Quiet no more?

Sheryl and I are both very quiet and seldom talk about our experiences or accomplishments outside of this blog. We don’t “do” marketing, in contrast to many others trying to meet similar goals.

I remember years ago when I had just wrapped up an art exhibition at the old Hsinchu Railway terminal, when a colleague said, “This is great, but it’s too bad no one knows you.” The implication being that I would enjoy greater success if I didn’t work in obscurity. I didn’t change due to this comment despite it coming from someone I respected, but perhaps it’s time to find a way that suits my socially introverted personality.

These past few months, I have generally avoided looking at our download numbers. Our relationship with iHeart and their required server changes have meant that we have lost easy access to trends. I was nervous to focus on a purely quantitative measurement for fear of bad news, so I’ve looked at rankings, engagement, and revenue, which are all positive.

Bad news comes whether you want to look at it or not. Today, I noticed our numbers are way down from a year ago. If this rate of decline continues, we might cease to exist or, more likely, fail to meet our obligations to our partners.

Since we started podcasting, our growth has been constant, but that growth has slowed, and on Apple Podcasts, at least, it dropped dramatically in May.

The reasons are in part due to increased choice. There have always been podcasts creating audio for kids superior to what we can do, and many have teams of talent supporting them. What has changed is the sheer number of shows that are now being produced. It feels like the difference between broadcast TV and Netflix. There is so much choice you get tired of scrolling for a show and watch whatever is recommended. This is fantastic for the industry but requires the producer to find ways to stand out.

Standing out is increasingly difficult because on Apple Podcasts, at least, they have started to curate what makes it to their main pages aggressively. This curation is partly provided by an American non-profit called Common Sense Media, which I hear is woefully underfunded and backed up with requests. We reached out to them a number of times years ago and never got a response. The other curation is created by a small team within Apple Podcasts, who create categories like “trusted providers,” “essentials,” and “new and noteworthy.” I have no idea how one becomes a trusted provider.

Podcast growth is extremely time-consuming and can be wildly expensive. We have never had the time, money, or need until now. While we still have little time or money, it is obvious that we need to get out there and do something. We can no longer afford to work in relative obscurity.


We have a complaint

We finally launched Sleep Tight Premium on Apple Podcasts, an annoying process that took forever. Not everyone is pleased that Sleep Tight Stories features subscriber only stories. We always have produced stories specifically for subscribers, but you wouldn’t see that unless you took that leap of faith and subscribed via Supercast. Apple, being Apple, shows these stories amongst the ad supported stories to boost conversion.

As always we will listen to feedback and adjust as needed.


Not easy

“You’re 4x more likely to succeed with a business than a podcast. If you’re podcasting to make money, stop!” According to the PodMatch June 2024 report.

Sharing for future reference. Reports like this are generally geared more towards gaining traffic to a website, than gaining real insight, but I do agree with the sentiment.


More cover art

These are our latest covers without titles. I think these are a better match for what we are doing than far too polished look I can produce in AI.


Toronto Visit

Sheryl and I spent the weekend in Toronto, flying up early Saturday morning and returning early this morning. This was, I believe, the first time we had flown anywhere together without the kids in 21 years, and it was long overdue.

We flew up to attend the Podcast Power Up Summit, which is part of the Radiodays North America & CMW Music Conference. I don’t generally see much value in attending conferences, especially since most occur in the States, and the cost of flying down there from the Island is usually exorbitant. This one eschewed the common “this is how you create a podcast-type fare” for more interesting discussions.

Walking into a room full of strangers who seem to know each other is a source of discomfort for Sheryl and me. At any social gathering, I would be that weirdo standing in the corner drinking coffee while everyone else is on the dance floor. I was better this time and managed to chat with people I have connected with over email. We had our picture taken, listened to some interesting people talk about podcasting, and generally enjoyed the whole experience.

The highlight of the weekend was the box of pastries we ate outside at Blackbird Baking in the Kensington Market. There is nothing like getting a sugar and caffeine high while people-watching. Delicious pastries.

The other was going to hear Barry Elmes with Brian OKane on Trumpet. Brian attended Humber while I was there, and as it turned out, I hadn’t heard him play in 37 years—a number I doubt, but it appears to be true. He sounded great.

