Raising a child with special needs encouraged this couple to make a kids show

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For Saab Magalona and Jim Bacarro, the views don’t matter — the Puddy Rock YouTube channel is proof of love for their children. Photo courtesy of PUDDY ROCK

The same millennials who grew up on T.V. culture are now raising their young kids in a completely different world. Screen time in the early ‘90s to the early '00s was sourced from local and cable television, whereas nowadays screen time for today’s children is purely on demand. Kids no longer have to wait each week for new episodes of their favorite shows.

Video on demand (VOD) has seen a steady growth in the last few years, especially as most parts of the world remain in quarantine. The global VOD industry is projected to grow up to $159 billion in 2027. Content creation by way of YouTube and TikTok has never been more democratic. If you can think of any type of content, there’s probably someone out there making it. It’s enough for a child to stay entertained for hours, and for parents to get a much-deserved moment of sanity. And as much as it’s advisable to reduce screen time for young children, they’ve never been more glued to laptops and tablets than they are now, especially because of online school.

Musician, podcast host, and mom of two Saab Magalona-Bacarro remembers how her feelings about screen time for kids have changed — especially when the pandemic began. “It’s really funny because I, of course, as a new parent in this age, thought, ‘Oh, I’m gonna be one of those moms who’s like “zero screen time” (scoffs) Who does that? [I said], “I can do this. They’re not gonna have screen time. We’re gonna be really strict about it. It’s gonna ruin their brains,’” she says during a video call with CNN Philippines Life. “But it’s just not… you really can’t avoid it eh.”

For Saab and her husband Jim Bacarro, also a musician and podcast host, knowing that screens would be a part of their children’s lives pushed them to seek out content that they’d be happy to let their kids watch. And upon realizing that they themselves had the tools to produce that content, they decided to embark on creating Puddy Rock, a kid-friendly, educational music channel on YouTube. The fully animated channel prides itself on being Filipino-made, with songs written in English, Filipino, and Bisaya. Some songs also include onscreen sign language translators.

Puddy Rock may be free for anyone to enjoy, but for the Bacarros, its origins are very personal: the songs on the channel were made for their toddlers Pancho and Vito. “Music has been so important in this household, and we had these songs for our kids — either to get them excited or to calm them down,” Jim says. “There were times kasi when we could go out pa in car rides, we’d lose signal. We couldn’t play Spotify anymore. And we couldn’t do anything to keep them entertained. So sabi ko, why don’t I just record —”

“As opposed to just saving a song on your phone, huh? You made one. Labo,” Saab interjects with a laugh. And though Saab readily teases her husband about making music for their kids, Jim credits her as the one who really encouraged him to keep at it. “Saab really pushed me and said ‘Oh, these are great, keep making the songs.’”

YouTube channel Puddy Rock is an attempt at making Filipino/Filipino-made songs more contemporary, more hip, and definitely more accessible to the internet-aware toddlers of today. Photo courtesy of PUDDY ROCK

They teamed up with Ali Sangalang, writer and founder of casualwear brand Linya Linya. Sangalang and the Bacarros are business partners at Linya-Linya (“Jim’s work wife,” says Saab, to which Jim wholeheartedly agrees), and felt that the brand’s design capabilities would be the answer to Puddy Rock’s production requirements.

Linya-Linya’s lead artist Rob Cham took the reins on Puddy Rock’s look: bright colors, and bold, textured lines for the character design. The animation is also done in-house by the Linya-Linya team. According to Sangalang, his input is mainly cultural; while he helps Jim with translating some of the lyrics, he says, “Yung main elements talaga that I can contribute to the team is yung Filipino experience na I think important ngayon. Yung isang insight namin, especially with Jim and Saab, as young parents, parang they want to teach Pancho and Vito about the Filipino language, the Filipino culture. And ang hirap noon [kasi] when you go to Youtube, puro international songs lang yung available for kids.”

