Podcasts for Kids

"Why aren't there more podcasts for kids?" is a question that to my ears sounds like a close cousin to questions in the kids music world -- "Why isn't kids music as popular as children's books?" or "Why don't more people know about all this great music?"

It's a question that's been getting some attention recently.  This morning, The Atlantic's website published "Why Aren't There More Podcasts for Kids?," an attempt to answer that question.  The piece echoes a lot of the discussion that Nicholas Quah tackled several weeks ago for his essential weekly newsletter Hot Pod.  (Yes, you should totally sign up for the free newsletter.)  Quah's piece, in turn, was inspired by articles that podcast producer Lindsay Patterson (more on her in a minute) wrote asking that question for Current.  (She expanded a bit in a piece on Medium.)

No, I'm not going to make you read all those links, though if you'd like to -- original source material being important for some of us -- please be my guest.

And before I go any further, let me just say that if you found this piece because you're looking for recommendations for podcasts for kids and don't care about the existential issues facing this category of audio entertainment, go to the very end of this piece, and I'll give you several recommendations [Edited to add: and a link to a (reasonably) complete list of podcasts for kids].

Basically, the theories outlined in articles thus far come down to these two following:

1) Lack of historical precedent: Patterson, in particular, subscribes to this theory -- as a relatively new format in which to present entertainment, there haven't been many examples of podcasts for kids.  Perhaps this is because podcast makers started off making podcasts for others like themselves, and since relatively few 7-year-olds had microphones and editing software, there weren't many podcasts for kids

2) Sponsorship issues: I think Quah gravitated more to this explanation, proffered by Guy Raz, he of NPR and Mindy Thomas' best bud on SiriusXM's Kids Place Live Breakfast Blast Newscast.  How do you convince sponsors to underwrite programs for shows when parents might feel a bit queasy about advertising?  Where is the value for underwriters in that equation?  And if you have a reluctance to invest in advertising, that's going to make it difficult for producers -- individuals or institution -- to invest the time and money to produce a high quality podcast.  (Until kids start demanding to run Squarespace sites or send MailChimp newsletters.  Then all those problems are solved.)

Quah and I exchanged a couple e-mails on the topic when he first broached it a few weeks back, and at the time I thought that both explanations had merit.  I also thought that it'd be interesting to see whether the moves toward acquiring kids' content by entities like Netflix and Amazon would be duplicated in the on-demand audio field -- will Spotify, Audible, and Rhapsody get into the game beyond music?  Are parents going to prefer their podcasts sponsored or paid upfront, buffet-style?  (Notable for being left unstated in all these discussions, nobody's considering whether parents will want to simply purchase individual or season episodes of a podcast.)

But as I've thought about it further, I'm more convinced that something that's been touched on briefly, particularly by Patterson, is just as important, and that's how [expletive] hard it is to find good, new podcasts for kids.

3) Discovery issues: This is not a problem just for podcasts for kids, but I think the relatively small universe of quality kids' shows makes the problem that much worse.  Let's start with the worst offender: the iTunes Kids and Family podcast chart.  Imagine, if you will, that the iTunes music charts folded all songs about kids and families into the iTunes Kids and Family music chart, thereby including, perhaps Harry Chapin's "Cat's in the Cradle" and Lukas Graham's "7 Years."  That would be pretty silly, right?  But that's exactly what the podcast chart reflects -- by my count, of the top 30 podcasts in that list as I'm checking on it, 20 are targeted specifically at the parents and not for the kids.  It's not like the ratio seems to get much better as you roll down the next 170 podcasts in the chart.  (Waves hi to friends of Zoogloble fighting the good fight Spare the Rock Spoil the Child and Saturday Morning Cereal Bowl.)

