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Fred Rogers Productions Gives Young Writers a Home in the Writers’ Neighborhood

In the final day of accepting submissions for the third year of fellows, the studio’s eight-week program is dedicated to fostering emerging writers' careers in children's media, blending virtual and in-person sessions with ongoing mentorship and professional networking opportunities.

Just like Fred Rogers, for decades, invited us all in song, Fred Rogers Productions asks aspiring writers, “Won’t you be our neighbor?”

Today is the last day to apply to The Writers’ Neighborhood, an eight-week program for emerging writers that focuses on how to build and sustain a career as a freelance writer in children's media. The five-year Fred Rogers Productions (FRP) initiative is currently wrapping up its second year and is now receiving applications for its third year. The deadline to submit is Friday, May 3 at 11:59 p.m. PT. 

“It's about sustainability for writers, for individual writers to be able to create careers where they can actually focus on being writers,” shares Ellen Doherty, FRP’s Chief Creative Officer and executive producer for the company’s current series on PBS KIDS, including Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood, Odd Squad, Donkey Hodie and Alma’s Way.

“So many writers in children's media are not in writers’ rooms,” she continues. “They're freelancers who come in and out of working for different companies and different shows. Even those who write a lot for the same show aren’t getting the same experience as a staffer. You’re not always with people and you’re often not building those relationships in the same ways. And you’re not learning the same way. We want to give writers a chance to have those staff experiences and then send them out to become successful freelancers, or full-time staffers if that’s the case.” 

Applications open in the spring and submissions are reviewed during the summer. The program itself runs September to November, followed by six additional months of FRP support for each fellow. 

“I'm really excited to have another eight fellows join us,” says Doherty. “And that we will now, at the end of 2024, have 24 FRP writing fellows. It's really cool.”

From the first year’s cohort, five of the eight fellows in the program went on to write for FRP shows. Natalie Vazquez and Fareid El Gafy wrote for Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood. Diana Aydin and Fareid El Gafy both wrote an episode for Alma’s Way, and Martín Castillo and Zayna Quader both wrote an episode for Donkey Hodie. Another fellow, Aleesha Nash, was hired as an illustrator for Donkey Hodie Bedtime Stories: One Tiny Day.

“I was a freelancer as a producer and occasionally as a writer,” shares Doherty. “And if you go into that not already knowing how to get work, it’s a problem. As a staffer, you’re meeting people in and out of those studio doors every day. And maybe changing jobs only every couple years, or even less, versus trying to write 10 or 15 or even 20 scripts a year.”

She adds, “There’s a myth out there that these things are easy. And it’s not. It’s about resilience. The number one thing we’ve heard from fellows is that this program helped them learn that they belong, that they belong here, that they are good enough and can be taken seriously. That’s the most exciting part of this. A lot of these writers, coming out of the pandemic, haven’t had the opportunity to be part of this community, or to feel welcomed into it.”

The hybrid program, designed for both virtual and in-person work, kicks off with the eight selected fellows joining FRP in Pittsburgh for two days. There’s community building and an intro to FRP, a discussion about the studio’s values, what the organization is about, and shows happening now. There’s an ice-breaker, like last year’s improv session, and time set aside to establish goals and guidelines for the program, where fellows can say what they hope to glean from this experience. 

“The point is to create community amongst the fellows, amongst everyone in the program, including those of us working on it,” says Doherty. “I really didn't expect how much the fellows were going to bond together. And that has been really great. The first cohort really just took off. And now, with the second cohort, they've all met each other in person and then also virtually, in December, when Brandea Turner, who's the program manager, hosted a holiday party on zoom and all 8 fellows from this year, plus the eight from last year, showed up for that.”

Also packed into the first two days, child development advisors from FRP will talk about kids of different ages and how kids grow and what to think about when you're writing for different age groups. There’s also a mixer with FRP production staff. There’s a deep dive into series like Daniel Tiger and Alma’s Way, looking at the writing process through the view of one of the shows.

For the next six to seven weeks, the program goes virtual and includes a series of guest speakers – like Doc McStuffins’ Chris Nee, CoComelon’s Charise Sowells, Santiago of the Seas’ Leslie Valdes, and others – and a behind-the-scenes look at each of FRP’s shows, along with lessons in how to develop your voice and learn the voice of different shows, pitching story ideas, the importance of asking the story editor questions even after receiving notes, and so on. 

“When we first started thinking about this program, we were in the first season of writing Donkey Hodie and Alma’s Way, and ‘Daniel Tiger’ was probably in Season 6 at that point,” remembers Doherty. “We asked ourselves, ‘How do you learn the voice of a new show?’ I talked to our head writers about bringing on new writers and the conclusion was that somebody can be a really good writer, but that doesn’t always mean you can write in the voice of the show. It can’t just be your personal style. And learning how to write in different voices is a skill is one you can learn overtime. But what if we could teach that to people? And what if we could then hire them to write our shows, which they would then already know?”

Recently FRP has also partnered with PBS Kids and The Described and Captioned Media Program (DCMP) to incorporate sign language interpretation into Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood, Donkey Hodie, and Alma’s Way, and that adds another layer of consideration when it comes to effective communication. Luckily, such principles are already woven into the fabric of FRP shows. But, in the program, fellows will learn how to write shows that can be easily translated and remain just as emotionally effective. 

“We focus on telling good stories in a way that's engaging and relatable and clear,” notes Doherty. “If you do that, the shows will be easier to translate into ASL or another language. If you're intentional and have really thoughtfully distilled language of what you're going for and are consistent in what you do in the first language, then it will be easier to bring that script to other places. It’s still really tricky, the art of good translations, which is something we’ve really invested in on our shows. But that’s a whole other conversation.”

During the last two closing days of the program, which are also in person, the fellows are gifted with what Doherty calls a “Freelancer’s Toolkit.”

“We have a round-robin, where all of the fellows go around and talk to different people within FRP to get advice on different aspects of freelancing,” says Doherty. “We have writers on the shows give feedback on fellows’ writing samples, we also do a review of LinkedIn, resumes and cover letters, what payroll looks like as an independent contractor, and how to share your work on social media.”

Once fellows have finished the program, they're kept in the loop on when a new FRP series season or an entirely new show has been green-lit and are invited to pitch. 

“And the pitch process for those coming out of the program is more supported than it typically would be,” shares Doherty. “When we did this with the first cohort, everybody got feedback on their pitch process, script sample or whatever questions people had on what was working or not working.”

Fellows are also included on FRP event guest lists and, in Doherty’s words, have a “free pass to come up to me, say hello, and I’ll see to who I can introduce them.”

“In Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood, there’s an episode about being brave, and knowing the power of having people stand with you and help get that bravery out,” says Doherty. “I think there’s a lot to that when it comes to networking and I’m offering to be that person for these fellows, to stand with them and help them get their bravery out and introduce them to people who can help them with building their careers.”

Though there are only eight sports each year, Doherty says that they’d like to find ways to extend hands to applicants who don’t make the cut. 

“There are so many people who are interested, and we only have eight places,” she says. “We want to do some virtual programs and some in-person things in New York or LA for those who don't get accepted. Last year, we did an “Ask Me Anything (AMA)” during the application period, and we did actually provide some support to people who applied but didn't get in the first year. That wasn't sustainable to do every year, so we’re exploring other ways, like having a mini workshop, to give that support to those who don’t get in. This isolation we’ve all been in doesn’t need to continue. There are people here at FRP who want to help.”


Victoria Davis's picture

Victoria Davis is a full-time, freelance journalist and part-time Otaku with an affinity for all things anime. She's reported on numerous stories from activist news to entertainment. Find more about her work at