Helium Roku Channel: See! Hear! Read! Vintage Guided Children’s Books
I look at the New Releases in the Roku channel store almost every day, even though many of the new Roku channels contain generic public domain material that doesn’t interest me. But one channel introduced this past week has engaged my imagination, or rather, the imagination I had when I was about 10 years old.
The Helium channel has uploaded hours of vintage guided children’s books and records from the 1970s and 1980s (actually, I’m unclear on the range of material, but this seems seems to be the bulk of it). When I first opened the channel, I immediately recognized the Power Records label on the first Spider-Man adventure I watched, “The Mark of the Man-Wolf,” in which Spidey must battle the titular villain, who turns out to be Daily Bugle editor J. Jonah Jameson’s astronaut son. It was weird to first recognize the voice actors and then remember very specific lines and sound effects that I probably haven’t heard in over 30 years. Coincidentally, I used to own and repeatedly listen to the first two adventures I watched on Helium, including read-and-listen adaptation of Star Wars.
I don’t remember reading along with the Spider-Man record that I had (pictured above) but at least one release of the adventure included a fully illustrated comic that Helium guides you through as you listen to the adventure. The guided view is a little clunky (with dialogue balloons frequently cut off at the edges), but it is generally effective. As an adult, this is more nostalgic fun than compelling drama on its own terms. But I could imagine younger viewers finding the format interesting and entertaining.
I more clearly remember the read-and-listen edition of Star Wars, which very efficiently tells the essential story highlights in about 10 minutes. Obviously the original actors are replaced by somewhat generic voice actors, with the exception of R2-D2 (or Artoo-Deetoo, as he is credited in image on left), who was contractually obligated to participate as the page-turning sound effect. But it is amazing how the production captures the spirit of the film with just a few pieces of music and sound effects. It also offers some lessons in storytelling efficiency.
There are some drawbacks to the Helium channel. As a free channel, it is ad-supported, and the ads eventually become frustrating because of their frequency and repetition. There’s usually three or more ads between stories, and at least one or more ad breaks within the stories, regardless how short the stories are. Also, the stories are only available as a constant stream rather than as on-demand selections. It was simply a coincidence that I began with two stories that I remembered and loved as a kid. You can skip forward or backward in the stream by using the Roku remote, but each step will prompt an ad break. But in general Helium is like a box of chocolates, you don’t know what you’re going to get next.
Helium is certainly not the only way to find this material. While writing this short piece I discovered a Power Records fan blog and the Power Records Project YouTube channel. And not all of the material is equally time worthy; while I wrote this entry I listened to a strange adaptation of The Karate Kid with Australian voice actors. But Helium has provided some free entertainment and genuine nostalgia for me, and all I had to do was add the channel to my Roku lineup.