The popularity of podcasting has skyrocketed in recent years, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic as audiences turn to on-demand content in their droves.

By Desilon Daniels

But how have public media organisations adapted to this demand? This podcast series showcases how public radio organisations are using podcasts to fulfil their remits and address societal needs in specific areas.

In our last post, we explored podcasting and local news. In this part of the series, we turn our attention to children’s content.

Podcasting and children’s content

 Public broadcasters have long recognised the importance of creating content for children as part of their remits of universality and to reach diverse audiences.  Broadcasters like PBS in the United States – which broadcasts Sesame Street, the longest running children’s show – have demonstrated their commitment to producing and providing high quality children’s programmes and services.

Now, the impact of COVID-19 on schools has led to a surge in demand for children’s content, especially from public broadcasters. In a blog post, Director General of the European Broadcasting Corporation (EBU), Noel Curran, noted that “the pandemic has shown there is still a huge appetite out there for relevant programming that tells stories and provides information in a way that is familiar and comprehensible to younger audiences”, with public service media reaching significantly more children and for longer. Public broadcasters’ online services were particularly seeing increased daily reach, while one-in-five children used educational offers from public media in the first week of lockdown as broadcasters filled the space left by school closures in many countries.

Public media organisations are also collaborating to produce children’s content: earlier this week, Nordic broadcasters DR in Denmark, NRK in Norway, SVT in Sweden, and Yle in Finland announced that they would be strengthening drama for children through co-productions. The new collaborative project, called Barn14, would see the creation of 14 series per year from across the region for children of preschool to high school age.

But the role of public media goes beyond education. In true public media fashion, broadcasters have entertained, informed, and educated their young audiences, particularly during the pandemic. And one way they have done so is through podcasts.

Entertain, educate, inform

Swedish Radio’s Barn Radio station is dedicated entirely to children and has a premier offering of podcasts. The broadcaster has even gone as far as creating podcast packages for 3-8 year olds and one for 9-13 year olds. Broadcasters like SR have demonstrated their recognition of the importance of producing immersive content that appeals to children across multiple genres, including entertainment. Some even include audience participation.

The BBC, for example, has produced a podcast comprised of bedtime stories for children, written by children. Since 2015, the broadcaster’s 500 Words Bedtime Stories podcast has provided children with the opportunity to be both storyteller and listener. The stories are selected from the BBC Radio 2 Breakfast Show’s 500 Words competition, the annual short story contest for children aged five to 13.

Particularly during the pandemic, podcasts have served as a way to keep children entertained during a difficult time. “It’s during challenging times like this that the BBC serves its purpose to entertain the whole of the UK and these new stories are guaranteed to do just that with their themes of long distance friendship, sharing problems and true courage in overcoming seemingly impossible challenges,” Cheryl Taylor, Head of Content for BBC Children’s, said.

To meet their mandate “to inform”, several public broadcasters have developed podcasts to help children make sense of the world around them.

At the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC), its audio content draws in a significant audience. In its 2020 annual report, the public broadcaster revealed that monthly active users of its Listen app rose by 28% in 2019-2020 to 583,000. Its ABC Podcasts service recorded 28.6 million downloads in 2019-2020, up four percent from 27.3 million in 2018-2019. When it comes to its children’s content, ABC “provides a wealth of educational, entertaining, factual, comedic and musical content for Australia’s 4.4 million children between the ages of 2 and 14.”

Among this wealth of content is News Time, a news podcast from ABC Kids Listen. The podcast breaks down complex topics across the top five news stories of the week. Featuring children’s voices, the show regularly receives positive feedback from parents on its impact.

“Tonight we listened to the latest episode about COVID-19. [My three-year-old Matilda] has been home in voluntary isolation with us and today started talking about missing her friends and cousins. Your words made her feel that her experience was shared at a time when her friends and cousins are not self-isolating… coming from you, who she has come to admire and often quote, it meant the world…Your program has been such an important part of our days.” — Emma N, News Time listener

Meanwhile, in the Czech Republic, the public broadcaster, Czech Radio, launched a new podcast in September aimed at informing children about media and social networks. In announcing the podcast Filtr, Editor-in-Chief of Radio Wave Iva Jonášová said, “We want to support media literacy among the generation that was already born by the Internet. This is the first educational project of Czech Radio addressing teenagers through a podcast, [that is] the audio format that we offer for on demand consumption.”

Filtr podcasts
Filtr, a new 10-part podcast series from Czech Radio’s Radio Wave. Credit: Český rozhlas/

In 2020, providing content for children in the area of education has been particularly important for public service media. With countless children unable to attend school globally, public media organisations have expanded their services to allow for continued education. In Europe, for example, the EBU reported that PSM reached on average 57% of children every week during March with their television services, while their online services saw 2.3 times the daily reach in April-May compared to January-February on kids websites. Ultimately, public media educational content reached 20% of children during the first week of lockdown in March.

Some broadcasters have specifically launched podcasts aimed at children and their parents in response to the pandemic. The BBC, for instance, launched two new daily education podcasts in April on the first day of the summer term, aimed at the parents of primary and secondary school children. The podcasts – BBC Bitesize Primary Plannerand BBC Bitesize Secondary Planner – aim to help families navigate home-schooling by providing education and wellbeing resources. In an announcement of the podcasts, it was revealed that more than 200 teachers contributed to the project.

We said the BBC would be there for people through this crisis, and we meant it. It’s vital that every child is able to continue learning – and the lessons we’re putting on will make sure they have fun at the same time. — Alice Webb, Director, Children’s & Education

SRF in Switzerland has similarly adapted its educational offers due to the pandemic. Earlier this year, SRF experimented with a new podcast project called “Hallo SRF!” which allowed audiences to broach their questions on the broadcaster’s operations, particularly in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. The six-part podcast series was seen as a way to engage audiences while meeting their interest in the working practices and conditions for employees at SRF. In November, SRF announced that it would be extending this podcast project, with a specific focus on schoolchildren. The latest podcast, called Hallo Arthur! seeks to connect with schoolchildren at a time when tours of SRF studios are unable to take place. In an announcement of the new podcast series, SRF Head of Communications, Andrea Hemmi, explained, “Even if we are currently unable to offer studio tours for school classes due to Corona, we would definitely like to continue the exchange with young people…This alternative was very much appreciated by teachers who we had to cancel tours.”

“Such offers are a great enrichment for the ‘optional subject of political education’ and motivate young people to deal intensively with the media and political issues.” — Simone Schlatter, teacher, Switzerland

These are just a few examples of how public media are meeting their mandate to entertain, educate, and inform through children’s podcasts. But by creating such content, these organisations are going beyond this mandate and demonstrating their commitment to public media values such as distinctiveness, diversity, innovation, and universality.

In the next part of this series, we will highlight how public media organisations are creating cultural content. In particular we will focus on how they are adapting to changing cultural demands in a tumultuous year where the way people connect with each other and their cultural groups has been interrupted.

Header Image: Yellow headphones on blue background. Music concept. Credit: Alexandr Screaghin/iStock