the world around him — turned upside down by Covid-19. So Season 3 has dealt with questions like, “Why are viruses so good at what they do?” “How do I know what’s true on the internet?” and “How much screen time is too much?”.

For 10-year-old Nate Butkus, listening to the first episodes of “The Show About Science,” is painful. He was 5 when the show debuted. But so is listening to his most recent episodes. “I’m going through a period when my voice sounds better in my head than it does out loud,” Nate explained.

Nate’s preternatural scientist’s mind has served him well for over 85 episodes, in which he’s interviewed nearly as many scientists on topics, including nanotechnology, 3-D printed organs and black holes. Each episode of his show is led by his own curiosity. He comes up with something that interests him — like cosmic microwave background or quantum mechanics — and then searches on Google for scientists in that field.

“Then if Google pulls up a scientist that is alive and doesn’t have a thick Russian accent, we email them,” Nate said. Once he and his parents have secured a guest, Nate begins the fun part: diving into the research so he can ask the coolest questions.

“I just store all of the really important information in my head,” Nate said. “I’ll always have two or three big questions I know I’m going to ask, and then the rest of the topics just flow from my mind. None of my episodes are scripted.”

The unscripted technique was borne out of necessity. “When I was 5, I couldn’t wead, I couldn’t wite,” Nate said, mimicking his own early rhotacism. “And even if I could wite, I couldn’t wead them later!”

Over the years, Nate has had to learn to ask questions from his audience’s point of view. “It’s something we’ve had to talk about as he’s gotten smarter and smarter,” his mother, Jenny Butkus, said. “Like, ‘Hey Nate, remember, just because you know the answer doesn’t mean everybody else does.’”

But that doesn’t mean Nate’s interviews are dumbed down. The surprise in his expert guests’ voices can often be heard after a smart question comes their way. The reaction was epitomized at the end of the Watergate episode of Nate’s spinoff series, “The Show About Politics & History.” Leon Neyfakh, the creator of the podcast “Slow Burn,” which took on that scandal, apologized: “Sorry I assumed you knew less than you do. You know everything!”

Nate has become a podcast entrepreneur. He’s written a book on podcasting, appeared on “Ellen” and created his own production company, “The Company Making Podcasts,” to produce a show by his friend Edward about Edward’s lifelong obsession, the Titanic. In keeping with the brand, it is, of course, entitled, “The Show About Titanic.”

Nate plans to podcast for as long as he can. “Forever!” he cackles, though he predicts his ultimate profession will be in the fields of biology or “spaceology,” a field he coined mid-interview.

When asked about his podcasting future, Tai at first jokingly deflects the question. “You know, Season 900 of ‘Tai Asks Why’ isn’t not a possibility,” he said. Turning more serious, he admits that going off air would be an unimaginable loss of a way of interacting with the world.

“I’ll lose that outlet, the way that I can express my curiosity and my feelings toward things,” Tai says. “So even if ‘Tai Asks Why’ doesn’t go on, I feel ‘Tai’ will pursue other things. I don’t know. You can ask him, in the future.”

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