In 2016, Stephanie Hayes of The Atlantic wrote an article titled “Where Are All the Kidcasts? Kids learn from podcasts, so why aren’t adults making more for them?” In the piece, Hayes highlighted the fact that, despite the growth of podcasting as a whole, there were precious few podcasts for kids. Because Hayes spends most of the article proving that children do listen to podcasts, citing the few children’s podcasts that existed at the time as proof, she fails to address the other possible hindrances that face Creators in the genre.
Usually, such a well-researched piece wouldn’t have to hold the weight of addressing every facet of its topic – Hayes does a phenomenal job with the resources available proving her point and calling for more children’s podcasts – but anyone researching children’s podcasts will quickly discover a surprising lack of coverage. I ran headlong into that void while preparing to write this piece and was shocked: podcasts are educational, easy to access, portable, and don’t require kids to stare at a screen, how were parents not beating down the doors of major networks demanding content?
Hayes had at least part of the answer: there is an ingrained belief that without visual stimulation kids just won’t pay attention. Alongside that, one of the most common benefits I hear Creators cite of making a podcast is the community that comes with the show, and that community could be nonexistent or just entirely different if the podcast’s audience is children. A final major hurdle for children’s podcasts is the question of revenue; how do you advertise to kids and who would want to sponsor those shows?
Each of these challenges has built a wall around children’s podcasts that, for years, has kept creators and sponsors alike away from the action. However, behind that wall, a genre has been growing and flourishing, and it’s time the industry started paying attention. In order to discuss the challenges and triumphs of children’s podcasts I enlisted a few experts and I want to introduce them quickly before we dive into addressing proof of concept, community, and revenue creation in children’s podcasts.
Lindsay Patterson was the first podcaster to respond to my call for interviews and I was lucky to talk to someone so passionate about what they do. Lindsay originally worked as a journalist for a science radio show and told me she “really liked the assignments where [she] got to work on kid’s questions, but there wasn’t really a space for that on the radio.” When podcasts got really big she jumped in because she didn’t foresee a science radio show for kids getting any air time. Her podcast, Tumble Science Podcast for Kids, was one of the first shows for kids when it premiered in 2015 and Lindsay immediately recognized the need for more awareness of the genre. In response, she helped found KidsListen, an advocacy group “for high-quality audio content for children.” You’ll hear more about what they do in a minute, but for now, suffice it to say Lindsay helped start the group and currently serves as its co-chair.
Jonathan Messinger is the creator of The Alien Adventures of Finn Caspian, a podcast that redefines interactivity by allowing kids to assist in the soundscape, the story-progression, feeding the characters, and telling the jokes. Jonathan’s editor, his nine-year-old son Griffin, keeps the show on track and makes sure everything is up-to-snuff on this “‘mystery gang’ story, sort of like Scooby-Doo meets Buffy the Vampire Slayer in space.” Jonathan settled on podcasting after realizing that it allowed for change, development, and interaction that books just couldn’t offer a creator. He also serves as co-chair of KidsListen and is excited to see his show optioned as a book series and an Amazon cartoon.
Last but certainly not least, I had the pleasure of interviewing Benjamin Salka, CEO of Story Pirates which began fifteen years ago as a “grassroots arts education company” teaching creative writing in schools and then putting on “big loud sketch comedy musicals based on stories kids had written” at school assemblies. After a nationwide tour, getting featured by Sirius XM and then having a radio show, Story Pirates has moved their fanbase to podcasting in order to “cast a wider net.” While the medium has worked well for Benjamin and his team, he explained that they’re “that overnight success that’s been working at it for fifteen years.” Story Pirates have remained prevalent in schools and Benjamin explained that some of his excitement with children’s podcasts lies in its potential as an important educational tool that can change the game in classrooms.
Okay, the fact that these shows exist and are doing pretty well doesn’t negate the fact that not enough people know about the quality content being made for kids. So let’s look at what people think is limiting children’s podcasts and see how our experts are not only handling those challenges but turning them into unique strengths.
“The new article is about children’s podcasts, and I think they’re really going to be big so we need to start paying attention,” I explained. My friend didn’t hesitate to disagree: “Yeah, but kids are more visual so it probably won’t get that big.”
The assumption that children won’t sit and listen to a podcast because it has no visual element is not a new one, it’s the same idea that Creators of children’s podcasts have been fighting since they started making their shows. “Will kids listen to something without pictures? Kids are so into screens, how are you going to engage them with something that’s just storytelling?” were the questions Lindsay faced when she was considering creating Tumble. The question of if kids would even listen was a daunting one, but Lindsay pointed out that dependence on visual elements ignored “the idea that storytelling has been the oldest form of communicating to children.”
