Andy Bowers is the chief content officer and co-founder of Panoply Media, and the creator in 2005 of Slate’s podcasting network, one of the first professional networks in the medium. Bowers has overseen the creation and production of dozens of original podcasts, including Revisionist History with Malcolm Gladwell and The Message, one of podcasting’s first original dramas, as well as the fall 2016 launch of Pinna, an ad-free audio mobile app for children ages 4–12, featuring original series and best-of-class audiobooks and podcasts. Prior to his work at Panoply, Bowers spent more than a decade at NPR in numerous capacities, including London bureau chief, Moscow bureau chief, and White House correspondent.
In advance of Global Kids Connect “Sounds Like Opportunity: The New World of Audio,” the first in a series of learning breakfasts produced by Publishers Weekly in association with the Bologna Children’s Book Fair, PW spoke with Bowers about the impetus for creating audio specifically for kids and families, how listeners are engaging with audio, and the role of trust when working in a nascent media medium.
Panoply is known as a network of shows, primarily for adults. When you decided to expand into kids’ programming, you could have just created more shows like your Peabody Award-winning mystery podcast, The Unexplainable Disappearance of Mars Patel. Why venture into building a standalone audio app for kids and families?
I always loved the medium of audio. Ears are the conduit for audio, and audio goes straight into the imagination. Being able to make a whole safe and curated world for kids in audio, in what is still the Wild West atmosphere of podcasting, is exactly the kind of thing I’ve been dreaming about for decades now.
I grew up listening to old radio shows on records, which is why I went into radio! I joined NPR as a news reporter in college, and I was really hoping to convince them to do kids’ programming. At that time NPR was radio-only, and the feeling was we couldn’t change the format, or carve out time for a different demographic, so I was frustrated in those ambitions. When podcasting came along and I could do it on my own, I did. Back in 2005, my then five-year-old daughter Emma and I started doing a podcast in the closet of our house. It was one of the earliest children’s podcasts, and we had a lot of fun doing it. Sugar Monster is now on Pinna, and it is one of the most popular series, which is gratifying.
We humans evolved to take in stories around the campfire. Our brains do most of the work when someone tells us a good story. With Pinna, we plan to experiment with all sorts of different formats: long, short, from the simple to the highly produced. And of course we’re going to be listening to kids and their parents about what they find the most interesting and engaging.
Can you talk a bit more about experimentation?
I’ve been in podcasting going on 13 years now and I still feel like we are making it up as we go along. This medium is not remotely fixed yet and it really rewards experimentation. That’s podcasting in general, but especially in children’s audio.
With Pinna, we’re going to be—and are—experimenting with really complex, highly produced, beautifully sound-designed pieces as well as experiences featuring simply the human voice, maybe with a little music. It only takes a few well-said words in audio recordings to get the imagination going.
We’re incorporating 360-degree audio in some of our shows, as it is a way to lose yourself in the sound design, to feel like you are literally in the middle of the scene. You can tell not only left and right, but in front of you and in back of you. While we don’t think it’s necessary for every show, and not all kids and their parents are going to be listening with headphones on (a requirement for experiencing 360 audio), when it is done well, you can close your eyes and really think you are standing right there with the people talking to you.
Release schedule is another area we’re testing. And we’re exploring different formats. For example, we’ve made a few shorter experiences, basically equivalent to picture books, that we call “Sound Picture Books”—“sound pictures” is an old radio expression for what good audio can create in a listener’s mind. We’re also talking with children’s publishers about audio adaptations in a way much like movies or television shows. We think there is real opportunity here to create something new from existing books.
And it won’t surprise you to learn that we think smart speakers are a great opportunity! Smart speakers are so easy for kids to use, it is just a natural for children’s audio, and we are exploring that as we speak.
Pinna represents a fairly nascent form of digital media, and many parents find navigating digital content for their kids to be a challenge. What role does trust play in your thinking?
Trust is one of the main reasons that we created a separate app with a very carefully curated experience for children. There have been many missteps when it comes to children’s media as it expands out to all these new platforms: there were the recent problems with YouTube Kids, and in the podcast environment, kid shows are lumped alongside some fairly racy content in the “Kids and Family” category.
We wanted to make a place where parents could feel really confident just handing over the phone, or in the future saying to the home speaker “go listen to Pinna,” knowing they are going to find things that are never controversial. No politics, no bad language, nothing parents might flag as a potential problem. They can feel confident that everything in Pinna is appropriate for their kids, which I think is very important in this Wild West of new media.
What are you learning about how kids and families engage with Pinna?
One thing I love about audio is that it doesn’t require the eyes; it frees you up to do other things. Many of the use cases of podcasting for adults—eating, or walking the dog, or cleaning up, all sorts of times where it would be tough to read—are applicable to children as well. Audio is a wonderful companion.
Many families are listening in the car, which is not a big surprise. We endeavor to create content that if not actively exciting to parents, does not drive them crazy. We try to make it fun and smart so they will not feel overwhelmed by giving their kids what they want in the car, which can be deadly when you have a bored kid. Some kids can’t read in cars because it makes them ill, and just watching videos is controversial. Pinna, which features full audiobooks and shorter stories and podcasts, is like someone in the front seat telling a story. It can be a very communal experience, something to look forward to on long or short rides.
We’ve had some interesting listener feedback about serialized releases. One parent said Season Isle, a series that initially released as an episode a day, was teaching his child about chapters, about stories told in multiple parts. And also teaching patience! Over the holidays we did Christmas Is Coming, another daily release, and we heard from parents that their kids were waiting expectantly ever day.
We’ve also heard from parents that while their kids listen to stories, they are coloring, they are drawing, they are making creations on the page of what the characters look like, what the scenes look like. I think this behavior is really strengthening for the imagination.
You started at NPR when you were in college, and have spent your career in audio. How did you discover audio? Was it love at first listen?
My father was mostly a screen and television writer but he also did some radio work too, so I think that’s how I got started. He gave me records of Jack Benny and Fred Allen, and I thought they were hilarious.
I grew up in Los Angeles, and I went to Disneyland often. Disney had a set of records that were all the sounds and narration from the rides, so I would relive the rides by playing the records. I could recite every word of the narration of the Haunted Mansion when I was a kid! I would listen over and over; it was like going through the ride again, I pictured it perfectly.
The 2018 Global Kids Connect Breakfast Series launches on January 25 (8 a.m. — 11 a.m.) in New York City. “Sounds Like Opportunity: The New World of Audio” is the first-ever gathering of audiobook, podcast, platform, brand and rights professionals to discuss opportunities—and challenges —within the booming kids’ and families audio marketplace.
For speaker information and tickets, click here.