As part of our research into podcasts for kids (and other types of kids media), Hook Research have been reaching out to kids podcast creators around the world – asking them about their experiences creating and running audio products aimed at younger audiences.
We recently managed to catch up with Eric O’Keeffe, the host and producer of What If World Podcast – a podcast that crowd-sources creative ideas from children around the world and turns them into creative, fun, and powerful stories. While it’s a US-based podcast, we’ve spoken with lots of kids on this side of the Atlantic that consider it one of their favourites!
Eric was kind enough to take some time out of his crazy schedule to answer our questions and share his thoughts on the state of this new(ish) medium now, and how podcasts for kids can continue to grow and engage young people in future. Check out the interview below!
Getting Started in Podcasting
Hook Research: Let’s start at the beginning – how did you become a podcast host?
Eric O’Keeffe: The short answer is, it’s thanks to my wife.
After moving to LA, I told stories to my nephew in Boston over Skype. He’d give me a topic (Spider Man, dragons, Legos, etc.) and I’d secretly talk to his mom about what he was going through at home or in school. Then I’d sneak a little lesson into an unscripted story for him. My girlfriend (now wife) overheard a few of these, and thought we should make something of it. We spent weeks talking about a premise and I recorded a rocky pilot. Karen believed in me despite myself – she made me record a few more, worked her audio magic, and basically started the podcast for me.
“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”
HR: In your opinion, what do kids get from listening to podcasts (compared with other types of media – like reading a book, watching TV, playing games, etc)?
EO: Podcasts can work for a family wherever they’re needed. They’re less distracting than screens, easier for parents to monitor (they can just read a few reviews and then download a few episodes onto an unconnected smart device), and there’s endless content to choose from.
Some of my listeners are still learning to read, and I hope that I can help inspire them to read and learn on their own. 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.
Collaborating, Engaging… and Funding – Creating Successful Podcasts for Kids
HR: Collaboration and co-creation with kids is a big part of your work – why do you think this appeals to kids?
EO: I was a child of the 90s. Most afternoons were spent running around with my friends, completely unsupervised, trying to avoid baths and CCD (after school church). We played superhero, and doctor, and Godzilla, and Halloween fashion show. We told our own stories and built our own worlds.
Most kids these days have a lot less freedom than I enjoyed, and their imaginations are ready to burst. Some What-If questions I get spell out an entire story beat by beat. When I hear a question like that, I try to encourage the child to tell their own tale, without waiting for the podcast. I’m still constantly surprised by their creativity, and I’m happy that they have a sense of ownership of our make-believe worlds.
HR: In your experience with your podcast, what kinds of stories and themes get kids most engaged? Has anything surprised you?
EO: If I mention Legos or Minecraft in the title: instant download spike. I get Freaky-Friday and flying questions constantly: What if turtles became dogs and dogs became turtles? What if cars could fly?
Kids are growing, changing, and questioning all the time, so I’m always happy to have a role-reversal story and show kids a new perspective. As for flying, we mention flight in the theme song, so I’m partly to blame. It’s kind of a running joke on the show that people will just get transformed or fly away for no reason.
I’ve been most surprised to see Fred the Dog and JFKat become my two most popular characters. I’ve got enough questions about them to last a lifetime, and they’re both characters inspired by my own real-world pets. I never planned on using them that often, but I guess even in an audio format we can’t resist the cuteness of dogs and cats.
HR: Funding is tricky in the kids podcast space – it looks like you’ve gone down the ad-funded (supplemented by Patreon) model. How do you approach advertising in your podcasts? Are there any red lines for you?
EO: While I will advertise a product for kids, I refuse to advertise directly to children.
I’ll typically say, “now we’ve got a quick message for your parents” or some such statement. Some parents send kudos when I land a sponsorship with a cool family-friendly product, and others complain that I shouldn’t have commercials at all – you can’t please everyone.
An NPR study for their podcast Wow in the World, showed that 96% of kids are listening with their grownups, but advertisers are still hesitant to back indie podcasts for children. I’ve dropped my rates as low I feel comfortable doing, but I don’t want to undercut podcasting for kids on the whole.
I’m basically surrounded by red lines, but I’m lucky to have a few loyal patrons helping keep the show alive.
What does the future look like for kids podcasts?
HR: Generally, how do you see kids podcasts growing in future? What are the opportunities? Any big roadblocks?
EO: Listenership is growing and I think the opportunities are endless: radio, paywall apps, books, TV show, online courses, live shows, etc.
