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Sam Harris: Has the Pandemic Offered a Pathway to Kids’ Podcasts?

Sam is the Insights & Engagement Director at Hook Research – a London-based audience insight and content development agency. He is Hook’s expert in all things audio – regularly working with leading brands to help them better understand consumers’ needs within today’s complex and dynamic media landscape.


Brands have recognised that kids’ audio products – particularly those involving music – have huge commercial value for some time.

In the pre-pandemic days, we saw brands in the UK refocus on delivering a compelling audio experience for younger listeners – whether that was through the loud entrance of Spotify Kids; Lego and Universal joining forces to power up ‘play’; or Sony’s launch of the Magic Star label, designed to sign, develop, and market content for the “untapped” family market.

This renewed interest in the commercial opportunities of the kids market has been unlocked, it seems, by the demonstratable value of kids music on streaming platforms: in 2019, for instance, Disney claimed 85 of the top 200 streamed songs, and Baby Shark was streamed 980.53M times (combined audio and video)

Lockdown, has made the value of this content more apparent. With schools out, and kids bored at home, parents have been eager to find ways to entertain their children that don’t involve either screens or gaming.

The growth in youth-skewing linear radio – the UK’s Fun Kids Radio reported an 80% growth in listener numbers over the Covid period – is indicative of a wider growth in kids audio products more focused on offering a spoken word experience: a quick search on Google Trends for both ‘kids podcasts’ and ‘kids audiobooks’ in the UK reveals an uptick since the middle of March.

This data is reinforced by Podtrac data from across the Atlantic – pointing to the increased consumption of ‘Kids & Family’ podcasts among our American cousins. International podcasters in this space have also reported a bump in growth over March of this year – kids’ giant Wow in the World reported a 23% increase in downloads (vs the previous 13 weeks), while Gen Z Media (a distributor of kids podcasts with PRX) reports an approximately 30% growth in overall listens.

Given this renewed focus on the medium, I thought it would be useful to explore the state of the kids spoken word content market in the UK and contemplate the benefits for brands operating within it.

These thoughts come from my own experience as a Director of Insight & Engagement at Hook Research, an audience insight agency specialising in kids media. In this role, I’ve spoken with kids across the UK about their podcast and audiobook habits; moderated, produced, and taken part in panels with audio experts; and interviewed many experts in this space for a series we run at Hook called ‘Creator Conversations’ – and I’ve distilled some of the most useful takeaways from those conversations here.

State of (Audio) Play in the UK

Let’s start with an overview of the youth podcast and audiobook landscape.

Kids podcasts is a relatively nascent and growing space. By my count of the podcasts listed within the Apple podcast genre of Kids and Family (specifically, the ‘Education for Kids’ & ‘Stories for Kids’ subcategories), there are approximately 3500 podcasts aimed at kids on the platform (as of June 2020) – for some context, there are about 1.25 million podcasts on Apple right now.

In the UK, exact numbers around listenership for young people (u15) is hard to find. Research from the BBC suggests that 60% of kids in the UK are open to listening to podcasts, but only 10% actually have listened. For some context, MIDAS puts UK weekly podcast reach for 15-24s at 22% and 27% for 25-34s.[1]

Contrasted with podcasts, Audiobooks aren’t a particularly new phenomenon – from cassettes, through to CDs, and now digital platforms such as Audible, the medium has persisted as the space around it has changed drastically. As Anna Bond, the newly appointed Managing Director of Octopus Publishing Group, mentioned in a panel we hosted earlier this year:

“Audiobooks have been around for a while, and CDs are still a big part of the audiobook market… It’s not a new thing. But, as booksellers, what we’re interested in is how it’s now going digital and that’s opening up new ways to engage with kids” – MRS Kids & Youth Insights Conference 2020

It’s certainly ‘opening up’ new opportunities for engagement. Across all listeners, Audible saw its revenue grow by 38% in 2018, riding a wave that saw audiobooks become the fastest growing publishing format in the UK.

At the same time, Deloitte predicted that 2020 will be a bumper year for the audiobooks, with an anticipated global growth of 25% – though this may be augmented somewhat by the pandemic (Google Trends data suggests a Covid bump in searches for ‘audiobooks’ since the beginning of March and US audiobook company Libro.fm has seen a 300% growth in membership since February).

With kids specifically, there have been similar gains: in the UK, there was a 138% growth in the popularity of audiobooks with children between January 2018 and 2019 – with 34% of kids listening to audiobooks for at least 15 minute each week.