We did a lot of walking on Saturday, about 33km. And it felt like we were being constantly gassed. I have never smelled so much cannabis in my life, and there are cannabis stores everywhere. I have nothing against cannabis, alcohol, sugar, or whatever substance you need to bring about temporary happiness, but the amount seems problematic.

There is one constant in travelling out of Charlottetown – inconvenient flight times and delays. I’ve always flown light, but this weekend, flying with just a tiny backpack greatly alleviates the stress of boarding and onboarding. I am off to Calgary at the end of the month, and I think I’ll try to fly with just a tiny backpack again. It’s worth it.


Podcast rankings

Do these real meaning? I have no idea. This is our current rankings for the US in our categories. Our other podcasts don’t rank as high.

Usually I look at these to see who is spending on promotion and to get a sense of what other people are working on. These ranking also illustrate that there are very few independent producers left.


Weird Apple

It’s nice to be recognized by Apple, but I can’t understand why they couldn’t have thought a little bit more as to where Sleep Tight Science was placed on their list.


Compete

Sleep Tight Media’s three current public podcasts joined another network – sort of a network within a network. The relationships were obfuscated enough that we hired someone at great expense to review the contract, but funnily enough, we got a more detailed analysis from ChatGPT. There is no press release, and I am unsure if we are allowed to mention them by name until we move our digital bits to their platform.

These arrangements become necessary in these early stages if we want to continue paying our mortgage and continue with an activity that has great personal value to us and our listeners. We need help growing our product, and bringing in revenue is the only way I know of other than eliciting help from others.

It’s also become necessary because, in the past six months, there has been an explosion of interest in our category. When we started, there were plenty of others, many of which processed more talent and resources than we did. But I generally never uttered the word competitor. Now, a day doesn’t go by when I don’t see something new, not just stories for kids podcasts but bedtime stories as well. Coincidentally, our formula seems to work as I see it being used by many others.

Most of these podcasts come from companies with actual organizational structures. Some are big, like Amazon; some are much smaller. We are all competing for an audience and need revenue to continue.

Of course, it’s great to have confirmation that what you are doing works well enough that others want to do it, too. And it’s especially great to have kids’ audio get the attention and growth it deserves.

The downside is I am competitive and like to try to win. But how do you compete when you are creating something that you feel appeals to children? This isn’t candy bars, but it’s not art either.

This is the question I have been wrestling with: how do we compete against overwhelming odds while staying true to doing what we love to do?


New Cover Art

I finally found some time to update our current shows cover art. It’s been a lot of fun spending time looking at pixels again. My philosophy has been to create something simple, that is both recognizable and readable. Despite the bulbous typeface, I think it works.


Podcast Nomination

We have been nominated.

We are thrilled that Sleep Tight Stories and Sleep Tight Science are included in the 6th Annual Canadian Podcast Awards list of impressive nominees. We never promote and as such seldom get included in any “best of” lists, awards, or get accolades from peers, so this is a nice surprise.

“Nominees like Sleep Tight Stories exemplify the wealth of talent we have here in Canada and reflect the unique attitudes, opinions, ideas, values, and creativity of Canadians,” said John Leschinski, Chair of the Canadian Podcast Awards. “We had over 500 podcasts submitted this year from across the country – It’s truly an incredible honour to be recognized and chosen by your fellow peers within the Canadian podcasting community.”

The Canadian Podcast Awards were established in 2018 by Podcamp Toronto to showcase the very best in Canadian on-demand digital audio production. The awards feature categories across topic areas such as documentary, politics, arts, and culture. Past winners include Front Burner, Parkdale Haunt, Minds of Madness, and Our Native Land. A full list of previous winners can be found at canpodawards.ca/award.


Canada to regulate podcasts

I haven’t had time to parse through these new rules, but my inclination is that like most legislation it will have a net negative effect. I get the feeling that podcasting as an industry in Canada, which is already far behind other markets in terms of corporate and government support, will continue to suffer from a competitive disadvantage. One positive is that someone in government actually knows that podcasts exist, which when we went looking for support to develop non-commercial children’s audio a couple years ago, wasn’t the case.

