How a kids-focused podcaster reached 1 million monthly downloads
Jim Jacob accidentally stumbled upon a huge market opportunity when he launched Kids Short Stories.
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Most new podcasters launch their shows with the goal of building up a large fanbase of avid listeners, but Jim Jacob’s intended audience was tiny: his three sons.
In fact, the only reason he created his Kids Short Stories podcast in the first place was so his children would have an easy method for listening to his stories when he was on the road. “Ever since they were little, I’ve told them stories at bedtime, just making up a story on the spot,” Jacob told me in a June 2021 interview. His kids usually provided the basic story prompts, including characters and conflicts, and then he would craft a narrative from there. “I started traveling for work quite a bit two years ago, and my wife was like, ‘why don’t you start recording the stories, because they really miss them while you’re gone.’ And I was like, sure.”
At first, Jacob tried to record them as voice memos on his phone, but this method proved unwieldy. It was his wife who suggested going the podcast route. “She was like, ‘you are really good at this. I bet other parents would want to listen to this too.’ And I laughed at her, I was like, there’s nothing special about this. Every parent can tell a story to their kid. I didn’t see the value in it.”
But in October 2019, he signed up for an account on the podcast hosting platform Anchor and began uploading audio files of his stories. He decided to name the podcast Kids Short Stories with the idea that it was just the sort of thing parents would type into a podcast player’s search bar. “I figured it would make it easy to stumble across it.”
Over the next few weeks Jacob continued to record more stories during his free time and upload them to Anchor. Then one day he noticed something strange. “I can’t remember how I stumbled across it, but I saw some reviews starting to come in through the Apple Podcasts app, and I was like, woah, what is this? I clicked on it, and it was like, ‘hey, my daughter really loves listening to these stories. Her name is Molly, and she likes unicorns and rainbows. Could you make a story for her?’”
It was a lightbulb moment for Jacob. He had heard that ratings and reviews could help you in Apple’s podcast rankings, and here there were parents trying to communicate with him through reviews. “For the next six months, I included a segment in each episode where I said that if you want to submit an idea for a story, leave a five star review on Apple Podcasts with your name and your submission. I didn’t create an Instagram or a website. The only way for them to communicate with me was through a review.”
The gambit worked. Hundreds of reviews started flooding in, and Kids Short Stories shot up in the podcast rankings. Realizing that he had stumbled upon an underserved market, Jacob doubled down on the podcast, producing up to five new episodes per week. Within a year, the show was driving 500,000 downloads per month, and talent agents were banging on his door.
How did an engineer who didn’t even listen to podcasts become the fastest-growing brand in children’s audio? In our interview, Jacob walked me through how he grew to over 1 million monthly downloads and explained why he wants to become the next Mr. Rogers. Let’s jump into my findings…
A global phenomenon
Because Jacob didn’t have a background in media, he had no real concept of how popular his podcast was at first. “I was only comparing the download numbers to YouTube views,” he explained. “So it wasn’t that impressive when I was hitting a couple thousand downloads every day.” It was only later that he learned that those numbers were far above average for a brand new podcast.
The next turning point came in April 2020, when virtually the entire world shut down due to the pandemic. “April was when I started beefing up my intentionality of delivering more stories,” said Jacob. “I was like, hey, these kids are stuck at home, and this is a cool opportunity to be able to cheer up their day.” This was also around the time when he realized that he was only seeing the US reviews on Apple Podcasts, and that there were thousands more flooding in from other countries. This led to him launching a website that had an official form where parents could submit their kids’ story ideas.
That move led to a new revelation: “Parents were sending me money to try to get their stories bumped to the top of the line. I was like, oh crap, this is getting out of control.” He needed a better way to funnel that energy, so he launched a Kickstarter. “I was like, hey, if you want to buy your story for $60, here are 40 episodes for a season, and those 40 slots went pretty quickly, in five days.” He also had a tier where, for $10, your kid would get a shoutout at the beginning of the episode. By the end of the campaign, he’d raised $2,400.
