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Listening to the Kids

Linda Ellerbee is president of Lucky Duck Productions, which produces some 10 Nick News specials each year. The latest, If I Could Talk To The Elephants, ran July 22 and the next, which will tackle global warming, is scheduled to air Nov. 18. The shows have been on the air at Nickelodeon for 16 years. The 62-year-old executive producer, writer and host of the Nick News specials has won several broadcast journalism awards including a duPont, an Emmy and a Peabody. She is also an accomplished author having written her memoir And So It Goes, as well as children's books. Ellerbee spoke to Multichannel News contributor Luis Clemens about her initial reluctance to cover environmental issues and how children turned her on to the subject. An edited transcript follows:

MCN: How do you go about tackling a subject as complex as global warming and present it in a way that makes sense to children?

Linda Ellerbee: It is interesting because that is almost the wrong question, with all due respect.

MCN: What is the right question, then?

LE: The right question is how do kids get our attention about global warming. After producing Nick News for 16 years and listening to kids all these years, it is clear to me that they are already aware of it, they are interested in it. They look at the world and go, 'You messed up our nest and leave this for us to fix when we are grown-ups. What kind of people are you anyway?'

MCN: What was the process like for pulling together the upcoming global warming special?

LE: This show is a little bit different. Almost all of our shows are for kids and about kids. This show is really by kids for grown-ups. This is kind of a shout-out from the kids of the world to the grown-ups of the world.

We are going around the world and listening to kids in Kenya, the Philippines, Alaska, Holland, Australia and in southern California, and they are telling us how global warming is already affecting their world and [asking] what are we going to do about it.

It is a different kind of show. It is not explaining global warming to kids. These kids explain, we hope, to the adults of the world why they are angry at us. And they are angry at us about this because they understand that we have done it and that they are going to be left to solve it when they are grown.

MCN: It makes for almost scary programming, no?

LE: Well, a little bit. It is the future talking to us.

There are these Inuit kids in Alaska who live in a village, Shishmaref, and the village is actually eroding out from underneath them as the sea rises. The entire village is now on the verge of picking up and having to move inland. Well, they are fishermen. This changes not only this village; it changes the future of their tribe. They are not just losing their town, they are losing a tradition. One of the little girls said I am not happy about it, but at least we wouldn't have to worry about the waves. But, on the other hand, she said Shishmaref is so fragile, the culture is so special, as special as the climate, and when it is gone this village the culture will be gone too.

MCN:Can you pinpoint a time when environmental issues took on much more importance as a news subject?

LE: All these years, environmental stories were never what I wanted to do. I covered politics. I did not find environmental stories interesting. It was kids themselves over the years that turned me around on this. That taught me: one, they are not boring and two, they are politics.

MCN: Please tell me about the If I Could Talk to the Elephants special.

LE: This year we took six kids to the mountains of Thailand where there are no more wild elephants because we the people have taken the elephants' homeland. We have moved into their jungles and into their forests. And they now live in elephant sanctuaries with people who are wrestling with the problem of how do you save the wildlife of an area, the environment that supports it and deal with the needs of humans at the same time.

MCN: In the press release for the special, you wrote “turns out that an elephant poop fight is like swinging a cat. Teaches you something you can learn no other way.” Do tell what is it you learn from an elephant poop fight?

LE: [Laughter.] It started because part of our job in taking care of the elephants was cleaning up after them. Because elephants eat sweet grasses and bamboo their poop does not smell bad. Every day we were cleaning up the poop and the guys are using a shovel and the girls realized that picking it up and putting it in the wheelbarrow was much faster, so we would pick it up with our hands. And the boys would go, 'Eww, you touched it.' This went on for about two days and so the girls and I at a given signal we all picked up handfuls of elephant poop and began to throw it at the boys. Well, it didn't take them long to figure out that the only thing to do was pick some up and throw it back. Very soon, it developed a poop fight that went on for half an hour. It does teach you something that you can learn no other way.

MCN: When you have specials on Nick News that feature animals does it make it easier to talk about environmental issues or not?

LE: Well, I think it does. If you see the elephant special, when you've got kids hugging their elephants and giant tears rolling down their faces as they are saying goodbye to their elephants. Kids and large animals like that, you feel it emotionally when you watch it. And I hope that in this global warming special, there again you don't have to live in the Philippines, you don't have to live in Kenya to understand the heartbreak of dry cracked earth in Kenya or too many typhoons in the Philippines and what it is doing to kids' lives today — much less what it is going to be doing to their future.

It is one thing for me to sit around and complain about the environment. I am 62. I am going to get my good years. They have a right to complain, they truly do. And they have a right to be angry.