|It’s a no brainer to intuit that the news podcast genre would see a ton of action during the coronavirus pandemic. But they’re far from the only genre to do so. As it happens, kids podcasts are also experiencing a bump in this extraordinary moment, as school closures and social isolation recommendations across the country mean that more kids are spending more time at home with their parents.
To get a sense of this trend, I checked in with four teams that specialize in kids podcasts. Here’s what I understand about what they’re seeing:
- Tinkercast is the children’s media company behind Wow in the World, the popular kids podcast hosted by Guy Raz and Mindy Thomas that’s distributed by NPR. Meredith Halpern-Ranzer, Tinkercast’s Chief Executive Officer (or Tinkerer, in their preferred parlance), tells me that, as of March 29, Wow in the World saw an increase of 49% in weekly users and 86% in total downloads compared to its averages of the previous thirteen weeks.
- Gen-Z Media is a podcast network that focuses on scripted audio shows for kids and families. Its network, which is distributed in partnership with PRX, includes the Unexplainable Disappearance of Mars Patel, the Alien Adventures of Finn Caspian, and Six Minutes. Ben Strouse, the company’s CEO, reported seeing about a 30% increase in overall listens over the past few weeks. “‘Six Minutes,’ for instance, which used to perform about 2 million downloads a month, is on track for 3 million,” said Strouse.
- Tumble Media is the production group that produces Tumble, the science podcast for kids. It’s an independent shop, but they’re also partnered with Gen-Z Media, and are counted as part of that portfolio. “Our global audience increased by 18% in March, and we experienced a 40% jump in downloads the week of March 16th,” said Lindsay Patterson, who produces and co-hosts the show, and Sara Robberson Lentz, who serves as Tumble Media’s Head of Partnerships. Their numbers are measured by Podtrac.
- Kitty Felde, a public radio veteran who publishes two kids podcasts — Book Club for Kids and The Fina Mendoza Mysteries — saw similar bumps. According to Felde, the most recent episode of Book Club for Kids was downloaded 64% times more than the previous episode. She also noted that downloads for The Fina Mendoza Mysteries, which is a smaller show, saw a much bigger jump. Website traffic, as well, has seen a surge of about 120% compared to last month.
The way these teams explain it, they’re in a unique position to provide not only children-focused entertainment that parents can feel good about, but also supplementary educational material that can be helpful for kids as they grapple with patchwork transitions to remote learning. “Some of these students have structured remote learning plans from their teachers, some do not,” said Tinkercast’s Halpern-Ranzer. “In either scenario, we are seeing teachers and parents gravitating to digital and free educational content.”
Many of these operations have already been producing digital educational resources to complement their podcasts, which they’re progressively adapting to meet the moment. For instance, for some time now, Tumble had been in the business of creating online materials — curriculum packages, and so on — around its more popular episodes, which were typically sold at affordable prices. They made those materials free when school closures first started happening, and they plan to continue doing so as long as schools stay closed. Response to this decision was strong, with the team noting that the Facebook post announcing the price removal had achieved the most reach they’ve ever seen.
Similarly, Tinkercast’s Halpern-Ranzer notes that Wow in the World has been seeing “record amounts of posts and referrals” about their free STEAM activities and digital content as well.
The listening bump was largely attributed to kids podcasts being a desirable alternative to screen time, a value proposition that made them a fixture in compiled lists of free resources for temporary homeschooling and home management meant to help parents as they developed new daily routines for their children. “Our theory is that many families who are subscribing now had heard of podcasts for kids, but never found a compelling reason to listen or put it into their routine,” said Tumble’s Patterson and Lentz. “The quarantine has provided that reason, and we suspect that they’ll stay listeners even when it’s over.”
The genre is also capable of providing a distinct reprieve from the news, a plus for some families. “Shows like ours provide fun and a bit of escapism that’s comforting to kids and parents,” said Gen-Z Media’s Strouse. “More so than watching a TV show, to be able to fully escape into another world during an unprecedented crisis can feel like a relief and provide a sense of normalcy.”
But in the instances where children explicitly sought clarity on what’s happening in the world around them, these productions were also well-positioned to present that type of information appropriately. “We felt like we had the ability to address kids’ concerns and questions in a way that was really needed,” said Patterson and Lentz, which quickly turned around a special Q&A episode for kids that they later translated into Spanish. “Honestly, there are very few outlets that can speak directly to kids in a timely way… We got immediate feedback that kids appreciated having someone who was not their parents explain coronavirus to them.”
Kids podcasting has been a vibrant but relatively uncrowded genre, and there is some belief that its comparative paucity has made it easier for individual show discoverability. “Relatively speaking, there are fewer podcast options for older kids — tweens and teens, ages 8 to 14 or so — which are the programs that attract co-listening by entire families cooped up in this crisis,” said Gen-Z Media’s Strouese. “Those are our shows, so it’s only natural that Pants on Fire and Six Minutes as well as Mars Patel get noticed by parents and kids searching for engaging podcast programming.”
Some also felt that discoverability was helped when several podcast distribution platforms — Stitcher and Apple Podcasts were explicitly cited — assembled kids podcasts-focused collections on their curatorial pages during the country’s initial stutter-step embrace of social distancing measures.
As prolonged social distancing becomes an increasingly likely scenario, there’s a push to get more kids podcasts out to families everywhere. Tinkercast just launched a new daily science-themed game show called Two Whats and a Why (though, this effort probably preceded this moment). Kids Listen, a children’s podcasting advocacy group co-founded by Tumble’s Lindsay Patterson, recently launched something called the “Kids Listen Activity Podcast,” a new daily-publishing feed where each new episode will feature a different Kids Listen-affiliated podcast explicitly giving families something to do every day. Meanwhile, Gen-Z Media has launched a new daily podcast through its Six Minutes feed, called “Remy’s Life… Interrupted.” The company is also working with its distribution partner, PRX, to push up the launch dates for three upcoming project launches, which will now debut across the next several weeks.
There will be many others, both from this pool of creators and beyond. It’s a reflection of how, in times of great disruption, there’s great opportunity to be helpful. “It’s uncomfortable to have a measure of success come as the result of such a terrible thing happening,” said Tumble’s Patterson and Lentz. “But we feel very grateful that we are making something that is serving as an important resource and comfort for many during this time.”