Prue Langbein was a producer in the drama department of Radio New Zealand for 26 years. She began her work there as a story producer for the ground-breaking children's show Ears. More recently, inspired by a trip to America on the Winston Churchill Fellowship, she has received funding for an audio component of a new children's digital platform. She tells us about her wonderful project and the influences that led to its creation.
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In October this year I was delighted to receive funding for an audio space for children as part of an innovative collaboration between NZ On Air (our broadcast funding agency) and TVNZ. This will be an online curated home for children’s content and launches next year. Find out more here.
Sound4Kids is a place to celebrate sound and the voices of young New Zealanders. It will feature children’s own creative writing and artwork and will have two strands: Taringa iti for 4–6 year olds and Taringa nui for 7–9 year olds. Each strand will feature two main collections: Stories and Snippets. Stories will be about 3 to 6 minutes with a range of themes, and Snippets will be short, snappy audio recordings of about 30 to 60 seconds. The content will be refreshed regularly.
The children’s platform will also feature soundscapes and children's art work. At times we'll hear from aadult authors, actors and people who children have chosen to interview. It will be the only pure audio component on the new platform. Though not an educational platform per se, it is hoped that the site will be used by schools, which provide an invaluable link to the children.
I have begun recording material for the platform by visiting schools in the Wellington area. I’ve also travelled to Alexandra and two Auckland schools, which are part of the Ōtāhuhu Writers in Schools project. The aim is to reach as wide a range of children as possible within a very tight budget! Networks are also being established with various community and cultural groups to facilitate this.
The aim is to reach as wide a range of children as possible within a very tight budget!
Producing audio for kids - a history of RNZ programming
I’ve always had a particular love of producing material for and by children, since beginning work at RNZ as a story producer for the iconic Ears programme, established by Dick Weir in the late 1980s. Dick had been involved in children’s radio and television for many years, including programmes such as The Dick Weir Sunday Show and The Video Dispatch, before setting up Ears on National Radio.
Ears was a half hour show for children that played every weeknight at 6.30pm. It had a philosophy of reflecting and extending the worlds of our tamariki and we only produced stories written and told by New Zealanders.
Before this children's radio was mostly derived from Northern Hemisphere work - such classics as Sparky and the Talking Train, The TinderBox, Diana and the Golden Apples etc. This was wonderful material, but it had little to do with living in the South Pacific. We now have an abundance of New Zealand children’s writers and their work is widely known, but in the late 1980s, this wasn’t the case. We received unsolicited manuscripts and discovered some gems, commissioned material and had a dedicated story producer to find work by Māori writers.
As well as stories and serials, the programme included other components, such as a regular guest, Letterbox Lizard, who read out letters from children, Contact where we heard children’s voices, whakataukī and waiata, sound games and a classic reading from Dick Weir to end each show.
I started part time when my two oldest children were young. It was an exciting period. We were breaking new ground, the programme was much loved and won numerous awards. Families found it a good time to listen while they were bathing, feeding or settling their children. Of course, it was the days before the Internet was widely used. Sadly, there’s no public record of this material today.
Families found it a good time to listen while they were bathing, feeding or settling their children.
In 1996, a time of many cutbacks at RNZ, Ears was axed despite much protest from children and adults. Dick Weir was made redundant (along with his partner who was also part of the Ears team). I stayed on and was asked to come up with an hour-long programme to play on a Sunday. I produced and presented Once Upon a Twice, 6–7 a.m. and p.m. every Sunday, a magazine show that included New Zealand children’s stories, as well as interviews and reviews by children, plus its own news bulletin.
A few years later this programme was canned and the varied magazine style content was not brought in again. Once Upon a Twice was replaced by Storytime, a weeknight story at 6.45pm each evening. Now there’s Weekend Storytime which plays on RNZ National every Saturday and Sunday 6 - 7am. A considerable amount of story content produced over these years, plus new material, is available online here.
I continued work in the drama department producing a range of content, including book and story readings, comedy and dramas, some documentaries and children’s stories. We recorded adaptations of many novels, including finalists and winners of the New Zealand Book Awards for Children and Young Adults. I also included some children’s reviews and readings from these each year.
The US Kids’ Audio Scene
Then, in 2015, there were severe cutbacks in the drama department and I finished my time there, still with a passion for audio and a desire to make material for children.
... I finished my time there, still with a passion for audio and a desire to make material for children.
I was lucky enough to have been awarded a Winston Churchill Fellowship to investigate the production and use of creative audio for children and travelled to the US in late October 2016. I made some strong connections that have given me encouragement, networks and support.
Probably the single most useful part of my trip was meeting up with members of the newly formed KidsListen group Check out their site for some interesting and varied audio for children and families Since then larger public radio organisations have begun to make audio specifically for children and it’s become a growing podcast area.
My time in Chicago at the Chicago for the Third Coast International Audio Festival also affirmed my belief in the power and importance of listening. Check it out here.
Though some of those I met with were involved with visual media, often extremely well-funded, meeting with like-minded people and realising that we’re often in a similar ‘boat’ has been really helpful and made me feel less isolated.
I've maintained relationships with others I met, including Bill Shribman head of the kids digital team at WGBH, the largest single producer of public broadcast media in the US. Learn more about WGBH here.
David Kleeman, an international expert on children’s media, is another excellent person I drew ideas from. In fact, David has just been in Aotearoa for the SPADA Conference and at AUT’s Colab, talking about VR for children. He works for Dubit, a UK organisation that does research on children and media.
You can read my full report here.
Audio is ... important in our development in so many ways including building literacy, empathy and imagination as well as being just plain entertaining fun!
Sound4Kids has been supported by some wonderful organisations including The Sapling, ToiToi and the New Zealand Book Council. We hope to work in with these and other groups to source quality material, ensure good practice and creative excellence, and gather as wide a range of children's voices as possible. Audio is now recognised as important in our development in so many ways including building literacy, empathy and imagination as well as being just plain, entertaining fun! I’m really excited about the future of our wonderful project.
Any enquiries, ideas and comments are most welcome – firstname.lastname@example.org
Prue Langbein was a producer in the drama department of Radio NZ for 26 years. She began her work there as a story producer for the ground-breaking children's show Ears. More recently, inspired by a trip to America on the Winston Churchill Fellowship, she has received funding for an audio component of a new children's digital platform.