Family goes worldwide Webkinz

  • Article by: RANDY A. SALAS , Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 20, 2008 - 4:34 PM

A Plymouth father and his two daughters are scoring big with a popular podcast about the all-the-rage toy animals.

What rhymes with "webcast"?

Dave Swerdlick and his daughters, Hannah, 9, and Zoe, 6, spent a few minutes hashing that out, then it was time for Zoe to work her magic.

"Hey, you -- we're gonna have a blast," the first-grader said enthusiastically into a microphone. "It's time for the 'Webkinz Webcast'!"

She nailed it in one take.

Thus began another recording session for the Plymouth father-daughter trio's hit Internet show, "Webkinz Webcast," which covers the popular Webkinz toys. The free show has been among the top 10 podcasts in the Kids & Family section of Apple's online iTunes Store for weeks.

When you add listeners from the show's own website (www.webkinzwebcast.com), the podcast -- which can be saved to an MP3 player such as an iPod or played directly from the Web -- has been downloaded about 50,000 times in just the past month.

The girls give shout-outs to specific listeners, and they read e-mail. The show gets loads of fan feedback -- mostly from the United States and Canada, but also from countries such as South Korea, Bahrain and Turkey. One 14-year-old girl in Athens e-mailed to say that "Webkinz Webcast" is her favorite show.

"I can't believe how big of an audience we've received in such a short period of time," Swerdlick said. "The response has been overwhelming."

For those not in the know, Webkinz are stuffed animals that come with a code that allows their owners to go to the Webkinz World website and adopt a virtual version of the animal as a pet. To say the toys are hot is an understatement. Google reports that "Webkinz" was No. 2 (behind "iPhone") among all online search terms in 2007.

That helps explain why Webkinz were the top pick for a subject when Swerdlick asked the girls if they wanted to do a podcast after he bought a Mac computer last summer. Their original topic was going to be American Girl dolls, but by the time their father had gained the technical know-how, the girls had moved on to Webkinz as their playtime passion.

Hannah said of the last-minute switch: "Webkinz are more popular, and they're for girls and boys."

It was solely the girls' call, Swerdlick said. "The webcast was not intended to be a trendy thing," he said. "There was no motive in doing it."

He elaborated: "I'm not a fisherman; I can't teach my kids fishing skills. But I have a bit of a background in broadcasting, and I thought what a great way to share it. My wife teaches them sewing, and I can teach them how to do some broadcasting."

Quality time together

In fact, Kari Swerdlick, who has been married to Dave for 10 years, watched her husband and daughters record "Webkinz Webcast" for the first time just last Wednesday, even though it was their 11th show. It's their quality time together, she said.

Each 20- to 25-minute episode of "Webkinz Webcast" is recorded essentially live in a downstairs room where guitars and sales-certification awards line the wall, remnants of Dave's music-industry past. He now is a wholesale distributor, but he also used to be a programmer and DJ at a Colorado radio station.

He sits at a desk in front of a microphone and the computer, while the girls share a microphone over to the side. Hannah has her own computer, a compact laptop, which she uses to read from the Webkinz website during the show, with Zoe looking over her shoulder.

For the 11th show, the trio shared recipes, offered tips for earning play money on the Webkinz site and talked about new products. When Dad held up the new Webkinz catalog that had just arrived, the girls squealed in surprise.

"Gimme!" Zoe cried, snatching it out of his hands. "Oooh, they're so cute!" she cooed as she and Hannah pawed through page after page filled with pictures of plush critters.

That kind of spontaneity is his main goal with the show, Swerdlick said. Nothing is rehearsed. Swerdlick says he has never heard from the maker of Webkinz, Ganz. But spokeswoman Susan McVeigh told the Star Tribune that the Canadian toy company greatly appreciated the effort and commitment put into "Webkinz Webcast" and other fan projects online.

"We do no advertising for Webkinz pets ourselves ... relying instead on word of mouth from kids and adults who discovered them," she said. "We say the Webkinz story has spread 'playground to playground.'"

Randy A. Salas • 612-673-4542.

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