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Let’s Talk About Kids’ Podcasts

Photo-Illustration: Vulture

I’ve written quite a bit about kids’ podcasts in the past, mostly as a subject of business intrigue. But the way I see it, it’s all somewhat fraudulent because I don’t have any children of my own at the moment, which means there’s only so much I can personally assess.

Which is why I figured it might be useful, and fun, to chat with an actual parent here at Vulture who does have extensive experience with all the possibilities that kid podcasts represent. So I turned to Kathryn VanArendonk, critic extraordinaire and mother of two, to glean a few insights on the matter.

Nick Quah: So Kathryn, it’s my understanding that in your household — which I imagine is a big media-consuming household, given your profession — kids’ podcasts are a huge part of your children’s media diet. Tell me about that.

Kathryn VanArendonk: This sounds like some kind of advertisement, but it’s honestly hard to overstate how much kid podcasts are a part of my life as a parent at this point. I have two daughters who are 8 and 5, and I am certainly not against screen time for them — they watch plenty of TV and movies; they have iPads with a bunch of games; their dad is slowly introducing them to the glories of couch co-op console gaming.

But they are also pandemic kids, which means they’ve had tons and tons of time needing to amuse themselves at home over the past few years, and gradually podcasts became a bigger and bigger part of that. A lot of it is because unlike TV or iPads, they can listen whenever they like, and can control what they’re listening to. I started them both on Tonie boxes, which I think are ideal audio setups for preschool and early elementary kids. But their desire for hours of content outstripped the Tonie box platform very quickly, so they now both have Yoto minis. My 5-year-old, who is particularly podcast-obsessed, falls asleep to hers every night.

NQ: Do you remember what the first few shows were that got them into the habit? How did you learn about them?

KVA: When I first got a Tonie box for my then 3 year-old, the box came with a Frozen character (which I assumed she’d listen to all the time) and a blank figure that you could load other audio onto. The company suggests you record your own messages or get grandparents to read books or something, and that sounds like a lovely utopian option, but there was absolutely no way I was going to take the time to do that. This is when I started Googling something like “bedtime podcast preschool” or “story time kid podcasts” and looking up lists of the top-rated ones. The thing about kid media is that once they love something they want one million episodes of it, so I gravitated toward short, accessible story podcasts with a big archive: Circle Round and Stories Podcast. For a while they also liked Bottle Ship and a few others in that space, but those were really the on-ramp for them.

NQ: I imagine that, at least to some extent, you’re listening along with your kids, and have developed a sense of what they think works or doesn’t work with these podcasts. How would they describe what makes a good pod for them? And what are your own feelings on what makes a good kids’ pod?

KVA: For them, the thing that makes a good podcast has a lot to do with tone. Stuff that’s funny, podcasts that have some combination of narrative momentum and humor and a small amount of suspense. You know how early elementary-school teachers have that way of talking that’s just very distinctively up? All the time? It’s not quite that, but it’s in that same zone. Dour is not going to work. Overly serious is not going to work. They are huge, huge fans of Greeking Out and Story Pirates and Who When Wow, which are all very different formats and styles, but which are built around hosts with warm, approachable, and often funny personalities. For me, of course I like it when the thing they’re listening to has some clear educational benefit — Who When Wow means that my kids understand little bits of American history; Greeking Out means that they are now alarmingly well-versed in western myth. But as long as the podcast seems to really grab them and none of the voices are frenetically annoying, I’m probably going to be on board.

NQ: So even though the genre has been around for several years at this point, it still strikes me as a pretty nascent market. As someone looking for more kids’ podcasts, what do you want to see more of, not just in terms of programming, but also in terms of product?

KVA: Overwhelmingly the key to why podcasts took over our lives is because I stumbled onto a way to let my kids listen whenever they want, which I feel comfortable with because they have a device that lets them listen without any screen. Sure, they could have an old iPhone or a tablet in their rooms to stream podcasts via apps, but I know full well that they’d end up staring at the bright light of it at 3 a.m. and I’d be fielding constant questions about how to make it also play video. (And if it’s internet connected then it’s going to get other game apps onto it! That’s just inevitable!)

The Yoto interface is not the easiest thing in the world, but it’s relatively straightforward to make a playlist and upload whatever mp3’s you’d like. My biggest headache is just getting. The damn. Podcasts. Some companies make it incredibly straightforward — you can download the files on their website, or you can pay for a subscription tier that lets you have access to the files. I’ve found a little workaround in the desktop version of the otherwise nightmarish Apple Podcasts app that means I can sometimes pull them from there. I complained about this on Twitter recently and learned about a very small company that’s also designed to help with that. But if you make the best kids’ podcast in the world and there is no way for me to put it on a device without a screen (which I recently found was the case with a popular kid-podcast company), it’s just not going to happen in my house! I will not be giving you my money!

