The strength of audio as a format for storytelling makes it appealing to children © Dreamstime

For parents who feel a twinge of guilt every time they plop their kids in front of an iPad or television, podcasters have an antidote: turn off the screen and turn up the volume.

This year has brought a wave of children’s audio programming from the US public radio stations NPR and WNYC as well as the podcast networks Gimlet Media and Panoply. The boom in podcasts aimed at children comes as creators look for untapped niches to attract listeners and generate new revenue streams.

“Podcasts are maturing. There’s a bunch of pockets of programming that haven’t been done yet and kids is an obvious one,” says Matt Lieber, Gimlet’s co-founder and president.

In the US, 67m people — nearly a quarter of the adult population — listened to a podcast in the last month and 42m listen to one every week, according to Edison Research and Triton Digital. As the popularity of podcasts spreads from a digitally savvy core to the wider population, the range of subjects they cover is also expanding.

Audio’s natural strength in storytelling makes the format inherently appealing to children, says Ruth Fitzsimons of AudioBoom, a London-based podcast platform. “The most popular content we see is storytelling, not educational,” she says. “You want your kids to be engaged mentally with words and concepts. Audio is really stimulating.”

Podcasts also offer a solution to parental anxiety over the amount of time their children spend in front of screens. “My wife and I work full time and sometimes we need 15 minutes,” says Gimlet’s Mr Lieber. “The only 100 per cent sure way that we knew how to have our kids chill out was to put them in front of the TV, but we felt guilty about that.”

He started searching out children’s shows for his kids. “My daughter got to the point where she would turn off the television in order to turn on podcasts,” he says.

For its first foray into children’s programming, Gimlet partnered with Story Pirates, a media and education organisation that turns stories submitted by children into performances. It also produces a colouring book companion to the Story Pirates show, after Mr Lieber noticed his children liked to draw while they listened.

The US is not the only market where children’s podcasts are gaining traction. AudioBoom hosts shows from Kamakshi Media, a start-up based in Bangalore the programmes of which tell myths, legends and stories.

While India’s podcast market is small, reflecting the low number of smartphone users, Ms Fitzsimons says that Kamakshi’s output has gained “a really loyal following”. The company is looking to produce shows in more languages than Hindi and English in response to demand from parents.

For Panoply, child-focused content has opened the door to subscriptions. In October the company launched Pinna, a $7.99-a-month service for children that includes podcasts, audiobooks and archival audio.

Companies including Midroll Media, Stitcher and Acast also offer paid options for podcasts, but the medium has yet to spawn a subscription offering with the breadth and popularity of streaming services such as Netflix or Spotify.

“It’s hard to take a sizeable chunk of the market and put it behind a paywall,” says Andy Bowers, Panoply’s chief content officer. “There are certain niches that are underserved or where the content is particularly important to them. They have a good reason to pay for it.”

Pinna emphasises safety as a selling point: kids listen within its app, giving parents more control over what their children are consuming — a concern that has become especially salient as YouTube has come under fire for hosting inappropriate content aimed at children and videos appearing to exploit kids.

“We wanted it very much to be an environment where you could hand the phone over to the kid and say we trust this,” Mr Bowers said.

Pinna also underscores the parental guilt factor, not just over screens but over advertising. Its website proclaims: “Screen free. Ad free. Guilt free.”

“I have never been a big fan of advertising to children. I find it coercive,” says Mr Bowers. “Since a lot of parents now have the option to avoid advertising they do. Netflix, HBO, DVDs — there have been ways of getting around it on the video side.”

Children’s podcasts that do carry advertising tend to direct messages at parents who are assumed to be listening as well. In the US, digital marketing aimed at children under the age of 13 must comply with the federal Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act.

“You tend to reach kids while they’re with their parents. Those parents make a formidable audience if the right message is presented to them,” says Marshall Williams, chief executive of Ad Results Media, an audio and digital advertising agency. “That’s very valuable for us. We don’t try to reach the kids other than to entertain them.”

The question of advertising in children’s podcasts remains unsettled — which may have contributed to the slow entry of many companies into the market, given that this is the dominant business model for podcasting. 

“The prospect of children’s programming has been limited by a general uneasiness in letting kids be an advertising target in the so-called intimate medium of podcasts,” wrote Nick Quah in a recent issue of Hot Pod, his industry newsletter. “The very nature of its effectiveness is also its downside.”

Gimlet has yet to start running marketing messages in Story Pirates episodes, despite interest from advertisers.

“We don’t have a good answer. We need to have a new set of guidelines for kids,” says Mr Lieber.

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