I think these numbers paint a picture of a growing spoken word space for kids. Over the following paragraphs, I’d like to dive into why I think there’s massive amount of potential for brands to engage with young people in this space, while also highlighting a few key barriers that we should all be wary of as well…

Four Key Opportunities in the kids podcast space

Audio is a trusted source of entertainment for guilt-ridden parents

Screens are effective baby-sitters for harried parents, but that doesn’t mean that parents are eager for their child to be glued to these devices all the time.

‘Screen guilt’ is a very real phenomenon experienced by parents across the country,[2] who feel bad about the amount of time their child is spending with digital devices. A Mancunian mother we recently spoke with painted a rather dystopic picture of this fear:

“I took the dog for a walk the other night and just saw people in their homes staring into their phones, and I thought what’s happening to us? I’m scared my daughter won’t experience what we have – the normal world” (Mum of Girl, 8)

In our research, we’ve repeatedly found that parents love the idea of podcasts and audiobooks as they are felt to offer a remedy to this guilt: providing parents with a source of entertainment that doesn’t rely on screens.

Even if they haven’t tried them yet, parents are excited by the medium:

“[Podcasts] are definitely a platform I haven’t really explored with him and I would definitely look into it more… it’s a bit of a revelation really!” (Mum of Boy, 8)

We’ve also found that audio is generally considered to be a trustworthy medium: parents might have experience listening to podcasts or audiobooks in the past, and generally think they know what to expect. As such, they don’t believe that their children could accidentally stumble into anything too inappropriate (clearly, they haven’t listed to My Dad Wrote a Porno).

Podcasts are natural places to create reactive, diverse, and niche content that pushes the envelope (in a safe way)

Podcasts are natural homes for creating diverse and niche content, that can adapt and react to the quickly changing media environment. As Jess Anson, a founder of podcast fan convention PodUK recently told us:

“Podcasting has a huge advantage over other media: since its creators don’t have to jump through corporate hoops to reach their audience, it can be as diverse & representative as it wants. And it goes hard”

The relatively low-cost to produce podcasts and other forms of audio (compared with media products such as films or TV shows) means that brands can be more experimental and ‘out there’ with the content they explore.

We recently had a chat with the producer of the kids ethics podcast Short and Curly, Kyla Slaven, who pointed out that the low-cost of production has let her talk about a whole host of ‘Curly’ topics (such as death and cannibalism) that would have otherwise been screened out in costlier projects:

“In a big-budget, visual thing you’d have people telling you what you can and can’t do: for example, they’d be saying ‘You can’t look at kids dying on the Titanic’ (a topic we looked at in one of our episodes)! But in a podcast, you have a bit more freedom to explore the topics you want to explore – and that freedom has allowed us to end up where we are today”

She argues that this freedom has helped them generate a product with a strong USP that appeals to both kids and parents alike.

This low-cost environment is also felt to bring an appealing purity to the space: Eric O’Keeffe, host of the What If World podcast pointed this out to us, saying:

There is no perfect media for kids, but there’s a lot less money in podcasting, which means most of us want to put something good out into the world more than we want to get rich”

With fewer kids podcasts out there, it’s easier for known brands to stand out in the space

Discoverability is a huge issue when it comes to podcasts – in fact, I’d argue it’s the key issue that the podcast community needs to overcome if it wants to grow and prosper (more on this later). The Guardian, in recent research into podcast listeners, has identified the barriers for adults who are ‘considering listening’ to podcasts to be mainly around knowledge about how they can access and find new content.

However, within the kids podcast there are relatively few big name brands who are staking a claim on this growing space – and with a mere 3,500 competitors, a known brand with a strong product (potentially leveraging an existing ISP) could stand head-and-shoulders above the rest.

And let’s not overlook the value of the repeat factor: 80% of kids will listen to a favourite podcast episode more than once (according to data from KidsListen in the US), with 20% listening more than 10 times.

As Slaven pointed out in her conversation with us:

“One of the reasons it’s great creating kids stuff is that if they love something, they will listen again, and again, and again, and again… And a lot of these kids go to sleep with the show in their ears, which has been a weird thing for me to get used to”

That’s a pretty powerful behaviour for any brand to tap into.

Spoken word audio is a flexible product that fits the multi-platform needs of young people

As a Kids and Family Research agency, we spend a lot of time speaking with young people about their various content needs. Recently, what I’ve found most interesting is the diverse role that audio is playing within young people’s media consumption – and how it ties into an increasingly multi-platform content environment that young people experience.

What do I mean by that?