Lulu Miller’s Bid to Preserve Childhood Wonder

Radiolab has a new spinoff coming out this week, its first since Lulu Miller and Latif Nasser took over stewardship from OG creator Jad Abumrad. It’s a kids’ podcast — as in, a show explicitly made for kids, as opposed to just being “kid-friendly.” The spinoff is called Terrestrial, and it takes the form of a six-episode series all about the natural world. Creatures like octopi and tsetse flies take center stage as subjects, their features and quirks magnified as gambits to elicit wonder from the 8-to-12 crowd.

Miller, who hosts the series, tells me that they’re going for a specific feeling with Terrestrials: the sensation of discovery, and the awe that comes after it. “There’s energy in being ripped away from reality and your humdrum sense of how life is supposed to work but then be gifted with an oasis of quiet,” she said. “That whiplash, for me, is a real guiding principle.”

Among those helping Miller to build Terrestrial’s whiplashing sonic world are Mira Burt-Wintonick and Phoebe Wang, who were brought in as sound designers. When we spoke earlier this week, Miller noted herself to be a fan of Wiretap, the old Jonathan Goldstein CBC joint that Burt-Wintonick had worked on as a producer alongside her long-time collaborator Cristal Duhaime. Wang, meanwhile, caught Miller’s ear off a piece she had made for Hearsay, the annual sound-art festival held in Kilfinane, Ireland. “Both Mira and Phoebe have that comfort with hinting at the fear and soothing potential in the world,” she said.

Another interesting note about the production: The team assembled a listening panel of kids and parents, sourced from an ask posted through the Radiolab feed. They did test screenings at schools, visiting classrooms of different grades — fourth, fifth, sixth — and playing them cuts of episodes. They say that feedback went a long way in helping them cut segments and lean into weirder directions. In one session, they learned that a lot of kids simply didn’t know what a radio was.

“The great thing about kids is that no one’s mincing words: ‘This is cringe!’” Miller, a mother herself, told me of the feedback exercises. “You could watch in the classrooms and just see when they’re bored or when they’re squirming.”

“But we’re okay being cringe-forward,” she added. “I mean, my name is Lulu, I sing, I’m a hokey, cringey person, and I’m okay with that. But I didn’t want it to only be that note.”

The hope, she maintained, is to reach kids who are at that transitional age when they’re leaving childhood and, along with it, a particular belief in fantastical kinds of wonder. “It’s that liminal space where they’re realizing there might not be magic or fairy tales — which might’ve made them depressed, as I was at that age,” she said. “And to show them that there’s still maybe beauty, strangeness, and wonder in things you maybe don’t realize is right here in the real world.”

The first episode of Terrestrials drops tomorrow, September 22.
Terrestrials is produced by Lulu Miller, Suzie Lechtenberg, Ana González, and Alan Goffinski. As discussed, the sound designers are Mira Burt-Wintonick and Phoebe Wang.

Lulu’s listening to … “Well, I can’t get enough of You’re Wrong About. I also love History Is Gay, which is kinda like You’re Wrong About, but basically for gay stories you didn’t know that happened throughout history. Oh, and The Loudest Girl in the World. It’s phenomenal. Every second of it is good.”

Meanwhile …

➽ If you’ve ever wondered about the hypothetical political leanings of your desk lamp, boy, do I have a recommendation for you. There’s a new season of Everything Is Alive, the Radiotopia show in which Ian Chillag interviews sentient inanimate objects, out now. My desk lamp is fiscally conservative and socially liberal, unsurprisingly.

➽ Wanna know something wild? I don’t think I can name a single Grateful Dead tune. But for those who can name Grateful Dead tunes, or indeed who are the sort of person who’d give up large chunks of their life to see the band around the country, consider checking out this new audio documentary called America’s Dead.

➽ Once again I am making this newsletter about me and my silly, boyish, newfound F1 passion. Just a quick shout-out, one last time, to Choosing Sides: F1, which concludes its run this week. As I wrote in my (always updating) Best Podcasts of 2022 So Far list, I think the show has such a fantastic concept — sports fandom, interpreted and communicated and shared, is a really fun, powerful idea, and credit to that team for building something that effectively bottles up the feeling. I hope the show continues, and if it doesn’t, somebody else should pick it up and expand on it.

Let’s Talk About Kids’ Podcasts