WHYY dives into original children’s programming with two new offerings

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Zia Hiltey

Albie and Mailman Gene (played by Frank Farrell) on an episode of "Albie's Elevator."

It all started with an RFP. Flustered by kids’ lack of cultural access during the pandemic, the William Penn Foundation reached out to Philadelphia’s WHYY in late 2020 with a request for proposals. The foundation had earmarked about $1.8 million for an organization that could create programming to educate children about the arts. Other local arts organizations also got a chance to pitch, but because WHYY was the local public media station, The William Penn Foundation wanted to make sure to give it a heads-up. 

Luckily for WHYY, Caitlin Corkery, the station’s senior manager of series production, had previously worked for Sprout, so she knew children’s programming — and she’d just had a child, so her brain was already in a kid-friendly space. Over the course of a weekend, she came up with two kid-friendly pitches, both of which the station decided to present. The first, Albie’s Elevator, would target preschoolers, mixing problem-solving messages with performances from local opera singers, dancers and musical acts. The other show, The Infinite Art Hunt, would focus on 6- to 8-year-olds, taking viewers on lesson-driven journeys to creative hot spots like the Barnes Museum, a sculpture garden and even the Philadelphia Airport. 

The William Penn Foundation loved the pitch. WHYY got to work, spending the next 18 months producing the two brand-new shows from the ground up. As of Monday, Albie’s Elevator is part of WHYY’s daily kids’ programming and features prominently on the station’s YouTube page. The Infinite Art Hunt arrives July 3. This fall, both shows will get nationwide distribution through American Public Television.

To develop the shows’ curricula, WHYY enlisted help from an educational consultant, Natascha Crandall, as well as an advisory board of teachers and child psychologists. “For both series,” Corkery says, “we asked our consultant questions like, ‘Is this appropriate? Is this going to be boring for kids or not relatable? Are we talking about this in a way that’s appropriate or that offers a solution that would be real to a 3-year-old?’” 

Inside ‘Albie’s Elevator

In Albie’s Elevator, that development process led Corkery and company to the idea of a puppet, in part because PBS Kids’ existing programming skews toward animation with a dash of puppetry. “As someone who grew up with Eureeka’s Castle, Allegra’s Window and Fraggle Rock, doing something with puppets was near and dear to my heart,” Corkery says, “but it also felt like something that would differentiate us from what else was on offer.” 


It also felt like something WHYY could tackle, given that the station lacks a relationship with an animation studio. It does, however, have a strong partnership with Big Howl Productions, which has worked with puppets. (The company also had experience in stop-motion animation and practical effects, both of which show up in Albie.) Monkey Boys Productions created the Albie puppet, which cost about $30,000.

In each episode of Albie’s Elevator, the yellow, somewhat androgynous protagonist operates the oversized titular lift, interfacing with human pals who help drive the story. These friends often help Albie work through whatever scrape or emotional issue she’s having at the time.

In the episode “Mail Team,” for instance, Albie expresses frustration that she’s asked to seal envelopes for a friend’s thank-you notes rather than doing something “fun” like writing addresses or applying colorful stamps. Her friend tells her that when you work in a team, all jobs are important, and then calls on a company that makes sidewalk chalk to demonstrate how many hands make work not just light, but also fun and valuable. In other episodes, Albie gets a lesson on volume control from an opera singer and takes upcycling tips from a pro after her favorite mittens no longer fit. 

Producers chose each of Albie’s artisans to fit a message that syncs with the show’s curriculum, which pulls from standards of the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning and the National Association for the Education of Young Children. For an episode about the importance of personal space, they sought out a ballet company. “The package we shot for that episode is about asking someone before you can touch them,” says Terri Murray, CCO, VP Programming & Production for WHYY. “It’s them saying, ‘We dance very closely with each other, but we always respect each other and make sure that it’s OK to touch someone at that time.’” Artisans got a chance to read scripts before committing to the project to make sure they could help explain the episode’s message to kids. 

Both shows also made a conscious effort to be inclusive in terms of casting and artisans. At the beginning of production, WHYY hired a community relations coordinator, Liz Baill, who had previously worked on family programming for the Philadelphia Museum of Art. She was tasked with creating a database of local artists and adding information about them, from the art form they practiced to where they were located to whether they had kids themselves. 

“On Albie, for instance, we get to tell 30 stories over 15 episodes, and we shot 28 field packages,” Corkery says. “We would do periodic audits throughout those episodes to say, OK, we know these five artists have really strong stories where their work really lines up with the curriculum, but who’s missing? Who’s not represented, and what do we want to see? Are we not getting enough performance? Are we not seeing enough of this area of the city?’ We were constantly checking in with each other, and it was very important to our process to make sure we kept that all balanced.” 

Planning ‘The Infinite Art Hunt

While Corkery was familiar with creating for preschoolers given her work at Sprout, figuring out how older kids think was more challenging. The Infinite Art Hunt thus became more of a collaboration between the show’s creative team and the educational advisors.