Opinion: The Canadian radio market is the most regulated in the Western world. It’s no coincidence that it is also one of the worst-performing radio markets, with dwindling audiences and poor finances that are worse than any other country. But all of the large owners of Canadian radio also own lucrative mobile, cable and television licenses; so they never speak out against the CRTC’s rules, lest the regulator threaten those parts of their companies. Canada deserves better; but it’s unlikely that it’ll get it.

Podnews


Human Error

I started my day today with an email from a parent cursing at me because we disappointed his child by promising a birthday shoutout and not delivering.

Every Monday evening on our paid subscriptions and Tuesday morning on our public feed, we give shoutouts to kids whose parents have supported us from around the world. The reason this has proven so popular had initially eluded us, but we’ve found that kids love to hear their names and the names of others before we get to our bedtime story.

This started as a small token of thanks to our few subscribers at the time but has now morphed into one of the main drivers to convince parents to subscribe. It’s also become a 3-minute long list of over 20 names for Sleep Tight Stories alone. We manage all these interactions manually, by email and cut and paste to a spreadsheet, which I initially thought was a good strategy as I like to interact with our listeners as much as possible.

But we keep making mistakes due to Google Sheets issues or sloppiness. Other pods put a larger monetary value to this, of around $50US, which might make the list more manageable. That pricing seems rich to me. So it’s either hiring someone to manage this interaction for us or somehow automating the collection of this data.

I’m not interested in hiring, so I guess we will create a form of some sort. It’s hard to keep this kind of engagement personal as it scales.


Ghosts in the machine

I sometimes think there are ghosts that inhabit the space between receiving an email and entering that data in a Google Spreadsheet: there are so many errors and missing info. Not a week goes by without a mistake.

One of the popular features of Sleep Tight Stories is the weekly shoutouts and birthday wishes to kids from all over the world. Kids love hearing their names on the show, and many more find it interesting to hear where other kids are listening from. We do this once a week, and often, there will be 20 or more messages to go through. You must be a supporter to get mentioned, but we seldom turn anyone down. A few other podcasts put a $50 US price tag on these, but that seems too aggressive for our tastes.

The process is entirely manual. Parents sign up for premium or send a donation, then reach out via email, and I reply telling them when the shoutout will appear. The data is then entered into a Google spreadsheet. It’s laborious, and I have struggled with all the emails this summer as my focus has been spending as much of my mornings outdoors as possible.

I should automate, but setting up a secure form is a pain, and then we lose this opportunity to ask questions and hear feedback. If we continue to grow, this will be unsustainable, so I hope a solution will present itself in the coming months.


We’ve joined Airwave

Airwave Media, the leading edutainment podcast network, announces a major expansion into the Kids & Family category with the acquisition of popular children’s podcasts What If World, Tumble Science Podcast for Kids, Sleep Tight Stories, Sleep Tight Relax, and Sleep Tight Science.

From history and science to arts and wellness, Airwave has quickly built a reputation as the go-to network for fun, smart podcasts for the “constantly curious” listener. They are excited to expand that brand into children’s programming with these first shows and plan to grow Airwave Kids with additional deals and original content in 2023.

“Kids content is a natural fit for Airwave.” says Ben Mathis, Head of Content for Airwave. “We believe in the power of podcasts to make us better, smarter human beings, and that starts when listeners are young. Parents who listen to our podcasts that educate and inspire want the same things for their children.”

Source: PodNews


A year in podcasting

I’m in the beginning stages of updating our media kit for Sleep Tight Stories and am compiling some data for the last year. We’ve had this data on the web for some time but it seems that our partners prefer a pdf file to pass around.

With a lot of projects that need to be done this month I am procrastinating, but I thought I would share this pithy bit of data from our year in podcasting.

