Accelerator program helps KERA, WNET successfully launch children’s podcasts

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WNET Group

In one episode of WNET's children's podcast "The Plate Show," the character Spoonie led a discussion on different kinds of pancakes across cultures.

While developing the podcast Tiempo Tranquilo, producers at KERA in Dallas found reasons to pivot to a new approach.

When the station’s team first started working on the children’s program, the plan was to name the podcast Juego de Palabras. The guessing-game show would incorporate elements of music, dancing and magical realism.

But for its test run, producers heeded feedback from parents who said they wanted a calmer program that would relax their children, not overly excite them. That suggestion led to ¿Cuál Es Tu Sueño?, a podcast featuring children talking about their dream jobs and how listeners can remain calm in stressful situations.

KERA has since pivoted again, but this time the team came up with an idea that stuck. Tiempo Tranquilo, which launched in February, is thematically similar to the planned pilot for ¿Cuál Es Tu Sueño? But the latest rendition represents the fullest vision of what the station thinks will work for its audience.

“This has been a highly iterative design process,” said Lisa Bracken, KERA’s director of education, who served as producer, developer and editor for the podcast. “Based on feedback we’ve received from the community, from our parent advisory council, from educators that we’ve played trailers for … the feedback has led to the product that we have today.”

Each of the program’s eight episodes, which are around six to seven minutes long and have been translated into Spanish, focuses on a different emotion, such as disappointment, anger, fear and excitement. Bracken said the program now focuses on “mindfulness, the different emotions we feel, as well as bringing in some breathing techniques.”

KERA is one of four stations that participated in the second cohort of a podcast accelerator led by PRX that focused on children’s shows. Participating stations received 16 weeks of training and up to $12,000 in grants through the CPB-PBS Ready To Learn initiative, funded by the U.S. Department of Education.

The first cohort, announced in 2021, included both public media stations and independent producers. The second cohort in 2022 was reconfigured to focus on pubcasters participating in CPB’s Learning Neighborhood project, a Ready To Learn offshoot in which stations support children and caregivers in their communities.

In addition to KERA’s podcast, other projects that were successfully launched with help from the accelerator program include the 2023 multiplatform initiative Jamming on the Job, led by PBS and PBS North Carolina, which was part of the first cohort.

Another new program is The Plate Show from WNET in New York, a comedic variety show focused on introducing new foods to children and exploring world culture. WNET gathered feedback from kids in its Learning Neighborhood of Brownsville, N.Y., and in other states.

How KERA went from ‘¿Cuál Es Tu Sueño?’ to ‘Tiempo Tranquilo’

While ¿Cuál Es Tu Sueño?, which translates to “What is your dream?”, also planned to cover mindfulness, it was going to focus mostly on children’s career aspirations. That would have tied into the workforce-related themes that were present when CPB announced project ideas for the first cohort.

But since KERA’s project joined the second cohort, it and other ideas got a green light to stray from the workforce theme.

“We decided to take a U-turn from that and focus fully on emotions,” Bracken said.

During what she described as the “pressure tests” for ¿Cuál Es Tu Sueño?, Bracken said, the team also wanted a new title that listeners could immediately understand whether they spoke English or Spanish.

Tiempo Tranquilo was a title we floated to our audience, and it really resonated,” she said. “You can look at that as an English speaker and see, ‘Oh, tranquil.’ You can translate that easily, and also it’s shorter, catchy and alliterative.”

Another change during the development process was the station’s plan for handling hosting duties. It initially aimed to select a child from its Learning Neighborhood in Bachman Lake, a predominantly Hispanic area, as host.

Another option was to have a child of a station employee serve as host. But in the end, the podcast team accepted that training a child with no voice acting experience could be challenging.

Members of KERA’s Learning Neighborhood said the podcast didn’t need a child as its host, as long as whoever was selected sounded natural and didn’t speak too quickly. So the station ended up working with Cecilia Adame. A former high-school student in Dallas, Adame had been an education intern for the station and expressed an interest in working with the content team. Adame is now a third-year student at Wellesley College.

A child's drawing of Spoonie, host of WNET's "The Plate Show" podcast for kids.
Each of the program’s eight episodes focuses on a different emotion, such as disappointment, anger, fear and excitement.

