There’s this moment that happens as a parent, sometime between when the seat belts click and the screaming starts. Your car leaves the driveway and you notice, hey, that’s Morning Edition’s David Greene, live from Culver City, California, and he’s talking about something you’re truly into, like a new theory about the universe’s origins, or maybe Wiffle Ball. You realize first that you still don’t know exactly where Culver City is, or why David Greene is there, and isn’t it like 4 in the morning for him? Then you realize that your kids haven’t asked you to change the station yet.
You do hope they’re alive back there, but you put off checking for proof of life until the Wiffle Ball story is over. That’s when it happens, the shrill sounds of the Backseat Youth Chorus rising in unison:
Dad! Can we listen to . . . ?
What they demand depends on their age, their interests, and whatever boundaries you’ve managed to erect. Perhaps you’ve convinced them your car plays only NPR. Maybe you’ve found common ground on a windows-down, hands-in-the-wind pop mix that always shuffles its way to Carly Rae Jepsen. Maybe, like me, you occasionally give up and toss your phone over your shoulder, a no-look dime right into your beloved offspring’s chest, because what’s a little ADHD when it means 20 minutes of peace as you dodge cyclists on your morning commute?
Maybe you talk to your kids?
Or maybe you’re one of the lucky ones—one of the millions whose children have fallen for Absolutely Mindy!, satellite radio’s morning-drive staple, or Wow in the World, one of the most popular kids’ podcasts in existence. Either way, do not be alarmed by that ethereal hum of bliss emanating from the snot-stained, snack-strewn seats behind you. Your kids are alive and well back there. This is your new morning. It’s brought to you by Mindy Thomas.
Absolutely Mindy! airs live every weekday from 7 to 10 am. One morning last summer, I traversed a hallway of darkened studios inside Sirius XM’s brick compound in Northeast DC and stopped at the one bursting with light. I didn’t see Thomas in there, but I knew it was hers from the colorful regiment of action figures atop her desk.
A face popped up from between Chip, the precocious teacup in Beauty and the Beast, and Spirit, the untamable Stallion of the Cimarron. Thomas smiled, a phone pressed to her ear. She’s 40, and she seems 40, and she seems cool with being 40. She keeps her hair blond, the color of her childhood, which I know because she once answered the phone by saying she had tinfoil on her head. She keeps her high, round cheeks mostly makeup-free. Her eyes are big and green and always look interested.
This morning, she was on the phone with Noah. Noah is 17 and autistic, part of a squad of kids for whom getting through to Mindy is a daily thing. They have to dial dozens of times, and for some, like Noah, it’s crucial that they succeed. Once, a dad e-mailed Thomas after her show ended. His son had failed to reach her, and now the boy was stuck. Was there any way Thomas could call? She called.
Thomas greeted her listeners—when she says “Good MOR-NING,” you believe it—and launched into a story about her eight-year-old daughter’s recent attempt to let her fingernails grow for 100 days, part of a pact with her friends. (Thomas said she cut them in her sleep after a few days.) Then Thomas wove the story of a man who had let his own nails grow for 66 years, until they were 31 curly feet long, before selling them to Ripley’s Believe It or Not. Thomas asked her listeners to call in and say what they’d do if they inherited those precious artifacts.
This was where I witnessed the powers of Mindy. Other hosts on her station, Kids Place Live, interact with callers mostly in prerecorded interviews. Thomas does it all live, a high-wire act that requires an abiding faith in the creativity of children. “She’s talking to them as co-creators in the moment,” says Paul Bachmann, another host on the station. “You saw that, right? That’s nuts.”
Thomas grew up in suburban Dayton, Ohio, where her parents encouraged her to roam free, in the street and in her imagination. When she and her friends announced cul-de-sac variety shows, her dad, an engineer, set up lawn chairs along with his cutting-edge camcorder. When they refused to leave Thomas’s tree house during a rainstorm—playing so hard they were “forced” to pee into an empty margarine container—her mom, a preschool teacher, just chuckled. (They were playing Golden Girls. Thomas was Rose, obviously.) When Thomas’s little brother, a ham-radio geek, got a tape recorder for Christmas, Thomas commandeered it and spent the long ride back from Grandma’s house capturing her own voice, trying to find the subtle differences between live Mindy and recorded Mindy.
They moved to Florida when she was eight. Eventually, she discovered acting, but she wasn’t inspired enough to stray far from home. She went to college nearby and got a job at State Farm, doing who cares.