In 2022:

  • > 19,000,000 million downloads
  • 1st month download: ~50,000 (Sleep Tight Stories)
  • ~ 80 original stories written
  • ~ 10 science episodes written
  • ~ 310 episodes published

Most popular episodes overall:

  1. Nibbles The Mouse 🐭,
  2. Bobby and the Dinosaurs 🦖🦕,
  3. The Magical Book of Dreams – P1 📖,
  4. Sparkle Gets Her Stripes 🐻🦄,
  5. Willie Bakes a Birthday Cake 🎂

  6. Top episode in Sleep Tight Science:
    Our Solar System ☄️

    Top episode in Sleep Tight Relax:
    Forest Breeze: Gentle Sounds for Sleep 🌲


Science

I think it was during one of the many lockdown periods that we created something new, an experiment in a science education podcast. But once we started going about our lives again time became ever shorter and the project didn’t get past the first season of 10 episodes. We did the leg work for the second season, conducting and arranging interviews, a new direction for us, but again time just did not permit.

I made the time this summer, launching a new episode featuring Bernice the Bear who with her father was learning something about plants, and planting a garden. Our new direction is less beeps and bops, more let’s learn some science as a bedtime story. I also designed more space for advertising which makes me somewhat sad but is the only way I can see to make this work.

I finished the production of another episode yesterday – there is some voice over that needs to be redone but the real problem is we have found the limit to how much information can be chunked in audio format. It’s seems to my mind almost incomprehensible.

In a narrative format we can say more while allowing the kids to follow along and gradually become engaged with the underlying facts.

In our other question and answer format I have found hard limits to what can be said; it’s interesting how much more we can learn when it is contained within a story.

We are thinking of rewriting the whole episode but I’m also considering releasing it as is. Perhaps listeners will surprise us. Also, since one of the purposes of these summer episodes was to gain feedback, we might learn more by releasing the episode as is.


Madness

The Aston Origin has been a part of the sound of our podcasts and voice over for almost 2 years. It’s a condenser microphone and has all the advantages and disadvantages that most apparently have.

I can’t remember the exact reasoning for selecting this brand, but I’m sure reviews, price and the mic’s aesthetic had something to do with it.

While it sounds fine, I’ve always struggled with it’s idiosyncrasies – it’s sensitive and as such picks up every little crackle and pop, mouth clicks and environmental noise present. This makes the environment we record in critical and sometimes editing a pain.

In terms of sound, I’ve always found that the mic is missing a certain clarity or openness in the mid-upper range. Something I have heard from others, and something I haven’t been able to add in production.

Aston has had a couple sales of late and when they were selling at a significant discount at Long and McQuade I jumped at the chance at purchasing the Aston Stealth to see if a “broadcast quality” dynamic microphone might make for a noticeable improvement and perhaps alleviate some of the issues we have with the Origin.

It’s different, not better. I’ve been struggling for hours listening to my voice and Sheryl’s speaking into the mic. I’ve produced finished work and I’ve listened to raw recordings. I cannot discern a noticeable improvement, and the back and forth is driving me to madness.

I’m hoping they will take it back.


Story Writing

There are a number of opportunities for growth when working for yourself, a lot of goals to accomplish, a decent breadth of tasks to finish. I’ve ticked many boxes these past couple of years but there were still a few things I wanted to try before making any decisions on the future of our work. One was music composition, and the other was story writing, which I wrote about in October.

Writing children’s stories has been a slow process, and though I have been writing scripts, rewriting dated and often violent fairy tales consistently, original writing was rife with procrastination. So inefficient was my writing that despite finishing a number of stories, I decided that it wasn’t going to be viable over the long term.

Except that I started to receive reviews and email’s about the stories I wrote. Kids started asking when the next chapter was coming and this morning I received a couple email, one stating that their kids were hooked on one story, and hoping there would be another very soon, and another whose son felt “understood, less alone, validated, and comforted” after listening to one of my stories.

I’m a bit overwhelmed.

I’m not a writer, but there seems to be a greater opportunity to connect with children via podcasts than I had really considered before. It would seem it’s worth finding a way to get over this procrastination issue, take time to improve the craft, and … get an editor.


Children’s stories

I’ve been writing children’s stories. I don’t write well, but I feel it’s important to be a beginner, to put myself in a position for failure and growth. And it’s fun.

My available time is short, so I time box aggressively, and sit down and see what I can produce in, after all the inevitable procrastinating, what amounts to a few hours in an afternoon.

One of the advantages of having a couple stories podcasts is that I have a built in audience, an audience who will be very honest and forthright with their criticism or praise. An audience that shapes the themes I will write about – stories with girls in leading roles, with modern family arrangements, and different identities. For now I write for them.

