Maggie McGuire

As podcasters look to grow the medium’s usage, one company doing more to indoctrinate the next generation than anyone else is Pinna. Launched earlier this year, the company is the only podcaster serving up content just for 3 to 12 year olds.

Pinna began in 2017 as a pilot under podcasting network Panoply Media. But after Panoply announced it would get out of the content business and instead focus on hosting and ad services, the direction shifted. Pinna relaunched in January as a stand-alone entity backed by Graham Holdings. It’s a market CEO Maggie McGuire thinks has been largely overlooked until now. Six months since it went into the market, Pinna has more than a thousand podcast episodes and other audio content, including audiobooks and songs. It also has formed content alliances with American Public Media, Scholastic, and Highlights magazine.

Podcast News Daily caught up with McGuire to talk about how the rollout is going, its subscription-only model, and what adult podcasters could learn from a company targeting kids. An edited transcript follows

Podcast News Daily: Let’s start with the basics: what is Pinna?

Maggie McGuire: We are the only podcast service for kids bringing podcasts, audio books and music into one easy to discover COPPA-compliant service for kids 3 to 12. When we took a look at the marketplace as we developed the idea behind Pinna, we realized no one is doing podcasts at scale for kids. Those that are producing podcasts a la carte or one or two for their business, but there isn’t one destination that has built out a robust catalog of content for 3 to 12 year olds. And we’re really excited to be the first to market in this space.

PND: Do you focus on marketing to parents or the kids directly?

McGuire: Since we entered the market in January our total focus has primarily been on the consumer marketplace with mom being a big decision maker. Not to exclude dad and other decision makers, but our focus is primarily on moms as a decision-maker in the household. And as we step into back-to-school we have just launched our marketing focused on teachers. We did market research before we even launched Pinna in January with 1,012 moms across the country to better understand audio consumption behaviors at the highest level and then their interest in a service like Pinna.

PND: How does the programming work with kids at age 3 having different needs or interests than pre-teens?

McGuire: We break down that big expansive age band into smaller parts as we think about programming. They’re in three key buckets and obviously some shows have some overlap in a wider age band. We’re really developing content for kids 3-5, 6-8, and 9-12. The kinds of content, the length of content, the subjects of that content, the kinds of characters and what we can and can’t do is very different in each age band.

PND: How so?

McGuire: For every single Pinna podcast we have a concept when we are building a show to get kids to actively participate, such as by answering trivia questions or if we’re going to produce a comedy that’s going to get every kid to double over with laughter. But none of those hypothesis can be taken into market before we can do kid testing. So we produce a pilot episode of every show and we do kid testing. We bring in kids who are in the target audience for that particular show. When we do kid testing for kids ages 3-5 you can imagine that they have a different attention span, they like to move around and they like to stand up and walk around while listening. That’s very different than when we do kid testing and watch kids listen to a 20-40 minute fiction narrative and then get their feedback on it. Within that, we are looking for what experience did we bring from the kid test. Like did we go too high and it was too abstract or was it too long and we need to shorten it up. That has informed things like run times and the kinds of jokes and humor changes over the years. Preschoolers don’t get sarcasm but an 8 year old starts to get sarcasm. 

PND: Are the shows educational?

McGuire: Inherent in all the shows we produce is we want them to be entertaining and delighting to listeners. We are behind the scenes designing some, not all of our shows, with an inherent curriculum underneath them. We just launched a show called Quentin and Alfie's ABC Adventures for preschoolers. There are 26 episodes rolling out and if you listen to all 26 you are going to learn the letters A through Z. Every episode is designed through learning the sound of a new letter through storytelling. That’s a really different kind of show with a different set of objectives than The Totally Unauthorized Minecraft Fan Show. It’s a show we just tested with 9-12 year olds around Minecraft. It’s kids coming together on the podcast totally letting out about how much they love Minecraft. We’re really thinking about where kids are developmentally and where their attention spans are and what their interests and passions are.