Every month brought a new record for download records, and Jacob eventually increased his episode frequency to six per week to meet demand. He was able to do this because the show required very little production; he would simply bring his story prompts out to his car, drive to somewhere quiet, and record them on his phone. “It’s all in my head. So let’s say there’s a submission that says, ‘Molly likes unicorns and rainbows.’ I’d come up with the idea of a unicorn that paints rainbows with her colorful tail, and she runs out of paint, so she has to go to this magic mountain to get more rainbow paint. And then, oh no, there’s a problem: the paint is all gone, and she needs to find new paint. There’s got to be a problem or an arc to a story. So I just came up with that little framework, and then, boom, I jump into telling the story. There’s no editing. There’s always just one take.” His biggest annoyance, in fact, was when he’d forget to turn off notifications on his phone and someone called when he was trying to record.
I asked Jacob whether he was ever tempted to incorporate more sophisticated editing and sound effects into the podcast. “Adding sound design is something I’m not interested in,” he said. “A lot of the feedback I get from parents is that they like that there aren’t sound effects in my stories. I do funny little voice sound effects. It’s all just from me.” Other major kids-focused story podcasts utilize entire teams of writers, producers, and voice talent, and as a result they take a lot longer to produce each episode. “They can’t put out an episode every day. It’s too much work to do the operation they do. What I keep hearing from parents is that they don’t like how busy these other podcasts are. They’re looking for an audio story for their kids to listen to in the car or when they’re getting ready for bed – something that calms them down and isn’t overstimulating.”
The successful Kickstarter campaign served as a proof of concept that Jacob’s audience was willing to pay for his work. In late 2020, he signed up for Supercast, a platform that allows podcasters to distribute episodes to paying subscribers via a personalized RSS feed. That December, he announced on the podcast that the free version would be coming out on Tuesdays and Thursdays, and if listeners wanted three additional episodes a week, they’d need to pay $7 a month. “There were a couple hundred people who signed up for that right away.”
Jacob also began experimenting with sponsorships, eventually moving from Anchor to Megaphone because of its more sophisticated ad technology. He faced some early challenges due to regulations around marketing products to children. “When I joined Megaphone, they told me I was the first podcaster to not get approved for their marketplace program because I was producing kids content.” The host-read ads weren’t a problem, but programmatic ads — the kind that are dynamically inserted automatically — posed a risk that an adult-themed brand could end up being broadcast to small children.
But those challenges quickly became a non-issue once Jacob signed on with a talent agency that specializes in family- friendly content creators. In March, radio behemoth iHeartMedia announced that it was distributing Jacob’s podcast programming via a newly-launched, kids-focused podcast slate called Curativity.
By that point, Jacob’s podcast reach was vast. Not only was he generating over 1 million downloads a month, but he’d also launched two spin-off shows: Kids Animal Stories and Spyology Squad. This has allowed him to release episodes at a more frequent pace without overloading any one feed. And while he still sells subscriptions to his shows, he no longer locks any episodes behind a paywall; instead, subscribers get an ad free version of the show.
The next Mr. Rogers
When I spoke to Jacob last year, he was preparing to quit his job, and he said that new opportunities were landing in his inbox every day. I asked if he had any ambitions to expand beyond podcasting into other mediums. “On the podcast, I go by Mr. Jim,” he said. “That character, that personality is resonating really well with families. The three-year plan is that I want to grow the brand of Mr. Jim, who is a storyteller, who is for creativity and imagination and all that. I kind of line up with Mr. Rogers in terms of what I want to be like. I grew up loving Mr. Rogers, so I want Mr. Jim to be like the generational Mr. Rogers of today.”
To accomplish this, Jacob wants to hire a team. When I spoke to him, he was already considering bringing on a podcast agency to take some of the admin and production tasks off his plate so he could focus more on the creative work. Eventually, he’ll need to find specialists who can aid his transition into live events, online video, and even television. “I never imagined that I would become a professional storyteller,” he said. “I’m loving this. It is the total cliché, but this does not feel like a job. This is just super fun for me, and I’m excited for the future.”
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Simon Owens is a tech and media journalist living in Washington, DC. Follow him on Twitter, Facebook, or LinkedIn. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. For a full bio, go here.