The first couple take place on Prince Street here in Charlottetown where I grew up. One about a dog, and her gang who aren’t so welcoming to a different looking dog from away. The other is about a girl transferring to a local school, perhaps Prince Street, from far away (Mars) because her mother found a job here.

I hope to keep writing until I get to the point where I can sit down with someone and have them show me all the things I could be doing better. Then find an editor. Then perhaps put words to print.


Small beginnings

Some of the materials which will come together to form a small voice over booth in our office. This is a somewhat portable solution but far more cost effective than what I’ve seen on Amazon or a full blown whisperroom.

The people at Kent Building supplies were quite kind, holding our hands throughout the whole wood buying process.


“Successful” podcasts and language

Spotify’s Research and Development department released a report detailing how the language you use can make your podcast more successful. Use “I, we, you” not “her, him, them”, don’t swear, use positive language and don’t talk slowly – and people will listen to your show more. They do note: … “It must be emphasized that the stylistic associations that were observed to distinguish high and low engagement podcasts in this particular dataset are correlations with no causality established, and therefore must be interpreted with caution”.

Through a combination of reading podcast advice blogs, previous research on correlating linguistic features with consumption metrics in other media like books and tweets, and intuition, we devised a set of interpretable, automatically measurable features of the titles, descriptions, and transcripts. These are features like the proportion of swear words or the reading grade level.

Much of the popular advice of language usage is validated by the data. Compared to low engagement episodes, high engagement podcast episodes tend to have longer and more relevant descriptions, use diverse vocabularies (as measured by word entropy and reading grade level), contain more positive emotions and fewer negative emotions, more conversations and personal narratives (as measured by the prevalence of first and second person pronouns compared to third), and fewer words associated with swearing.

On the other hand, some of the correlations are surprising. High engagement podcast episodes use language more like the average podcast creator, as measured by the cross entropy of the episode under a language model trained on the rest of the dataset, which contradicts the general advice to create a distinctive “voice.” They are also associated with faster speech rates (number of words per second) than low engagement episodes.

This report coincides with our first piece of negative feedback from a listener in some time: “These stories were read too slowly to keep my kids’ attention. I get trying to have a soothing voice for bedtime, but this was like Ben Stein calling roll in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.”

Some feedback should of course be ignored.

https://research.atspotify.com/podcast-language-and-engagement/


Kids Listen

We recently were approved to join Kids Listen, an organization that advocates for high-quality audio content for children. They describe their mission as:

​Our mission is to build community, advocate for the growth of the medium, and create standards and ethics that serve as best practices for development, production, and monetization. Kids Listen is creating platforms for producers to share ideas, and publish data and information relevant to creators, consumers, and supporters of podcasts for kids.

We’ve long followed their work and have admired and enjoyed many of the podcasts that are a part of the community. Producing podcasts is a lonely pursuit here on the Island, particularly audio for children, so it’s wonderful to be a part of a group of people who share similar values as our own.


Calm It Down

American pianist and composer Chad Lawson talks us through how to find calm as we navigate the ups and downs of life, to help make what we think are big problems, much smaller.
Happiful Magazine

I attended a workshop by Chad Lawson and found it to be incredibly useful and pertinent to the work I do now. But much of my learning has come after by listening to his own personal podcast Calm It Down. I admittedly don’t listen as much as analyze. The sound of his voice along with his original compositions is superb. It’s a sonically calming.

Even if you don’t prescribe to this thoughtful approach to self-help/care, I don’t, it should still warrant adding to your playlist.

Calm It Down Podcast


Podcast discovery experiments

I’ve spent a great deal of time learning and putting into practice various strategies for podcast discovery and listener growth.

“If you build it, they will come” seldom applies to any product but especially so with podcasts. So many lovely sounding products that never get heard.

Many strategies are extremely expensive, too expensive for an independent. As an example, we were offered $900US/episode to advertise a new pod launch from Wondery (we turned it down). That is not a cost that we could not afford.

Most strategies we have flirted with haven’t produced much in the way of results – the Google and Facebook tax that many companies have to pay hasn’t worked for us.