What Thomas wanted to do was to play, preferably with eight-year-olds from Ohio. She called every TV and radio station in the area, asking for any job. When the host of Blue’s Clues was rumored to have died, Thomas dialed Universal Studios and asked how to apply to replace him. (Sadly, he was alive and well.) She finally landed a part-time promotions job at a radio station and weaseled her way onto the air. That’s when she heard about a new satellite-radio station for kids that was scheduled to launch in late 2001 and was looking for hosts. She wrote a seven-page memo proposing a show presented from the perspective of a child, airing live from the dresser drawers of her childhood bedroom.
“Kids can smell BS very quickly,” says Kenny Curtis, a longtime DC radio personality who was staffing up the new station. As he read Thomas’s memo, it was obvious she would connect with the audience, because it was obvious she could still connect with her inner eight-year-old: “I’ve been in children’s programming since 1989. She may be the only genuine natural I’ve ever truly seen.”
Thomas was 22. She got the job.
Now, 18 years later, what to do with those fingernails? A caller named Ava suggested building a reindeer, using the gangly nails as antlers. “Oh!” Thomas said, her eyes widening. She is a yes-and junkie, always taking the roots of a kid’s idea and helping grow it into something wilder. “You could be a reindeer for Halloween! And you could take those long, squiggly nails and attach them to your head. Maybe have them permanently installed.”
“Kids can smell BS very quickly. I’ve been in children’s programming since 1989. Mindy may be the only genuine natural I’ve ever truly seen.”
The next caller, Nola, couldn’t hear Thomas because the car radio was too loud. This happens often. Other times, Thomas can tell a kid is distracted because a parent is whispering ideas to him. “Don’t!” Thomas wants to scream. “Your kid’s got this! And you look like a fool because we can all hear you!”
The show went on like that all morning. During Schmovie, the kids used two-word prompts to create weird movie ideas, including a romantic comedy about a lonely narcoleptic body builder. During Carpool Breakdown, a caller told Thomas about the ginormous hair knot that nearly derailed her morning. “Just be patient with it,” Thomas told the girl, whose mom wanted to cut the locks. “I’m sure it’s fine just the way it is.”
Later, they played Portal Potty, one of Thomas’s favorites. In it, she uses sound effects to “flush” callers down a magical porta-john and into a fictional realm, then has them tell listeners what transpired during these imaginary travels. Today’s caller wasn’t the best, but Thomas coaxed from her a story about a journey into a deep-sea world of charming mermaids and talking sea life. It was like watching someone do improv with a broomstick, then watching the broomstick come to life.
Thomas lives in Fairfax, in a craftsman she shares with her husband, Ryan, a public-school administrator and bluegrass musician; their school-age kids, Rhett and Birdie; and a cat they call Moosey. She leaves the house most mornings around 5:30, stealing kisses from her sleeping brood. By the time she returns, sometime before noon, she spends a few hours doing what parents do, pulling frozen animal parts from the freezer and picking up small items of clothing that have ventured improbably far from their natural habitats. Time flies when you’re herding laundry.
What happens after that is purposefully unscripted, her attempt to emulate the free-wheeling, ’80s-style chaos of her old cul-de-sac. One day last summer, that meant picking up her kids from acting camp, taking them and their friends for ice cream, then walking home through a cemetery, hopping fences and checking gravestones for dead people with whom they shared birthdays or names. Thomas was particularly keen on the pool. It seems she had forgotten how to do a flip off the board. As a child, she used to love doing that. Now she couldn’t remember the last time she’d even dived. “Everything else I do, I feel super-connected to my fun childhood self,” she says. “But this I had lost.”
Once a week, Thomas records Wow in the World. The show launched in the spring of 2017, but its origins can be traced, through Twitter of course, to a chance encounter in 2014. She was well into Absolutely Mindy! by then, and over the years she’d had rough ideas for children’s books and variety shows. But she’d also had two kids and been promoted to station management. The demands of working parenthood tended to sink those vessels before they were even half built.
Then one spring night, she was checking her Twitter mentions and noticed a familiar handle: @GuyRaz.
Guy Raz—it’s one of those names that work better when they’re stuck together—is an NPR all-star, having led bureaus, covered wars, and hosted Weekend All Things Considered andTED Radio Hour. His family had bought their first car, which came with a trial subscription to Sirius XM. His children found Thomas’s show. Guy Raz found himself struck by how much rope she handed her listeners. “It was a way for kids to feel a sense of agency in the world,” he says.
So he tweeted: “Absolutely Mindy on @SiriusXM is Morning Edition for kids.”
A TED Radio Hour obsessive, Thomas sat in bed, struggling to compose a response, before settling on blunt-force honesty.
