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With podcast, Acton 12-year-old finds ‘lights in the tunnel’ of the pandemic

Abby Hirschberg records her podcast, assisted by her father, Ron.
Abby Hirschberg records her podcast, assisted by her father, Ron.

Watching her father, a physician at Massachusetts General Hospital and the chief medical officer of the COVID-19 field hospital at the Boston Convention & Exhibition Center, leave the house every day to serve on the front lines of pandemic care was stressful for Abby Hirschberg.

But the 12-year-old from Acton has always been someone to channel her emotions into creative efforts. Except this time, instead of taking the form of a drawing or a poem, Abby chose a somewhat more state-of-the-art form of media. She started her own podcast.

Called Lights in the Tunnel, the podcast is intended to highlight “lights of positivity in the darkness,” said Abby. “Instead of saying there’s a light only at the end of the tunnel, I wanted to focus on all the lights I saw throughout the day — the lights in the tunnel.”

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For her first podcast episode, released in late April, Abby interviewed her friends about how they were using all their newfound free time after the pandemic closed schools down.

“I had them talk about the good things going on in their lives during a really hard time for us all. We chatted about artwork, exercise, spending lots of time with our families, and what we can’t wait to do when this pandemic is over,” Abby said.

In subsequent episodes, she interviewed her older brother Ben about what he was doing with his non-school hours (Xbox, basketball, and bonding with the family dog); and her grandparents, who confessed that they missed their friends and going to restaurants but also, as Abby pointed out, “how they’ve been married for 54 years and still like spending time with each other!”

Abby knew the basics of podcasting because her father, Ron, is the cohost of a podcast about Boston-area live music called “Above the Basement” and producer of the podcast “Home Base Nation” for Home Base, a partnership of the Red Sox Foundation and MGH that supports service members, veterans, and their families.

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Once she’d gained some confidence with her interviewing skills, Abby branched out beyond friends and family for her pool of guests. She did one show featuring Melissa Clayton, CEO and founder of a personalized jewelry company called Tiny Tags; and another with Abby Schiller, a songwriter and student at Berklee College of Music who just released a song called “Hero To Me,” honoring health care workers and others on the front lines of the pandemic.

In each podcast episode, she encourages listeners to donate to First Responders Children’s Foundation, a nonprofit that provides support for first responders and their families who are enduring financial hardship due to the coronavirus outbreak.

“I’ve always liked to write, and one of the most important parts of podcasting is writing all the questions,” Abby said. “I like interviewing people, too.”

Still, Abby had to refine her skills and learn some new ones.

“I’m kind of shy talking to adults,” she said. “That’s why I started with my friends and family. At the beginning, I’d ask a question and then when someone answered it, I didn’t always know what to say next. But I’ve gotten better at it. Now I’m talking with adults much more easily.”

Meanwhile, her father helped out with the editing and taught her to do intros, outtros, and other filler components. Much of their program planning took place on long walks around the neighborhood when he got home from work, a routine Ron Hirschberg said he found particularly comforting when he was putting in 14-hour days at the Boston Hope field hospital, which closed earlier this month.

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“Talking with my daughter about her project, how to do it, and why it was important to her, that was my light in the tunnel,” he said. “This is our thing together. It’s a less tangible project than, say, building something in a shed. But it inspires me.”

The knowledge that she’s making a difference keeps her motivated, Abby said. She has listeners in Sweden, Israel, the United Kingdom, and Brazil as well as in the United States. Many of them are donating to the charity she promotes. She also invites people to submit feedback about their own “lights” — moments of positivity in the midst of difficult times — through her website.

Abby said she plans to continue podcasting throughout the summer as she prepares to start seventh grade at R.J. Grey Junior High in Acton. In future episodes she hopes to interview her rabbi, some of her elementary school teachers, and a spokesperson from the ASPCA, since rescuing animals is one of her favorite topics.

“During this time, there’s not much that a kid can do to help,” she said. “Seeing my father wearing a mask when he comes home, quarantining, not able to come home at all some nights, that gives me a lot of perspective. No one was expecting this and we can’t do too much about it. Everyone has to make the best of it. I always think about something I’m grateful for, every day.”

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Find Abby’s podcast on Spotify or at lights-in-the-tunnel.simplecast.com.

Nancy Shohet West can be reached at nancyswest@gmail.com.