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How an indie publisher converted two picture books into a multi-story series for national radio

How an indie publisher converted two picture books into a multi-story series for national radio

By Richard Dikstra |

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Richard Dikstra and Kay Hutchison form Belle Media, an indie publisher and podcast production company responsible for notable children’s books and audiobooks such as Tigeropolis (narrated by Richard E. Grant) and The Adventures of Captain Bobo, for which the Belle Media team recently secured a multi-story deal with Fun Kids DAB Radio, in both English and Gaelic. Richard told whitefox exactly how the team took their book from print to audio, to national radio.

We’re really excited that our kids’ picture book series The Adventures of Captain Bobo, will shortly start its run as a series on national radio. The stories follow the exploits of a captain, his ship and his faithful (and at times comic) crew as they sail around the UK; from the Outer Hebrides to London, via the Clyde, North Wales and the Jurassic Coast.

‘This dual-language simulcast is something of a first for UK commercial radio (and for UK publishing) and will be broadcast on a number of smaller local FM stations right across Scotland’

John Sessions is our storyteller. The series starts on Thursday 24 September on Fun Kids DAB Radio. Given its initial setting in the Western Isles, we are doubly excited that we are also offering a Gaelic version of the series. This dual-language simulcast is something of a first for UK commercial radio (and for UK publishing) and will be broadcast on a number of smaller local FM stations right across Scotland.

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‘We come from a broadcasting background and are relatively new to publishing, but from the outset we wanted to develop stories and characters that would work across different media’

The stories have a personal resonance for one of our Directors, Kay Hutchison. Her father was a captain, served on the Clyde in its heyday, and finished his career in command of the luxury cruise ship Hebridean Princess. His own memoirs – Hurricane Hutch’s Top 10 Ships of the Clyde – was our introduction to publishing and part of the inspiration for the children’s stories. One of his nicknames was ‘Bobo’.

We come from a broadcasting background and are relatively new to publishing, but from the outset we wanted to develop stories and characters that would work across different media. For instance, our Tigeropolis series about vegetarian tigers running their own wildlife reserve has its own adventure game, and we’ve had a number of discussions about how best to turn it into an animation series.

The opportunity for our Captain Bobo series came about rather differently…

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We had produced audiobooks before (Tigeropolis is narrated by Richard E. Grant and Hurricane Hutch by Bill Paterson) and we produce our own regular book-based podcast (Belle Books & Stories), but we were slightly nervous about turning a beautifully illustrated picture book into an audiobook. We’d talked previously to Nic Jones at Strathmore about the issue and he encouraged us to consider it more seriously. We began to realise audio had some specific advantages. You can bring the stories to life in a different way by choosing an engaged narrator and creating a new sound world. Radio could also introduce our characters to a wider audience. The production and distribution costs of audio (less than physical production costs) has allowed us to expand the range of stories more quickly.

‘You can bring the stories to life in a different way by choosing an engaged narrator and creating a new sound world. The production and distribution costs of audio, which is less than physical production costs, has allowed us to expand the range of stories more quickly’

This was especially true in looking to serve Gaelic speakers. The stories are quite short – perhaps we could produce an audiobook of five or six stories and if they did well, only then go on to consider printing a Gaelic edition. The Gaelic Books Council were encouraging and offered up some support for commissioning a translation of our existing stories. They also helped suggest a suitable translator.

We then realised there was a greater opportunity, and that we had the potential to extend the project significantly. We pitched the idea of producing multi-story radio series (with both English and Gaelic versions). Fun Kids expressed interest, as did a number of smaller regional and local FM stations. But budgets were still prohibitive. However, with our broadcast background we were already aware of the DDCMS-backed Audio Content Fund and their role in supporting ‘public service’ production in the commercial radio sector. So, we set about making the case. Effectively we had to pitch the show three times – once to Fun Kids, once to the collective of local Scottish FM stations and then finally to the ACF. In each case we were able to convince them of Captain Bobo’s potential to entertain and engage children as well as its unique, intergenerational, appeal.

We signed contracts at the end of July, with a delivery slated for mid-September.

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We decided to handle the production in-house, but in partnership with Strathmore Studios. We’d recently been working with them on an audiobook of one of our non-fiction titles and, of course, they run the Cloudaloud children’s audio app and have long-standing expertise in children’s audio.

The radio stations wanted episodes to be ten minutes long. Luckily a ten-minute episode length is just about compatible with the existing picture book word count (currently there are two printed books, with a third set to be published in January 2021). In total, this first series is ten episodes, so we needed to write an additional seven stories. Each story had to be entirely self-contained and work without reference to the printed book, past storylines, or illustrations, and yet also retain the possibility of someday also appearing in print as a 32-page picture book.

‘The radio stations wanted episodes to be ten minutes long. Luckily a ten-minute episode length is just about compatible with the existing picture book word count’

We worked with whitefox in the past on a number of our titles – most recently My Life in Therapies – and went to John to find an editor for this series. Ruth Redford was a great help and source of expertise, working within our restrictions and to tight deadlines as necessitated by the confirmed broadcast date (3.15pm on 24 September 2020).

The situation was further complicated by the problems around COVID-19 restrictions. Normally we would expect to have the opportunity to meet up and discuss things in person on a creative project like this and would certainly expect to be present for the initial part of a recording session to ensure everyone shared the same vision for the project. This time we had to rely on telephone calls, Zoom and our previous working relationships. Luckily Nic Jones at Strathmore has a real feel for the project.

John Sessions was a natural choice – as well as being a gifted voice artist with a warm and friendly accent, he was born in a small seaside town on the Clyde Coast. His family moved away when he was still quite young, but he returned to the area regularly and knew the boats and the people that inspired the stories. His fondness for the stories shines through.

Our choice for the Gaelic series was equally important. Here again we are delighted with Gillebride MacMillan. He was born on Uist and is a lecturer in Gaelic Studies at the University of Glasgow. And he’s also a singer and actor – both John and Gillebride have appeared in the long-running time-shifting saga Outlander. Gillebride also has children around the target age for the series (4–8-year-olds), and we are very pleased with how the Gaelic version is turning out and how much attention it is getting in Scotland.

Finally, given Kay’s background in music, we wanted to use the programme to give an opportunity to an upcoming composer. We are working with Adiescar Chase, who is studying composition at the National Film & Television School. Not only has she composed and played a really evocative theme tune, she’s also proficient on the pipes – so we have a bagpipe version of the Bobo theme for the inevitable visit to the Highland Games (Episode 3 – Tigers!).

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The Adventures of Captain Bobo begins its ten-week run on Fun Kids DAB Radio on 24 September.

Currently there are two Captain Bobo picture books – Bananas! and On the Rocks. The third, London, is published in January 2021. Gaelic versions of all three are due in early 2021.

For more details visit our website.

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