I recently spoke with a pre-teen who loved listening to YouTube videos of Reddit AMA’s while she was doing her makeup. In other words, she was using a video platform to consume written content in an audio-only way.

As more content becomes available on multiple platforms, living across multiple devices (smartphones, smart TVs, tablets, gaming consoles, laptops, etc) young people are becoming increasingly fluid in how they think about content experiences.

There is value for a brand that can recognise where audio can fit into this modern mix – thinking of audio products not only as standalone offerings, but also as a format that can amplify and augment current experiences.

Barriers … and opportunities

Of course, while there are plenty of opportunities in the kids spoken word audio space, there are some barriers to consider as well:

Discoverability

Whether you’re a kids spoken word product or aiming at older audiences, being discovered and consumed is still a big problem.

As Laura Bijelic, Head of Audience Insight at Penguin Random House, stated at the Children’s Media Conference last year – there’s currently a ‘lack of digital shelf space’ for products like these, making it difficult for parents and kids to browse and choose new content.

There’s some good news here though. We’ve already seen that audiobooks are growing, and podcast reach is similarly growing year on year (both in the UK and around the world); brands like Google (with their audio SEO) and Spotify (with their algorithmic approach to discovery) are making it easier for audiences to uncover new podcast content.

Ensuring Safe Consumption

Podcasts, in general, offer a smorgasbord of topics to explore – that’s a big pull of the medium. However, there is a anxiety about how to offer a similar degree of choice to young people while also ensuring their safety.

For instance, up until Apple’s last reclassification of podcasts in its store, parents fears were really hammered home by a simple perusal of the kids & family section. Here, you might find David Walliam’s Marvellous Musical Podcast next to pods about divorce and birthing – not exactly child-friendly browsing!

However, there are multiple brands out there aiming to fix this and provide audio ‘walled gardens’ for young people to explore in a safe way: platforms like Pinna, Leela Kids, and – of course – Spotify Kids all offer this as a clear selling point for use.

Collective listening experiences

One argument I hear against kids podcasts spins on the idea that podcast consumption among adults is largely an independent activity (according to MIDAS data, 92% of podcast fans listen by themselves). Kids, particularly those at the younger end of the spectrum, prefer more collective experiences rather than solo activities. And, at a general level, this drive for collective experiences is something we regularly see as a kids and family research agency.

I think this assumes, however, that kids would listen to podcasts in the same way as adults.

There are a few examples where podcasts could augment current offerings around collective media experiences. One example: 53% of UK parents interviewed last year for Book Trust research into night-time reading routines claimed that they used a ‘smartphone, tablet, app, or YouTube’ to tell their children a bedtime story, while 26% have used a smart speaker for the same task. There’s a space here for ‘podcasts’ to live, entertaining both kids and parents alike – indeed, research by Wow in the World into their own young listeners suggested that 96% were listening with their parents.

Furthermore, we can also see in brands like Tonies and Yoto Player a drive among kids to create their own, individual audio experiences (Yoto even have a series of ‘Micro-podcasts’ that they release daily on the platform)  – further showcasing the value of spoken word audio products among young people.

As is often the case, a solution to many ‘barriers’ is found when we dig down into the root of kids’ behaviours and really understand why kids act the way they do and how a new product or brand can tap into this behaviour in a positive way.

In Conclusion: Kids Podcasts Moving Forward

The podcast space has been a growing area in the kids’ media market and the pandemic has turbo-charged this growth: kids are spending more time at home and are hungry for new content and parents want their kids to be occupied but fear more screen-time.

Consequently there has been more and more  desire for new pods, and increased opportunities for brands to position themselves as key players within the space. With the medium being pushed more into the foreground of audiences, penetration and consumption of pods will only grow.

As the space grows in importance it will be exciting to see where brands evolve! Don’t worry we’ll be keeping an eye on it, and continuing to produce research that helps you keep pace with the changing market… any questions just drop me a line.


[1] Currently, podcasts reach between a fifth and a third of the total 15+ UK population (The MIDAS Spring 2020 puts it at 18% – up from 14% of the population in Spring last year – while recent Guardian research from the beginning of the Covid pandemic puts the figure at 33%). Of that same population, audiobooks reach 7% (MIDAS). For comparison, in the UK Live Radio reaches 88% of the population, and On Demand Music reaches 31%.

[2] It is this sense of guilt that has led to the creation of a number of kids audio products – one example being the Yoto Player – I sat down with their marketing director early this year to chat about how the product was designed as an antidote to too much screen time.

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Sam Harris

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