Demand for screen-free, family-friendly podcasts has exploded during the pandemic, and the market continues to grow. Podcasts in the kids and family category have seen a 20% increase in viewership since 2019, according to a 2021 Spoken Word Audio Report from NPR and Edison Research. And the podcast industry as a whole is expected to eclipse $2 billion in ad revenue by 2023, according to the Interactive Advertising Bureau’s latest U.S. Podcast Ad Revenue Study from May 2021.
But the faster the children’s market grows, the greater the challenges. Discoverability is a major concern for both creators and platforms, as is revenue generation, as ads in children’s media are limited. To address these challenges and future-proof their businesses, more and more children’s podcast companies are beginning to develop audio IPs first selected across 360-degree brands encompassing TV, movies, publishing, games, consumer products and more.
A number of new partnerships show how kids’ podcasting is changing in the post-pandemic landscape. Warner Bros. Television recently picked up the TV rights to a 2023 mid-level music podcast from producer Gen Z Media called 20 million views. And as part of a podcast-to-publish deal, children’s audio streaming service Pinna has teamed up with Macmillan Children’s imprint Farrar, Straus and Giroux to adapt its original series of preschool podcasts. The ABC Adventures of Quentin and Alfie like a series of children’s books.
On the platform side, Amazon podcast studio Wondery has launched the Wondery+ Kids subscription service and Spotify US is looking to grow its pipeline by focusing on kids and family content for the first time in a new Sound Up training program for underrepresented creators.
These new opportunities are served by a select group of children’s podcast production companies with brand strategies primed and ready for consumers.
A handful of companies lead the pack, including Los Angeles-based podcast producer Wonkybot, which recently revealed plans to expand its popular Huge Tara podcast in animated and live series and a book. Two spin-off podcasts have also been greenlit, and a live-action musical film is in development under the watchful eye of Katie McNicol, Head of Development at Marc Platt Productions (The Earth, Bad).
“We want to continue building the audio universe, but we see the business expanding into TV and movies,” says the Wonkybot co-founder and Huge Tara Creator Stewart St. John. “To creatively support the strategy, we will need to consider making new shows similar to the ones I presented Power Rangers or Sabrina: the animated serieswhere we got ourselves a writer’s room and had a few editors.
After tapping into monetization models to fuel its ambitions, the company decided to launch the Wonkybot+ subscription channel on Apple Podcasts in early 2021, offering all of its new Tara content and other IP addresses in its portfolio. It is also exploring Huge Tara video games and merchandising. A team is currently using sound clips and audio scenes from the podcasts to develop the game’s content and preliminary discussions are underway with a major retailer to Tara tee-shirts. “We’re keeping our fingers crossed that the merchandising deal comes to fruition because it would be huge for us,” St. John says.
Another well-established children’s podcast producer, Tinkercast, has also explored franchises, thanks to the massive success of its Wow in the world Podcast. Since its launch in 2017, at the dawn of podcasting for children, the educational series has been downloaded 150 million times. The brand now includes books, live theatrical events and merchandising. Tinkercast also struck a key distribution deal with Wondery last year, giving it exclusive distribution, merchandise and ad sales rights for new Tinkercast podcasts. Who, When, Wow! and Flip and Mozi’s Guide to Being an Earthling until 2023.
“We found a lot of different extensions for Wow and we are going further this year with the development of video, consumer products and information technology, as well as planning for international growth,” said the co-founder and managing director of Tinkercast. Meredith Halpern-Ranzer.
To support brand expansion, Tinkercast launched a new division in January called Tinkerlab. “It’s up to us to throw spaghetti against the wall and have day-long design sprints around different growth areas like video and consumer products,” says Halpern-Ranzer.
If TV adaptations become a reality, his long career at Sesame Workshop and PBS KIDS Sprout, coupled with COO Jody Nussbaum’s Sesame TV background, should give Tinkercast an edge. “We know how long TV development takes, so we’re looking to partner with production companies that could handle the biggest upswing,” she says. “We produced and supervised the creation to make sure it aligned with our brand values.”
Tinkercast is exploring video opportunities on YouTube and TikTok to market its podcasts. According to Halpern-Ranzer, YouTube has become the biggest podcast discovery platform. “Not having a presence or a strategy is a missed opportunity,” she says. During the pandemic, the company launched a special live stream on YouTube to reveal the cover of its new podcast-based book, How and Wow: the human bodyleading to his presale.
Similar to Tinkerlab, Chicago-based Soundsington Media is also beginning to embed brand expansion into the DNA of its children’s podcasts from the start, according to its founder. Nate DuFort. The company’s hit podcast, REACH: A space podcast for kidsis currently in development for print and screen adaptations, with on-camera segment testing underway.
Literary agent Alex Slater buys the company’s first show, Unavoidable, in book form, and Soundsington offers a screen rights option. The company is also in talks to launch a subscription channel.
“We’re only releasing weekly episodes at this point,” says DuFort. “The second we do more is when having a channel would make the most sense for us. We’re a small company with two shows and three or four more on the way this year. We’re satisfied with our initial investment in these salons, but we need to consider sustainability.
Boston-based FableVision, on the other hand, is at the start of its first audio content journey, recruiting industry vets for kids. Anne-Richard in January 2022 to lead its new audiyo-yo podcast division.
Richards says she accepted the VP position in part because FableVision has a unique suite of assets for the space. Primarily, as an animation/interactive service provider now operating an audio studio, it can adapt its own podcast IPs into TV series or video games and produce them in-house.
“As an audio studio within a production studio that can do so many other things, brand extensions are the foundation of how we think about work,” she says. “We have a lot of capacity here to go far enough in the [expansion] road.”
Audiyo-yo is currently focusing on its first podcast for children, cummerbund (pictured), striving to create a great audio show before turning it into animation, cast album, editing and other expansions. “We think it has the legs to travel to other mediums, but we want to respect the podcast medium first,” says Richards.
She adds that the company is content to let others test the subscription waters before jumping in. “The good news is that when we’re ready to do that, there will be a lot more market information about how these channels are working,” she said. “For us, reaching audiences through all the different podcast platforms is the first step.”