In the same way that the witticisms on Linya-Linya products feature Filipino humor, Puddy Rock is an attempt at making Filipino/Filipino-made songs more contemporary, more hip, and definitely more accessible to the internet-aware toddlers of today. “[Filipino kids songs] are very traditional like yung ‘Leron Leron Sinta’ pa rin or ‘Bahay Kubo,’” Sangalang says. “Gets naman na [those songs] can help them learn about the Filipino language, pero hindi na relatable, I think. Di na rin ‘cool’ for the kids. Even for the parents. Parang nagkakaroon ng disconnect.”

The Puddy Rock team has taken particular care in bridging that disconnect and to do that, they’ve made it into a family business, in the truest sense of the word. For their earlier Bisaya songs, Jim enlisted the help of Pancho’s caregiver to help translate some of the words. Jim handles most of the music production work, while Saab mainly provides the channel structure by suggesting songs based on kid-friendly lessons. She’s also the occasional sounding board during the drafting process.

“Sometimes, si Saab needs to come in and say, ‘Oh, that’s too weird.’ [Or] she’d say, ‘Sobra na yan,’” Jim says. “But in fairness naman, maganda yung batuhan namin because initially, I’d get, ‘Huh? Okay naman ha.’ I know for a fact that she’s right.”

Most importantly, the arbiter on which songs actually make it on the channel are the Bacarro kids themselves. Their younger son Vito can either really love a song, or hate it enough for Jim to scrap a near-finished piece of work completely. “We made this hip-hop ABC song. I was so ready for it. And we played it for the boys, and talagang ayaw na ayaw nila,” Jim recalls. “Vito, first ten seconds, Pancho… ayaw. I completely scrapped it. And it was full na ha. Tapos na.”

They also noticed that since he was a baby, their son Pancho, who is living with cerebral palsy, was extremely responsive to certain songs or sounds. It’s also the reason why Jim painstakingly works on the mixing of every song. “I’m very particular na, ‘I want this to sound like an LCD Soundsystem track’ or something like that,” Jim says. “[Because] I see how that type of music affects Vito in one way, and also Pancho. I get to merge both things that they love. Si Pancho loves these quirky synthesizers. Alam ko na eh, alam ko yung kiliti niya.”

The devotion to making Puddy Rock a safe space for their special needs child is part of why they wanted the channel’s cast of animal characters to be diverse as well — each one, interestingly, named after the many nicknames the couple has given their kids. Oceanist, the fish character, sits on a wheelchair. Saab adds: “Si Arfist [the dog], it’s not that clear, but most of the time, his arm is bent, which is a symptom of cerebral palsy. Of course the inspiration is Pancho and Vito, and promoting inclusivity for children with special needs to feel like they’re always welcome. Even if it started as a personal thing, we wanted to make the message clear that we’re not doing this just for Pancho, but we really feel for parents who have special needs kids din, and we want to give them what we have.”

With giving back in mind, the Puddy Rock team is determined to not only make the channel profitable, but reciprocal too. Like the partnerships they’ve taken on with non-profit organizations like AHA! Learning Center and Love Yourself through Linya-Linya, they plan on replicating that model with Puddy Rock.

“It’s really one of the channels that we will use to give back to our community, and we have partnerships at the planning stage of advocacies, and helping them get the word out,” Saab says.

For Sangalang, giving back has never been more essential during tough times. And though promoting a kids music channel when content on demand has never been more diverse and saturated is a challenge, they’re determined to make something out of it beyond just content production. “Ngayon pang pandemic, nahihirapan din [kami] to survive, pero parang doon namin naramdaman yung love ng community na hindi kami iniwan,” he says. “Ang galing na ito yung time na pinaka nahihirapan kami, pero ito rin yung time na nakakatulong kami. It goes back to the community rin that’s been empowering us a brand, so yun lang din yung ginagawa namin.”

Puddy Rock is on YouTube.