“I am totally freaking out right now,” she wrote.
They kept tweeting. Soon, Guy Raz was coming on Absolutely Mindy! for a weekly segment she called Breakfast Blast Newscast. They became friends and discovered a Rose-and-Dorothy vibe that worked on the radio and in life. Thomas was fine being almost-40 but preferred to play as if she were 30 years younger; Guy Raz, as he said once on TED Radio Hour, had been “desperate to get out of my twenties.” It revealed itself in their parenting, too. On a kayaking trip, Thomas let her kids hang off the boat while Guy Raz made his keep their shoes on. “There could be flesh-eating microbes in there!” he said, but Thomas didn’t care, at least not until her son got that staph infection.
One day, in 2016, during a family hike at Great Falls, the two started talking about making a new show. It would focus on scientific discoveries—stories that could ignite kids’ imaginations without hijacking them the way screens do. “A cartoon of the mind,” Guy Raz says. “But embedded in that cartoon is a peer-reviewed academic journal’s scientific paper. It’s a little like hiding kale in a smoothie.”
There were already some popular children’s podcasts, but there weren’t many—audio companies were still grappling with how to sell advertising without turning off parents. Early in 2017, they recorded a handful of stories and shared them with colleagues at NPR, only to receive some disappointing feedback: Too much of the show featured Smart Dude Guy Raz explaining science to Silly Girl Mindy.
NPR colleagues initially saw a problem: It was Smart Dude Guy explaining science to Silly Girl Mindy.
The pair regrouped, building a pilot they thought made better use of Thomas’s voice, and NPR signed on. (Tinkercast, the duo’s podcast company, later brought on a third cofounder, a former Sprout TV executive named Meredith Halpern-Ranzer.) In May 2017, the first episode of Wow in the World hit iTunes, featuring Thomas and Guy Raz telling each other about the search for Planet 9 and the science behind gratitude.
But some listeners still bristled at the dynamic between them. They still hadn’t fully shed their personas from the radio. “We were thinking—because it worked on my other show—for me to be the proxy for the kid and to ask the questions that a kid might be wondering and for Guy to be the journalist,” she says. “But here it didn’t work that way. It just didn’t.”
When Thomas was little, her dad, an amateur pilot and aerospace buff who goes by Buzz, kept a fuselage in the garage. At night, he tinkered, disappearing into the shell of an old Piper Arrow. Her younger brother sometimes disappeared into the garage, too. But Thomas stayed upstairs with her hairbrush microphone, thinking: Why can’t we just have cars like normal people? It never occurred to her to join them in the garage, and like so many girls before her, she decided sometime in grade school that science and engineering weren’t for her. Back then, the only time she and Buzz talked science was when she got in trouble. She could always distract him by asking him to explain atoms.
Thomas thought about her dad as she and Guy Raz set out to fix Wow in the World. They decided to take turns conceiving and writing each episode, to make sure they were truly equals. But Thomas had no experience reading scientific journals or interviewing scientists, and she found herself feeling as if she were supposed to be playing in the bathroom while Guy Raz tinkered in the garage. “I’m not a science journalist!” she told him one afternoon, through tears. “I don’t know how to do this!”
In time, though, Thomas learned: Even experienced science journalists struggle to grasp this stuff. What makes them good is their ability to keep asking the scientists to explain it, no matter how many times it takes. So she kept asking, kept writing, kept pushing herself to find a voice she could be proud of—that of a smart, curious woman, yet one who hadn’t lost touch with the little girl who flipped into pools and peed into fake-butter tubs. She also pushed Guy Raz to let kids hear him to be silly and to be scared, which he was sometimes reluctant to do.
Our parents think we coddle the kids, or act juvenile ourselves, but we know better, Wow taps into this thumping vein of modern parenting culture.
“It can’t always be me,” she told me one day over lunch in her back yard. “Otherwise I’m your dumb—” She stopped herself, knowing that no noun deserved to live at the end of that sentence. “People don’t have a lot of opinions about how to be the right kind of man,” she said. “People have a lot of opinions about how to be the right kind of woman.”
Wow in the World found its voice, and quickly—it reached more than half a million downloads in the first four weeks. An early turning point came in the second episode, when Thomas introduced her fictional pet pigeon, Reggie, whom she could pilot like a purring Piper Arrow. Reggie gave the show a third dimension they didn’t know it needed. They kept experimenting from there, inviting listeners to join them on Reggie’s back, in Thomas’s gingerbread house, and in the time machine she keeps in her airplane hangar. Soon, the episodes had evolved into immersive explorations of a singular topic, everything from why shoelaces refuse to stay tied to the origins of the universe.
