During the early days of the pandemic, kids’ screen time nearly doubled as classes moved to Zoom and parents struggled to manage caretaking duties in addition to their jobs. Many moms and dads turned to children’s podcasts as a screen-free form of edutainment to keep kids stimulated, engaged and out of their hair.
Even as pandemic restrictions abate, the trend doesn’t look to be slowing. Podcasts in the kids and family category have seen a 20 percent increase in listenership since 2019, according to NPR and Edison Research’s 2021 Spoken Word Audio Report. Podcast adaptations of hit children’s shows are proliferating, while, conversely, film and TV studios are becoming involved earlier than ever to snap up podcast IP catered toward kids.
Over the past two months, Spotify has released a slate of exclusive children’s programming, including a spinoff of Moonbug Entertainment’s hit TV series CoComelon, which targets preschoolers ages 2 to 5. GBH Kids, meanwhile, is adapting the PBS cartoon Arthur, which aired its last episode Feb. 21 after a 25-year run, into a podcast with Gen-Z Media that will feature new storylines and games for the beloved character.
Some studios are pouncing before a podcast has even been released. Warner Bros. has optioned TV rights for an upcoming 2023 podcast called 20 Million Views. The series was produced by Gen-Z Media, whose shows Nice to Meet You and The Big Fib were nominated for the best kids’ podcast Ambie, a new category this year. “Everyone’s looking for great IP, especially great family IP, which is what we’re counting on,” says Ben Strouse, CEO of Gen-Z Media.
Major streaming networks are getting involved as well. Amazon’s podcast network Wondery has inked exclusive advertising and licensing deals with Gen-Z Media and Tinkercast in addition to rolling out a subscription tier just for children’s podcasts. In August, Netflix and Sony Pictures Animation adapted their 2021 film Vivo into the podcast The Vivo Songbook, which picked up an Ambie nomination for best kids’ podcast. Apple Podcasts also launched a partnership with Common Sense Media in 2021 to curate and recommend a collection of family-appropriate podcasts.
“When we first got into podcasting in 2017, there were very few [kids’] podcasts out there,” says Meredith Halpern-Ranzer, CEO of Tinkercast. In May 2017, the Tinkercast-produced science show Wow in the Worldhosted by Guy Raz and Mindy Thomas, became the first kids’ and family podcast distributed by NPR.
Tinkercast’s library has since grown to include Flip & Mozi’s Guide to How to Be an Earthling, an intergalactic musical podcast that promotes environmental stewardship, and Who, When, Wow!a show that introduces listeners to unsung heroes like Alicia Alonso, the partially blind Cuban ballet dancer.
“People didn’t really think about whether there was audio content for kids available,” Halpern-Ranzer says. “It has absolutely exploded since then, and a lot of bigger companies are taking an interest and seeing this as a white space that has a lot more potential.”
That’s not to say there haven’t been growing pains. The podcast industry is expected to surpass $2 billion in advertising revenue in 2023. That’s thanks in part to dynamic ad insertion, which allows marketers to target listeners individually (or by demographic) across a whole network’s slate of podcasts, rather than buying spots on an individual show. But advertising in the kids’ podcast space can be trickier given the constraints of the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act, which requires parental consent to collect or use any personal data from children under the age of 13 in the US As a result, ads on kids ‘ usually shows target parents and guardians who are listening along. Platforms like Wondery set up separate servers so that appropriate sponsorships will be placed on kids’ podcasts.
“It’s definitely more of a challenge,” Strouse says. “[But] the amount of advertising on TV kids’ programming is really heavy, so I can’t believe that we won’t be able to figure that out as well.”
The evolution of children’s podcasting may also stray from trends seen in the wider podcast industry, such as experimentation with audio-and-video formats, particularly on Spotify and YouTube. Halpern-Ranzer says she would be wary about going all-in on adding a video component to children’s podcasts: “We don’t want to take away from the beautiful thing that’s happening when kids are really deeply engaged to listening.”
This story first appeared in the March 2 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.