“Our host is really going through a storytelling process, so she is looking back at her past life and she’s sharing a story of when she felt scared, or when she was excited, or when she was really anxious about something like the first day of school,” Bracken said. “She’ll say, ‘Let me tell you what makes me feel better when I’m really nervous,’ and then she’ll go into a breathing technique or positive affirmation.”

Bracken said parents liked the end product, noting that even in the English episodes Spanish and Spanglish were incorporated. “They said ‘That’s how we speak at home.’ They really liked that,” Bracken said. Like other teams who participated in the accelerator, producers engaged with their community for ideas but aimed for the program to have national appeal.

Lauren Menking, a KERA spokesperson, said the station has so far been “pleased” with how the podcast has spread via word-of-mouth. The station expects the upward trend to continue “as the team hosts more events and workshops this spring and summer,” she said.

At the end of the nearly two-year run developing Tiempo Tranquilo, one of the team’s primary producers, Micaela Rodríguez, left the station to become a senior editor for Here & Now. Bracken said Rodríguez was an important developer of what would become Tiempo Tranquilo, adding that production wrapped by the time she left KERA in November.

“She had direct feedback on all of the design process and what the end product looked like,” Bracken said. “We’re really grateful to have had her expertise and support on the project.”

Bracken also thanked outside consultants who helped with the program’s development, including Veronica Valles, who volunteers as a mindfulness advisor for the Dallas Independent School District and gave suggestions on framing the emotions discussed. Bracken also oversaw KERA’s outreach to local nonprofits like the Momentous Institute, Community Does It and the Center for BrainHealth, which is part of the University of Texas at Dallas’ school of behavioral and brain sciences.

“We made sure that experts in the state had the chance to share and weigh in on what it is that we were producing,” she said.

‘The Plate Show’ launches to acclaim

WNET’s The Plate Show had fewer pivots in direction compared to KERA’s podcast. Credit for their idea largely goes to a child who told producers that they really loved talent shows. That spurred producers to think of ways to bring a late-night show’s aesthetic to a podcast that is lively, quirky and filled with guests, including children.

WNET released eight episodes of The Plate Show last year. Each episode is around 27 minutes. Producers had intended to keep episodes around 10 to 15 minutes in length, but they realized longer episodes could still keep the subjects interesting.

“We are really thrilled with the first season of The Plate Show, and fans are thrilled, too, which is the most important part,” said Sandra Sheppard, director and EP of children’s media and education for WNET in New York. “Kids are listening to it 10 times. They’re suggesting topics for us to cover in the future. I am really delighted about how it came together. It’s been a big success.”

Each episode in the first season focuses on a different type of food, such as street food, Nigerian cuisine or different kinds of pancakes. The title card for the episodes features Spoonie, a wooden spoon with red lips, googly eyes and black headphones. On the show, Spoonie leads discussions about how the foods are made and the cultures behind the plates.

WNET shared a picture drawn by a child in its neighborhood who was a happy listener and fan of “The Plate Show.”

Hannah Dawe, a producer of The Plate Show, said a parent told WNET that the podcast made getting their child ready for school in the morning easier and “encouraged their picky eater to try new foods.” Dawe was especially proud to hear that, since the plan has always been to create a show that could inspire children to be curious about foods they haven’t tried and to take pride in foods they already know.

WNET hired a cultural advisor to help ensure that the program properly highlighted and respected different cultures. “We involved them during the scripting process, and they heard cuts of the show,” Dawe said. “They were a big part of the process for us.”

The program has received recognition from media outlets: Common Sense Media gave The Plate Show five stars and included it in its “Best Podcasts of 2023” list. It was also featured by the parenting blog Romper and a local NBC affiliate. PodcastNewsDaily highlighted the program, and it was featured in the NPR One app’s first “Podcasts For Kids” collection.

“It was really fun and really hard to only pick eight episodes to focus on. There were so many ideas we had,” Dawe said. “Honestly, I learned a lot about the podcast while working behind the scenes. Most of us did, and I think that ties back to this idea of intergenerational listening and learning. … We know parents, grandparents, caregivers also got a lot out of it, too. That was a wonderful surprise.”

Sheppard said she cannot say definitively whether there will be more episodes. “We’re not there just yet,” she said. But another season would provide an opportunity to cover more foods they couldn’t get to.

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