But I think the roadblocks are massive as well. The reasons why podcasting is great are also the reasons why it’s such a difficult industry: they’re free and there’s no gatekeeper.
In the information age, nothing is truly free. Except podcasts (most of them). We don’t gather data outside of voluntary surveys. Advertisers won’t even renew our contracts unless fans use our offer codes. So my refusal to, say, advertise CBD oil, or to tell a story about a toy your kid should buy, actually makes it harder for me to keep doing this show. Many podcasters think that paywall services won’t work in podcasting, while many parents don’t believe podcasts for kids should have ads. It took me two years of producing weekly episodes before I was earning enough to move from a full time job to a part time job, and I’m one of the lucky ones.
“The reasons why podcasting is great are also the reasons why it’s such a difficult industry: they’re free and there’s no gatekeeper”
While there isn’t a literal gatekeeper for podcasts, but the problem is around volume: parents aren’t going to decide to listen to the two-hundred-and-second podcast for kids. That two-hundred-and-second show could be incredible, but the pod lacks the resources to beat the algorithm and climb the charts.
Those creators who do have the resources are networks and celebrities. If you see Gimlet or NPR written under a podcast, you’re more likely to check it out. Plus, you’re going to hear that show advertised for weeks or months across that network before it launches. Then, they’ll have guest appearances on other successful Gimlet and NPR shows in order to convert more listeners. They probably pay for some ads on social media. When you listen to their show, you’ll find it’s super polished and entertaining, so why would you scroll further down the charts?
Kid-casters generally have a rough go of it. If an indie show gets popular enough to spark the interest of a network, that network can entice the podcaster with promises of marketing and production help, ad sales and book deals. Then, they’ll hand them a contract that guarantees none of those things and locks up the show’s IP for a year or more.
“It’s not impossible for an indie show to become successful, but the reality is the odds are stacked against you”
I volunteer for an NPO called Kids Listen and we grapple with these issues all the time, and try to ready fellow podcasters for the storm. It’s not impossible for an indie show to become successful, but the reality is the odds are stacked against you.
Lessons for Creating Engaging Kids Content
HR: What lessons would you share for anyone looking to create content in the kids space?
EO: I’ll focus on podcasting, as it’s the content I’m most comfortable with.
- Think hard about your premise. Tinker with it, get a few kids to listen to a pilot, if possible, and be willing to scrap it. You’re going to want to do this at least every other week, so it’s got to be something you and the kids enjoy.
- Think about how to incorporate guests, even if you won’t rely on them. Once you’ve got some loyal listeners and reviews, ask slightly bigger podcasters to come on your show or to do a reading. Make sure you credit them on the air, link their show in your description, and tag them in social media posts. They’ll happily give you some shares and they might even invite you onto their show down the road.
- Keep your episodes short (≤ 20 min).
- Try to include something interactive: quizzes, 4th wall breaks, contests, sing-alongs, movement (with safety instructions), reading tweets/reviews. Think of something that fits your premise and won’t be too much work or cost you money.
- If you don’t have a big budget, then make sure you can record the show on your own, or with a single guest. Having to pay voice actors can cause your show to stall out quickly.
- Get a backlog of at least 3 episodes before you launch.
- Don’t expect to earn a living from your show: it’s putting something positive out into the space and showcasing yourself. If more comes of it, amazing!
- Check out kidslisten.org: it made a huge difference for me starting out, which is why I still volunteer for them to this day.
- Finally, remember that it’s for kids. Don’t talk down to them and remember them every step of the way, or else they’ll lose interest. I still imagine myself telling every story to my nephew and it helps to keep me grounded.
HR: What’s next for you and your podcast?
EO: I do all the recording, editing, sound design, admin, and marketing for the show myself, so the answer to that question is generally, “Finishing Monday’s story.” I put out a rerun on Thanksgiving and I’m very much looking forward to the break.
We just started playing on All Classical Portland’s ICAN radio station this spring, and we’ll be featured on Amazon’s Free Time app when it launches, too. I’ve got half a dozen irons slowly cooling in various fires, but I’ll jostle them this summer and see if something sparks.
Want to learn a bit more about youth media?
A massive thanks to Eric for sharing his thoughts on the exciting world of podcasts for kids! If you want to learn more about the What If World Podcast (or want to listen to an episode for yourself), be sure to go and check out their website at whatifworldpodcast.com
If this conversation has piqued your interest in Kids Podcasts – go check out some of our other thoughts on podcasts or sign up for our monthly newsletter, which includes a monthly round-up of the biggest goings on in the kids media landscape!