“Six to eight is such a tricky age, because they tend to watch up, and they want their shows to be cool,” Corkery explains. “We got so much feedback initially from concept testing and from our advisory board that we needed to have a kid lead the show so we decided to cast a kid that we thought had an older-cousin vibe for that demographic.” They went with 12-year-old Bianca Salerno, who had no previous acting experience and who has come to perfectly embody the show’s curious and artistic central character, Freddie. 

Bianca Salerno (Freddie) and Jayson Brown (Ty) prepare to film a scene for “The Infinite Art Hunt.” (Photo: Daniel Burke)

The show used the PBS Kids arts learning framework as the backbone of the show’s curriculum, Corkery says. “But on top of that, part of our research was having early conversations with stakeholders like educators, arts educators or people who ran arts programs, where we talked about what the needs were and what they were seeing, whether it was a resource they were lacking or what something was that’s really popular with kids that you’d like to have more resources around,” Corkery says. “We also talked to guidance counselors and anyone with a kid ever. I was extremely fun at parties, because I was just cornering people who had kids to talk to them about what they needed or what they wanted to see.” 

Each episode of The Infinite Art Hunt is centered around a query or quandary of Freddie’s. In one episode, she’s tasked with curating a gallery wall in her aunt’s home. That leads her to visit an art museum to learn how curators and staff decide what pieces to place next to each other. She also finds that there’s no right answer or point of view when it comes to seeing art. Salerno had leeway to use her own words when she interacts with artists and gallerists, lending more authenticity to the character and the dialogue.

“With The Infinite Art Hunt,” Corkery says, “we wanted the show to feel like a full-blown field trip, like we’re really going to these places and we’re giving the kids at home the opportunity to have an immersive experience there. It can be a little bit daunting for a 6- or 8-year-old kid to go to a museum and feel like they belong there or that their perspective is valuable, so we wanted to make sure the show took away that intimidation.”

WHYY’s efforts to reach the pre-tween audience grew from not only its desire to make something developmentally appropriate but also to help the show stand out amid other media for kids that age. “We wanted the show cool enough that they wouldn’t think it was for babies, but we also felt like there was a kind of public media legacy in making a show that feels like a different offering,” says Corkery. “If everything is moving super fast, is really flashy, and has 1,000 unboxing videos, how do we create the opposite of that? You want to make something different, for different kids, but you still want it to be cool. That’s the challenge.” 

One thing that’s especially cool about Infinite is that it’s easy to adapt and re-create for different markets. “It highlights arts institutions within our region,” says Murray, “but it was modeled in a way so that other cities would be able to create their own Infinite Art Hunts if they wanted to highlight institutions in their area as well.” In addition to The William Penn Foundation’s grant, CPB added funding even went toward creating a bible for the show complete with episode structures and production tips, should other stations want to tackle local versions.

Creating for the community

Albie’s Elevator is produced as 13- to 15-minute mini-episodes, two of which can be combined for broadcast purposes. Those shorter individual chunks are perfect for streaming sites like YouTube, though, where so many kids these days are already getting media. (Each Infinite Art Hunt episode speaks to just one theme and runs about 28 minutes.) 

“We’re in the digital age, and we want to be able to reach as many people as we can,” says Murray. “We can reach far more people on a national level on YouTube than we can just having the episodes on WHYY, so while both shows are made as broadcast-first programs, it was important for us to also put them in places where we felt they could be more widely distributed.” 

The station is also doing local outreach for the shows with arts institutions, hosting museum screenings of the series in tandem with hands-on art activities and kid-friendly snacks. WHYY has hired a PR team to contact schools and teachers around Philadelphia, sharing not just information about the show but also curriculum materials created for PBS LearningMedia.

The materials were created by Baill, who’s also an expert in arts education, who made sure that all the activities for both shows were consciously crafted with accessible materials in mind. “We wanted to make sure that nothing was a specialty item that kids would need to go out and buy,” says Corkery, noting that for some of the Albie materials, much of the curriculum revolves not just around creating but also having conversations about the episode and its vocabulary.

This fall, both shows will be distributed by APT, and at least 10 stations have already committed to airing the programs, including outlets in New York, California, Florida, and Michigan, as well as the PBS affiliates in Pennsylvania With viewer numbers down for children’s programming, though, Murray says it’s been a bit of a challenge to sell the shows.

“I think it’s a little easier now because we actually have a product that we can show to people so they might say, ‘Oh, that puppet’s cute. I’ll buy it,’ and that’s why we were able to get voted into the fall market for APT,” she says. “But people are a little cool on children’s programming right now, which is, I think, a reason why our general manager isn’t necessarily 100% committed to going into a second season if we don’t get supplemental support.” 

The station is applying for a second round of funding from The William Penn Foundation with the goal of producing a second season of both shows and ideally expanding Albie’s and Freddie’s worlds, perhaps taking the puppet out into the world beyond her elevator and exposing Freddie (and Art Hunt viewers) to museums and cultural institutions in cities like Boston and Washington, D.C. 

“I really hope more people get to see the shows,” Corkery says. “I feel like so much thought and care went into creating these shows and all of the materials around them. I’d love for more people to be able to join Albie’s and Freddie’s worlds.”

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly said that The William Penn Foundation had earmarked about $1 million for an organization that could create programming to educate children about the arts. It had earmarked $1.8 million.

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