Lindsay and Jonathan both admitted that there was a period in the early days of children’s podcasting that demanded a “proof of concept”: will kids actually listen? The struggle with answering that question is that major data collecting groups like Edison don’t survey people under the age of twelve, Lindsay explained. So, when she and other children’s podcasters decided to start KidsListen, one of their goals was to find a way to gauge listenership and listening habits. In their first report, one major conclusion they drew was that the “survey results counter assumptions about kids’ short attention spans and dependence on screens for engagement.”
With 436 respondents to the survey, perhaps one of the most important stats is this one: when asked why the family listens to children’s podcasts, 75% of respondents answered: “Because my kids want to listen.” This inaugural survey, alongside the year-over-year success of the children’s podcasts that currently exist, serves as a satisfying proof that children will consume podcasting and opens the door to see the benefits of the medium for young listeners.
When I asked Lindsay, Jonathan, and Benjamin what they think are the biggest benefits of podcasting for children, each of them immediately brought up the fact that podcasting offers exciting entertainment without a screen. Overuse of screens by children has been cited as a stunt to mental development, social skills, ability to process the real world, and the ability to focus for extended periods of time. Podcasts are a “great source of education or entertainment or both,” Jonathan explained, which means it can offer kids what on-screen entertainment offers, but better.
I know that sounds like a huge claim, but let’s look at the way kids listen to and interact with podcasts. I think you’ll see what I mean pretty quickly.
When was the last time you listened to an episode of a podcast more than once? Also, when was the last time you could accurately sum up the entirety of an episode you had listened to? If you’re like me, you walk away from an hour-long episode with one or two points that really stuck and the ability to move on to the next episode. When KidsListen found that children were listening to podcasts, they also wanted to know how they were listening and the results set children’s podcasting apart from any other genre.
“Kids, when they listen to podcasts, listen over and over and over again,” Jonathan told me, citing KidsListen’s research. He isn’t exaggerating. Their study showed that 79% of children listen to episodes more than once, with as many as 18% of respondents saying they listen to a single episode ten or more times. Just like kids who get hooked on particular movies, kids will request their favorite episodes or stories from the podcasts they hear. Not only do kids listen repeatedly, but they listen closely.
“Kids can quote from it. My four-year-old son does it, he makes references,” Lindsay said, citing the fact that when kids listen to podcasts they remember what they heard. Not only do they remember, but kids act on what they’ve learned. Here are the answers KidsListen received to the question “After listening, what does your kid do?” 73% responded that their children “Initiates discussion related to a topic in the podcast” and 58% said their child “quotes or reenacts parts of the episode.” Further, 56% say their child “tells others about what they learned from the podcast” and 54% “ask to listen to the podcast again.”
“Listening is a family activity,” Lindsay told me, explaining that families will both listen together and discuss the content after finishing episodes. Jonathan expanded on that idea, saying that podcasts allow kids to “make [content] their own. And they use it in so many ways…. Which is what you want. As a parent, you always want what your kid does to broaden their world and lead to the next thing.” See, unlike television and movies, podcasts leave room for imagination, letting kids decide what characters or settings look like and allowing them to fill in the gaps however their wildest imaginings want.
Of course, there is a flip-side to the knowledge that kids listen differently than adults: more often than not, adults are listening along. When Jonathan went hunting for podcasts before beginning his own, he said that what he found “wasn’t something I liked to listen to with Griffin.” If kids are going to listen to an episode between two and ten times, it should probably be something parents can enjoy as well. How do you make content for kids that adults will find entertaining as well?
When I asked Lindsay, she explained that the key is making content that carries a lot of information. “If they don’t get the point the first time, they’re going to get it next time and we enjoy that aspect. And parents do too. It’s like every time we listen there’s something new to find,” she told me. Benjamin said the something similar, telling me that children’s shows differ from more mature content in the fact that children’s shows are evergreen: “The content we’re creating is classic… and we’re confident that it will be just as funny years from now as it is today.”
If the content is engaging and educational enough, parents won’t mind listening alongside their kids, learning new things and watching their kids make what they’re hearing their own. But adjusting to a unique audience and their listening habits is only one of the obstacles Creators have overcome. Time to look at community.
Community is a huge part of podcasting. Even as hosts and fans search for better ways to build and maintain that community, the connections formed around shows are consistently cited as a highlight of podcasting. Would that community even exist in children’s podcasts? Would it look so different that it wouldn’t be worth pursuing? How would you even go about building a community if your audience is just kids?
All valid questions, especially in the face of the relative ease with which adult podcasts create and maintain their communities. When I asked Lindsay about community she was honest about the fact that “the gatekeepers are parents. So like on our facebook page and social media we communicate to parents about things their kids would be interested in.” While that sounds like a huge jump from the usual podcast Facebook group where people with a shared interest connect or fan over a show they all love, it really isn’t all that different.
