Before the pandemic, I hoped to conduct a research project on the media consumption of kids ages 5 to 7, not knowing that soon a significant portion of their lives would happen online due to the coronavirus.
Now, more than ever, we need media that reflects kids’ informational needs. Through my Knight Visiting Nieman Fellowship I was able to dig into current behavioral trends among children, understand how public media organizations were reaching and speaking to kids, and how local public media and news organizations could replicate their work.
Through my research, I gained insights into the types of platforms children are invested in, how to create content that addresses their needs and challenges, how parents can be partners, and how to convey information to serve children from all different backgrounds.
It’s not only valuable for media organizations to prioritize youngsters as part of a sustainable future; it is also valuable for children to see themselves in local media. At Harvard, I learned about this idea by talking with Ben Mardell of the Children Are Citizens project, an outfit focused on educational research that explores the idea that children are capable of making meaningful contributions to their communities.
Through a series of projects in Washington, D.C., kids participating in Children Are Citizens were taught about where they lived and created a guide to the city. Youth in Providence, R.I., created a series of how-to guides, like “How to Be a Good Big Brother” and “How to Sing in the Living Room.” They ultimately produced 105 how-to guides that were shared at Providence Children’s Museum.
“The ability to imagine different possibilities and different ways to solve problems in our community is something that citizen education could foster,” says Mardell, “and it’s something that this age group is really good at.”
The most common media device used by kids 11 and younger, according to a March 2020 study by the Pew Research Center, is still television, with 88% of parents surveyed responding in the affirmative. After television, 67% of parents reported letting their child use a tablet, and another 60% allowed them to use a smartphone. This behavior bore out in a study at KQED, where in April of 2020 we reached peak viewership during its children’s television programming time slots. In addition to television, YouTube has emerged as a key platform for kids. In another 2020 Pew Research study, the majority of parents let their kids under age of 11 watch content on YouTube.
Many public media stations see children’s programming on television as an opportunity to lead the audience onto digital platforms. Often interstitials — short-form video programs between movies or shows — are used during prominent national broadcasts like those on PBS Kids. But they can also be used to lead kids into localized digital experiences on the station’s website or other platforms.
“Interstitials are the greatest bang for your buck,” says Arkansas PBS Director of Marketing Julie Thomas.
Arkansas PBS used interstitials to spotlight local teachers of the year to promote their educational resources. Between top children’s programming like “Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood” or “Pinkalicious and Peterffic,” local teachers of the year said “hi” to the kids watching and gave a short assignment for them to think about. Interstitials work well on TV but can also be repurposed as digital experiences, particularly on YouTube.
The strategy of converting old media into new is also evident between print and digital reading formats. Boston’s GBH developed a 12-week bilingual English-Spanish learning guide for Massachusetts families, both online and in print. At a time when parents were looking for activities to get their children away from computer screens, print had great appeal.
“The demand was so high we ended up printing around 110,000 guides,” says Mary Haggerty, Director of First 8 Labs and Media Engagement at GBH.
At Vermont Public Radio, Jane Lindholm and Melody Bodette saw an opportunity to test the podcast space with a niche audience — “But Why,” a podcast series for kids. They’ve seen huge audience growth.
“It’s by a factor of 10 the most popular product we make at the station,” says Lindholm.
They attribute some of the success to the format itself. “But Why” asks kids to contribute their big questions, then the host, Jane, dives into the topics kids submit. They include kids’ voices whenever they ask a question.
“I really like the idea that kids drive what we cover,” says Lindholm. “They say, ‘This is what I want to know about.’” Recent topics include “Why Can’t Kids Vote?”, “Why Do Spiders Have Eight Legs?”, and “Why Do Cats Sharpen Their Claws?” A young listener from Australia wanted to know “What Happens to The Forest After A Fire?” after seeing the devastating bushfires in her community.
Lindholm also attributes the success to their tone of voice, which is less performative than is typical of many podcasts. Instead of over-the-top characters that kids listen to, the podcast is led by real adults who speak clearly and slowly enough for kids to follow along.
Public media and news institutions typically have relationships with educational departments and institutions in their communities. Some 86% of parents agreed that PBS Kids is the most trusted and safe source for children to watch television and play digital games and mobile apps, according to a survey conducted by PBS and Marketing & Research Resources, Inc. The brand outranked other choices such as Disney Jr. (75%), Disney Channel (75%) and Nick Jr. (70%).
This level of trust can mean that parents might be more willing to share and co-consume with their kids if the content is coming from a public media organization.
“Because of the pandemic, parents are having to rediscover, or sometimes discover for the first time, their role and engagement in kids’ media habits and preferences,” says Joe Blatt, an expert in children’s media and a senior lecturer of Harvard’s Graduate School of Education.
Partnering with educational institutions is pivotal for creating content that meets the needs of kids.
“Ask the experts in your community — psychologists, sociologists, educators — what is it that kids need that isn’t so readily available?” suggests Blatt. By understanding existing curricula and programs in the community, public media can fill the gaps.
Many public media institutions already do this, partnering with local and state departments of education to create content that aligns with curriculum. In the early months of the lockdown, many stations customized content to local curricula. KQED, for example, partnered with the California Department of Education and stations across the state to localize its content.
KQED recently reported that over half of Unified School District of Oakland students are struggling with the digital divide. This is the result of having parents with fewer devices in their homes or who lack access to Wi-Fi networks and updated software. Throughout my research, I found examples of public media stations and producers striving to meet the needs of kids in these situations — creating print content and making sure content works on older devices.
“There’s a lot of mechanics of having a public mission and making sure you are reaching the underserved, because not everyone has access to the latest device,” says GBH’s Bill Shribman.
Shribman’s latest project is bringing to life “Molly of Denali” in the form of a game about the impacts of global warming.
Translating television to platforms like YouTube, kids’-specific apps and educational video platforms can be expensive. Some news organizations take the most kid-friendly episodes of programming for adults and make it more simplified for children. The popular WNYC show “Radiolab” created its own podcast feed called “Radiolab for Kids.” At the beginning of the pandemic, parents on staff wanted to act quickly to make something for parents. The team picked its favorites, and an intern reviewed them for anything that seemed inappropriate.
One lesson learned, according to Executive Producer Suzie Lechtenberg: “I think ‘kids’ was too big of a blanket and too big of an umbrella. Kids’ developmental stages are so different. So ‘Radiolab for Kids’ was way too general.”
Partner stations also localize national products from the likes of NPR, PBS and GBH. An example of this is the release of “Molly of Denali” on PBS Kids, which Alaska Public Media saw as an opportunity to spotlight youngsters in its community through interstitials on TV.
In developing an audience of kids and family members, newsrooms and media organizations are also building partners for the future.