My current experiment is advertising on Overcast where I paid $120US for a 30 day run in their Kids & Family category. They state that you should expect 300–500 taps with 20–30 subscriptions. Subscriptions do not equal listeners, nor does it necessarily mean downloads. It also does not mean that they will become patrons or paying customers.

Though the results for others appear to be promising, at 9 days in we don’t seem to be having much success. Currently we have 14,228 views, with 149 taps (1.0%) and 2 subscriptions (1.3%). Thats a cost of acquisition right up there with Netflix.


Patreon procrastination

I recently set-up a Patreon account for Sleep Tight Stories as a means to allow our fans to support the continued production of the podcast, and future improvements. It hasn’t been publicized yet, and we still have some jiggering to do with the pricing of our tiers.

We set a couple goals:

  • remix all the old episodes so that the sound is more balanced and calm inducing.
  • create more original stories that feature girls in strong leading roles – instead of the prince saving the princess, how about the princess saving the prince.

Though it’s extremely common for creators of all types to ask for support using Patreon, I have resisted, and procrastinated as I didn’t (and still don’t) believe that the amount of money that could be raised would make an appreciable difference in our lives. It might not even pay for the time required to maintain the service. One of the fascinating aspects of our podcasting adventure is time costing all the busy work – the copy’n’pasting, the uploading of files, writing summaries, and etc., all (surprise surprise) takes a great deal of time.

As is my method, I became a customer of all the common platforms that podcasters use to help monetize (shudder, I hate that word) their shows. Many like Supercast are efficient, and built with easing customers through the sales funnel as quickly as possible. Others like Patreon, until recently, are a usability nightmare.

One of the values commonly given to patrons on Patreon is ad-free access to the podcast. Until recently Patreon required your patrons to copy and paste their RSS feed into an app of their choice. I asked 6 people to try and accomplish this task. No one could. Addressing this deficiency, many podcasts write lengthy how to’s about how to access the episodes. My conclusion was Patreon presented yet another app., yet another pain point for our listeners.

And yet here we are. To address this problem Patreon recently partnered with Acast to provide free private feeds for podcasters. This means that patrons no longer need to copy’n’paste, but can conveniently subscribe via their favourite app., except Spotify which doesn’t permit private feeds.

The only issue I have encountered thus far, is that if you want to offer your complete back catalogue to listeners, you need to enter each and every episode manually. Acast has a feed import tool but they only allow you to use it if you are migrating to their service, which judging by my experience with the company to date, wouldn’t be advisable.

Thats over 150 episodes to import manually. Perhaps a task for my son.

As I have reduced my work load slightly, I hope to be able to report more on our successes and failures in our venture. One of my chief complaints about starting a podcast has been the lack of transparency, at least as compared to video or web publishing. We publish some data here already, but hope to share more if possible.


Apple Embeds

This is test of sorts. Apple released the ability to web embed podcast episodes recently, which in my case means I don’t have rely upon Spotify and their funky player, nor Libsyn’s ugly utilitarian version. I’m not convinced of the utility of this beyond marketing purposes, as it’s not available via Podcast app on mobile, where most people are going to be spending their time listening to podcasts.


Sleep Tight Stories on Mainstreet

I had a chat with Matt Rainnie on Mainstreet PEI earlier this week about our recent success with Sleep Tight Stories. This is the first time I have been interviewed on radio since many years ago in Taiwan when I was sharing a sound art project I was involved with. It was done remote over the phone, so lacked the excitement of being in studio, but I am grateful for the opportunity to share some of our story to date.

I have a tendency to not share anything we are working on, no matter the level of success, so this was for me an exercise of sorts, led by Dee Enright of JEBBCA Strategies + Holdings. She has been a great help, because though we share the same work ethic, she approaches the topics we talk about from a completely different perspective. She has strong business acumen and I just like to make things.

Other than Matt Rainnie, no other local media were interested in our story, no doubt “2 people have started a podcast in their kitchen fatigue” has set in. But if we are able to keep the project afloat, we might have something more to share in the not so distant future.


Catriona’s Podcast

5 years ago as part of her grade 6 graduation project Catriona produced a podcast where she introduced and reviewed over 100 books that she was required to read that year. Luckily she likes to read. There were 25 episodes in total and the above audio is of the 9th episode.