My family started listening not long after it launched. My wife and I, like a lot of modern parents, crave content and experiences we can share with our children. Our own parents sometimes think we’re coddling the kids, or being juvenile ourselves, but we know better, just like our kids will know better than we do. From episode one, Wow tapped straight into this thumping vein of modern parenting culture. The science was fresh and fact-checked. The jokes were perfectly timed, with some aimed at parents (an actual flea playing the bass) and some aimed at kids (Thomas loves a good fart joke).
It sounded beautiful, too. For the theme song, Thomas called on the Pop Ups, a Grammy-nominated “kindie” band she knew from Absolutely Mindy! For sound design, she called on another kindie-scene friend, Jed Anderson, who texturized the show with music, voices, and effects. Though many families, like mine, listen in the car, podcasts have also crept into bedtime routines, so Anderson likes to imagine kids listening with headphones in the dark, after their mandated bedtimes but before their swirling kid brains are ready to power down. Just as they always suspected, the most important element is their listeners’ imaginations.
“Everybody is seeing the Paw Patrol the same way,” Guy Raz says. “Everyone sees Reggie differently.” They know because they asked kids to send in photos of Reggie and received hundreds of intricate drawings, no two the same.
After lunch, Thomas walked downstairs to her basement guest room, where she and Guy Raz were scheduled to record the latest Wow in the World. Light poured through a window that framed some wildflowers growing outside, which matched the floral duvet on the bed, which matched the floral watercolor on the wall, which matched Thomas’s floral-print dress, which was even more floral than the dresses she wore the three other times we met.
Thomas took her seat at a small folding table topped with a laptop, mike, and sound mixer. Her phone rang. It was Guy Raz, calling from his home studio in California, where he’d recently moved. “Hey, GUY RA-AZ!” she said.
Before recording, they ran through some business. Wow in the World has now been downloaded more than 20 million times, according to industry metrics provided by Tinkercast—it’s frequently the number-one kids’ podcast on iTunes. Publishers are calling; TV execs are, too. Thomas and Guy Raz have already produced a second podcast, in partnership with Highlights magazine, and they’ve brought on a third writer to help script Wow in the World. On the day I visited, they were preparing for a slate of live theater shows. (The first one in DC is March 24 at the Lincoln Theatre.)
Thomas pulled up the script. She’s come to enjoy the challenge of writing scripts—of understanding the science, translating it for kids, then transforming it for silly kids to whom science might not come as naturally. Occasionally, she calls her dad to talk it through; for one episode, about static electricity, she sent him part of the script to make sure she was properly defining atoms. But today’s episode was a little off of Buzz’s radar. It was about scientists’ quest to create melt-resistant ice cream. Thomas kicked things off.
MINDY (singing loudly): “Now watch me drip, drip, now watch me nae nae.”
GUY RAZ: “Mindy?”
MINDY: “Hey, GUY RA-AZ! Check out my sweet new ride.”
GUY RAZ: “Mindy, where did you get an ice-cream truck?”
MINDY: “Hang on a sec, Guy Raz. I’ll be right there.”
GUY RAZ (to himself): “Her truck is called A Midsummer Night’s Cream?”
MINDY (making a screeching sound): “You just got served. Soft-served.”
Occasionally, Guy Raz noticed some flabby writing and tightened it up on the fly. Occasionally, Thomas had to drag Guy Raz a little deeper into her world. Occasionally, if her voice sounded flat or disengaged, she had to drag herself there. It didn’t happen often, though. They laid down the 23-minute episode in less than half an hour.
“Now Watch Me Drip Drip,” the show’s 63rd episode, went up a few days later. That afternoon, I listened with my son as we drove home from summer camp. I could see him in the rearview, staring out the window as if watching Mindy steer her ice-cream truck through the Darién Gap and into South America, where she and Guy Raz would extract tiny fibers from banana waste product in order to make melt-resistant ice cream. He hardly blinked as Thomas walked Guy Raz, beat by beat, through the episode’s science, including the pseudo-stems of banana trees, the life cycle of perennial herbs, and the definition of cellulose nanofibrils, infusing it all with her playful Mindyisms—a “butt” joke here, a “bonkerballs” there.
We stopped the episode only once. I was listening closely, trying to find the subtle differences between live Mindy and recorded Mindy, when my son called out from the back seat with a question. I smiled, and he asked why I was smiling, so I pressed pause and we talked awhile.
This article appears in the March 2019 issue of Washingtonian.