What are the other ten podcasts specifically for kids in the top 30?  One Taylor Swift podcast, a Sesame Street video podcast, a Nickelodeon video podcast, and 3 story podcasts.  That leaves 4 podcasts in the top 30 that are full-fledged audio productions that don't echo something you (or your kid) might find elsewhere: a Focus on the Family-produced podcast that "combines the faith lessons parents appreciate with characters and stories that kids love!," something from the Story Pirates, and 2 science podcasts: Lindsay Patterson's podcast Tumble, produced with her husband Marshall Escamilla, and Brains On!, the brainchild of 3 public radio producers and released via NPR.

Compare that list with other top-podcast charts in iTunes for other genres, which are filled with podcasts I've heard of (and, in some cases, actually heard) and it's clear that people are doing a terrible job finding and spreading the word about good podcasts for kids.  And it's not like there are other sources filling the gap.  NPR?  Their NPR podcast list suffers from the same definitional issue iTunes has, with only Brains On! being specifically for kids, and their fancy earbud.fm podcast recommender doesn't even have a kids and family subcategory.  Googling "best podcasts for kids" yields a dispiriting short list of lists, and a dispiriting number of distinct, made-for-kids podcasts on those lists.  Patterson's newsletter for Tumble does occasionally feature podcast recommendations for kids, but it's fairly new.

There could be more great podcasts for kids and kids and families (two separate categories) out there, but it's incredibly difficult to find them.  And without the critical mass that might propel them into slightly broader consciousness -- only the top 4 in the Kids and Family charts place in the top 200 of all podcasts at the moment -- it's going to be hard to get more folks to think of "kids podcasts" as a thing, as something to recommend to families and as something to think about creating.

Thinking of "kids _____" as a thing is one of those concepts that kids music as a genre struggled with for a long time.  Ten years ago, when there was a wave of attention to the artists who started around the turn of the century -- Dan Zanes, Laurie Berkner, Justin Roberts -- it seemed like not a week would go by without a newspaper article introducing the genre as if somebody would say, "Did you know there are people who make music for kids?  And it's good?"

Thankfully, kids music is mostly beyond that, even if the genre hasn't fully punched through to the national consciousness in the way that the general public accepts without question the existence and usefulness of books and TV made for kids.  Podcasts for kids are at an earlier development stage.

4) Podcasting tools: Again, this is not a problem limited to podcasts for kids, but I think that the target audience for kids podcasts suffers this problem even more.  It is not necessarily easy for adults to figure out how to listen to podcasts or any on-demand (non-music) audio in the way that adults know how to find TV or books.  (I know -- this is not news to anyone.)  That obviously puts some pressure on the parents who are looking for something to listen to with their preschooler as they're driving around town.  But presumably a parent who's interested in podcasts for kids knows how to get podcasts generally, so this is no greater technological problem for this genre than for podcasting generally.

Imagine how hard it would be for an 8-year-old, though.  The 8-year-old probably doesn't have their own iPhone, but if they did (or their own iPod touch, etc.), no doubt their parents don't want to be constantly checking different websites or podcatchers to try to find a podcast for their kid.  And the kid, who wants some degree of autonomy, particularly as they reach double-digits, age-wise, may not get that autonomy.  It's the walled garden problem of video -- I've seen plenty of startups attempt to create a safe kids-only video area, but I'm not sure that any of them have been fully successful, or at the very least, none that don't have some tie to a broader entity (a "Nick" app or Netflix's and Amazon Instant Video's kids' sections, for example).

Beyond these other problems, I'm not sure that there's enough variety in kids podcasting.  As I read these kids-podcasting articles, I kept thinking about Ear Snacks, a delightfully loopy series of shows from kids musicians Andrew & Polly.  Sure, there are the occasional science-based conversations, but it is the closest thing I know of to a half-absurdist podcast for kids.  And it's totally unique.

Where are the kids comedy podcasts?  Why in the world don't The Listies have a podcast?  Why in the world isn't (wasn't) there a Chicken Weebus podcast?  Where are the actual kid-friendly radio hours like the Radio Adventures of Doctor Floyd?  (There are good, specific reasons for those, to be sure, but those are examples.)

