A Hearts and Minds Case for Kids Podcasts

A few months ago, I gave my career a hard 90-degree steer, leaving my job in advertising to start a production company making original, episodic audio stories for young children. Think podcasts for kids.

I did have a background in production and marketing, but not in the field of kids entertainment. But, as an avid and longtime fan of podcasts–and a parent of two preliterate children–I saw an opportunity to take the lead on what I think will become a large market. Plus, it will keep me from having to hear Caillou anywhere. Ever.

Now, we just launched our app, Tales Untold, a couple months ago. We’ve received some nice validation in the press and are finding some early growth. But that side of the effort–i.e. growth hacking (blech)–has been covered ad nauseam. Instead, I’d like to make a case for why I think the timing is right for what may, in today’s world of constant visual stimulus, seem to be a bit like relieving oneself into the wind…

So here’s why I think narrative audio storytelling for kids is primed to take off:

1. Screen time is becoming a larger concern.

This is sort of the elephant in the room when it comes to digital kids content, so I’ll address this one first.

I’m not afraid of technology, nor do I want to deprive my children of a world of information. But it’s becoming clear that, even if you don’t think it’s inherently bad for kids to watch TV and play games on the iPad, we must be approaching a tipping point where there will be a backlash among concerned parents.

Let me quickly drop three data points on you, and we’ll move on:

  1. According to a 2013 study, 38% of American children under 2 years old have used mobile devices. The average time children spend on these mobile devices tripled over a two-year period. (And keep in mind that this study was in 2013. Those numbers are likely much higher by now.)
  2. Children under 2 spend nearly triple the amount of time watching television every day (55 minutes) than they do reading or being read to (19 minutes).
  3. Children ages 3 to 5 whose parents read to them on digital devices have lower reading comprehension than those whose parents use regular old books. Why? Because more time is spent focusing on using the device itself, rather than that pesky reading part.

So… kids are spending lots of time looking at screens, which may lead one to wonder why I’m arguing that a non-visual medium is primed to take off. But I anticipate there will be a significant cultural backlash, even against educational apps.

2. Podcasting as a medium is exploding.

When I was in grad school ten years ago (yeesh), I was really excited about the idea of podcasting. I took mp3 files of our Journalism school’s radio program and uploaded them to a server, manually updated an XML file that I had registered with iTunes, and sat back to watch the downloads pile up. I think our most popular show may have reached double digits…

Looking back, we were a bit ahead of the curve (this was pre-iPhone/Android). I tried producing my own daily podcast after grad school, but I could count my subscribers on one hand (thanks, Mom). It turned out that, unless you were Ricky Gervais, there just wasn’t yet a market for episodic, portable audio content.

But that has changed dramatically, and we’re now in a zeitgeist where the technology for finding and listening to podcasts has caught up with our desire for content. 17% of adults have listened to an audio podcast in the last month. And that number will only grow as car stereos become more Internet-enabled.

The web is awash with articles proclaiming that this is the Golden Age of Podcasting–yadda yadda yadda Serial yadda yadda WTF yadda yadda yadda Gimlet–so I’ll just leave it at that.

But my main point here is: the culture at large is becoming normalized to the concept of podcasts, and adults clearly love them. So why wouldn’t kids?

3. Science!

(Here’s where we get a little nerdy with it.)

It’s not news that listening to stories being read aloud aids in language development. But a couple of new studies show exactly what’s going on in those little brains when you read The One-Dimensional Character Goes on a Predictable Journey for the seven-billionth time.

A study published in the journal Pediatrics this month took a look at brain activity among 3-to-5-year-olds as they listened to stories read aloud. The researchers saw a couple important things:

  1. A certain part of the brain that integrates sound and visual stimulation lit up when these kids listened to stories. In other words, their brains began visualizing what they were hearing. (Don’t think about pink elephants.)
  2. That brain activity was higher among kids who were read aloud to more often at home. Essentially, their brains are in better imaginative shape. (That’s my term, not theirs. But I kinda like it.)

Another study published this month, this one in Psychological Science, shows that picture books expose preliterate children to words they don’t hear in regular everyday conversation.

So, to combine the takeaway from those two studies: when your kids listen to stories, they’re learning new words AND learning how to visualize what those words represent, all at the same time.

To deprive them of that experience is perhaps stifling to the child’s creativity. Here’s the lead author of the first study, as quoted in The New York Times:

When we show them a video of a story, do we short circuit that process a little? Are we taking that job away from them? They’re not having to imagine the story; it’s just being fed to them. — Dr. John S. Hutton

4. Parents will pay for good content.

I know I will.

Figuring out a monetization model for podcasting is another highly scrutinized topic. Listeners expect content for free, but you need a pretty sizable audience for advertising revenue to pay off.

Not so with kids content. I will gladly pay a couple bucks for something that my kids enjoy AND won’t make my eyes and ears bleed.

I’m not alone. In fact, anecdotal evidence among app developers shows that parents are often drawn to higher priced apps and in-app purchases, as the parents correlate cost with quality.

5. Listening to stories is fun.

It’s as old as language itself. It actively engages our imagination and involves us in the storytelling.

It’s also an incredibly intimate experience. The 1950s family huddled around the furniture-sized radio has been replaced by the commuter listening to Marc Maron on the cross-town express, but the effect is the same; it’s at once an intimate and communal experience. It feels like the person on the other side of the microphone is talking directly to you, and there are thousands of other people out there–millions, even–who are sharing that same experience.

And with on-demand serialized stories for kids, you can enjoy them together in the car, on the airplane, at bedtime, or while you’re trying desperately to get something done around the house, for a change…