Jonathan explained that his show’s social media groups connect parents who are looking for similar things: how to entertain and educate their kids in healthy, productive ways. Parents who are seeking out programming like children’s podcasts are also always looking for things like what books to read their kids and what to do on road trips, and the community built around these shows offers a place to discuss that stuff. Jonathan told me “it’s different because you’re one level removed from the target audience, so a lot of it is really a community of families.” So the fact that community looks different hasn’t hindered the genre as much as it has acted as a support system for parents who are listening along.
Another way that community looks different is that, for kids, “community” translates to “involvement.” For example, Story Pirates puts out calls for story ideas from kids every episode and gives listeners a writing prompt to follow. Every episode is adapted from a story a kid wrote, so the audience knows participating could get them featured. Jonathan has built a community around Finn Caspian by allowing for “multiple levels of interaction.” Jonathan explained that some kids will only be comfortable drawing a picture and mailing it in, some will want to record themselves and send that in, some will want to come to a live show. The key is meeting them at their level of comfort and allowing them to engage, and that’s how you build a highly interactive community.
Time to move to something a little less fun.
As podcasting becomes a more widely consumed form of media, more and more Creators are looking to make money off their content. In 2017, the U.S. podcast industry reached $314 million in revenue, and there’s no reason to think that number will go anywhere but up. From crowdfunding to advertisements to merchandise, Creators are creative in building sustainable revenue streams, but all of that looks a little trickier when it comes to children’s podcasts.
Because advertising is often the aim of Creators as far as revenue goes, we’ll look at the difficulty that lies there first. “Advertising is really volatile and people haven’t quite figured it out yet,” Lindsay explained. When advertising to children, companies have to keep in mind the age and malleability of their audiences and, with companies like Subway and platforms like YouTube coming under fire for possibly targeting children in harmful ways, sponsors may not be excited to endorse such a sensitive audience. However, the sponsors who do join in may find the investment well worth it, as Benjamin pointed to some of his sponsors like Squarespace and Baby Bell Cheeses and the fact that he and his team “feel very optimistic about revenue” for the upcoming year.
Beyond finding willing sponsors, there’s the logistical obstacle of where to put the ads in such short shows. Lindsay told me that “you can only fit a limited number of podcast ads into a short show. We can only put two ads in the show or we will get reviews and emails about having too many ads.” When your target audience is anywhere from two to twelve years old, it’s not quite fair to expect them to understand the need to earn revenue through a five-minute ad-block. The upside is that, whether or not a children’s show can garner sponsors, there are other ways to build revenue.
Lindsay was quick to point out that, because Tumble is so mission-focused, it does well with crowd-funding: parents are willing to support great, educational content. She also mentioned that major shows like NPR’s Wow in the World continue to sell out live shows across the country and earn revenue that way. When I talked to Jonathan, he pointed out another route that he has found to be relatively successful: “the primary [source of revenue] is for us to create great shows, great stories, that can then be optioned for television or movie studios and possibly made into books as well.”
No matter how they go about it, children’s podcasters have proven that earning revenue is far from impossible and will only become more attainable as the genre gains more recognition. So how do we make that happen?
Sometimes I like to ask questions that I feel confident I know the answer to, just so I can hear someone else say it. So I ask something like “do you foresee continued growth in children’s podcasting?” and bask in the glory of all three of my interviewees answering with enthusiastic versions of “absolutely.” I love that moment, but then we have to talk logistics: what’s going to get us there?
One of the biggest things that would help is a fix to the discoverability issue. Jonathan said it well: “a lot of podcast apps have done a disservice to their audience by lumping together family and kids podcasts.” He explained that, in the same category that you could find The Alien Adventures of Finn Caspian you would find shows for planning a pregnancy and being a rad dad. This mixture means that finding podcasts whose target audience is children becomes unnecessarily difficult and even tricks people into thinking those shows may not exist.
Beyond that issue, children’s podcasts just need some sustained coverage. When I thanked Lindsay for her time she was quick to return the thank-you, explaining that not very many people are writing about children’s podcasts despite all of its success and potential. Jonathan said something similar, pointing out the fact that low exposure means that people aren’t even trying to find the content, much less making it part of their regular listening. The industry as a whole has to recognize both the current success and future potential of the genre and track what’s happening if we want podcasting to have the largest possible reach in mainstream media.
So, I’ve done my part, I told you children’s podcasts not only exist but are entertaining, educational, and fun for the entire family. Now it’s up to you. Podchaser has created a list of Top Podcasts for Kids, so go give it a listen. Your kids will thank you and you’ll have the joy of them quoting something other than Disney channel to you.