Having said all that, I've written a lot here, and I should really press "Publish" on this piece and get into the world.  Two additional thoughts:

1) Once kids music became a "thing" again, there were a lot of folks who got into the genre who made music that was, well, not very good.  Assuming that kids podcasts take the same route, we may see a bunch of crappy podcasts for kids over the next few years (along with a bunch of really good podcasts).  That's why discovery tools are going to be so important -- nobody wants to hear their first podcast for kids and have it be a boring guy droning into a microphone or conversing with middling audio quality over Skype.  (I have experience producing some of those myself.)  One of the difficult things musicians have to learn is that not everybody is good singing songs for kids, and I have no doubt that some podcasters will learn for themselves that they're not very good making stories for kids.

2) These days, recorded music is mostly the calling card to get fans interested in seeing live music or supporting the musician in some other way.  Musicians are, generally, not pleased with this development, but I don't think Spotify or Pandora or Rhapsody et al. are going away.  Podcasts are even more isolated.  So if I have one piece of advice for kids podcast makers is that you have to get out in the world and do live shows.  Other podcasts for adults have done this - Radiolab, Pop Culture Happy Hour, Song Exploder, the list is long - but it's time that kids podcasts enter the fray.

If you've read this far, thanks.  Really.  If you have any thoughts or responses, please please please offer them below or send me an e-mail.  I'm intending to keep listening to podcasts for kids and continue to think about the kids' media space and would love to hear other perspectives.

So, as promised, let's end these rambling thoughts with a list of recommended podcasts for kids.  I'm excluding podcasts that may have some interest for those listeners who don't yet have their drivers' license or who may even be in elementary school -- certainly Welcome To Night Vale, Radiolab, This American Life, and 99% Invisible all could attract the interest of a certain (brainy) youthful audience.  But they're not made with kids in mind.  These are.  Also, I've excluded items you can't find via iTunes' podcast link.  I know that the on-demand world is a big one -- you can listen to those Guy Raz Breakfast Blasts, for example, via the Soundcloud website (and presumably their app).  But that seems like an awful lot of work, and, as should be fairly obvious, making it even more work is not what we're going for.

[Edited to add: Now I've gone ahead and compiled a long list of podcasts for kids.  Feel free to start with the ones listed below, then explore further!]

Anyway, if you've got more suggestions, please leave 'em in the comments, or send me a direct e-mail -- I'm always happy to expand this podcast world a little wider...

Brains On! and Tumble: It doesn't feel quite right combining two podcasts together, but the truth is they're both science podcasts that take kids' questions about science and get kids to answer them.  They're both very good, so if you're looking for science-based podcasts, particularly for older elementary school students, try 'em both.  My sense is that Tumble is the slightly more informal-sounding, the Radiolab to Brains On!'s This American Life, but, like I said, try 'em both. (Also note: I threw in a token donation to Brains On!'s recent Kickstarter campaign, which had more than 1,000 supporters.)

Ear Snacks: this, by the way, is excellent for preschool listeners, an area served very well by kids music but very poorly by kids podcasting.

Short & Curly: ethics for kids, a description which sounds like it could be bland or didactic (or worse: both), but which this new podcast from the Australian Broadcasting Company, makes fairly entertaining and not didactic at all.  Appropriate for elementary schoolers of all ages.

The Radio Adventures of Doctor Floyd: Like those radio serial adventures of yore, these are entertaining, pun-filled, and with a bunch of funny voices.  Think of it as The Thrilling Adventure Hour but targeted at 8-year-olds and without the in-joke learning curve that made (to me, at least) Thrilling too much of an effort.

Music discovery: Spare the Rock Spoil the Child, Saturday Morning Cereal Bowl, OWTK Kid's Music Monthly: Regular readers don't need any introduction to these podcasts, but if you're looking for the kids music equivalent of the indie-attitude podcasts plugged here, these will fit right in.