PND: On April Fool’s Day you added comedy to your programming? Why? And how’s that going?

McGuire: The comedy launch was a success. Comedy is king and it probably extends beyond childhood. Our hypothesis around creating a comedy slate is validated in markets across other commercial enterprises, like print and film. Comedies do extremely well in those formats and we believed it would translate well in the podcast space. Comedy is one of the top genres that kids connect with. There’s lots of research on it. And I will tell you they are looking for funny stuff and it really resonates. We knew that going in. The big test was whether we were right, and we were. Comedy shows are the most popular of what’s being consumed. Kids love it and they keep coming back for more. We launched a really simple podcast called Hill-Larry-Us. It delivers a joke a day. It’s really short; it’s less than two minutes. That daily show does extremely well because kids want to go to school and tell a funny joke. Another breakout show is Don’t Break The Rules, our improv comedy show that we also did a life staging of in New York in June with our sister company Slate. That translated really well on the stage.

PND: So you don’t have advertising...

McGuire: Pinna is a subscription service. It’s $7.99 a month or $79.99 a year and there are no ads served on anything in our service. We don’t have an advertising model at all.

PND: You have been among the podcasters that have embraced subscriptions. Why?

McGuire: It’s just so different in the kid space. When it comes to kids the number one drive of consideration for moms and teachers is whether it is safe and if they can bump into any content that’s not appropriate. And we also know that advertising in the classroom is a nonstarter. So we designed a service that just took that out of the game altogether.

PND: Any thoughts about the free versus subscription debate in podcasting?

McGuire: I am aware of the conversations around walled gardens and subscription services versus “freemium” services but it’s not even apples-to-apples. The kid space is just so different than the adult space that the concern in the industry about whether a subscription service is going to work or take away listeners from content and shift the model just doesn’t apply. I don’t think the conversation in the podcast space is the same in the kids market as it is in the adult market because there really hasn’t been gigantic market for kids so nothing is being shaken up. And it’s completely understandable to all the consumers and partners that when it comes to kids it’s about safety and it’s totally valid that consumers want an ad-free service.

PND: Disney has shown kid-focused IP can be leveraged in many ways. Will Pinna leverage its podcast IP into TV shows, movies or merchandise?

McGuire: We are an audio-first children’s media company. Our service is dedicated to being an audio service. We are building a deep and robust library of original IP designed for the audio space first. That said, we do believe that there are going to be opportunities to leverage that IP that we’ve developed in other verticals.

PND: How do live events fit in?

McGuire: Live events can be one of those verticals, absolutely. We have podcast game shows that would work very well in the live space. We have an improve comedy show that has translated beautifully to the stage.

PND: Six months in, what sort of subscription numbers or download numbers are you seeing at this point?

McGuire: We’re not sharing any of that data publicly, but I can share that we have had a very positive response in the market and we have only seen a steep incline in subscriber growth and content consumption week-over-week, month-over-month. We haven’t seen any plateau or dip and that’s a great trajectory to have in your first six months out.

PND: Have you seen any uptick in usage during the summer when kids were out of school?

McGuire: Where we saw things shift up even more exponentially was with our consumption data and how consumption patterns, Monday through Sunday, definitely changed. We saw the amount the listening minutes and hours per week grow over the summer months. We’re hoping that is sustained and it’s not just because they have a lot of time in the summer but because we keep rolling out great stuff. 

PND: Is there anything about Pinna that you think fellow podcasters misunderstand?

McGuire: Come to Pinna to check out how we are innovating with audio. In the adult world there’s a preconceived notion about what a podcast is. But kids don’t have any preconceived notions about what a podcast can be. We’re doing yoga, meditation, and an art show that drops five episodes every other week. If you listen to them in a row you’ll learn how to make paper sculpture or draw a self-portrait or do art with a food. It’s a virtual art teacher in your ear. We have game shows. I’m not seeing a lot of those formats in the adult podcast space yet. I think we’re innovating and that’s something that can be shared widely in the community and to show how to play with this format.