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Data Is Helping Drive How iHeart Podcasts Are Reacting To COVID-19.

The COVID-19 pandemic has tested the creativity and adaptability of podcasters as shows on the drawing board in February no longer seemed relevant in April. Now, as the country moves forward and some lockdowns ease, iHeartMedia CEO Bob Pittman said his company is leaning on data and its scale to navigate what 2020 still has in store for the industry.

Speaking on a webinar with advertisers last week, Pittman said he is confident iHeart is on the right track, based partly on the fact that alongside the New York Times, it is one of the few podcasters to have seen its numbers climb even during the business lockdown and as the most-listened-to genres have shifted along with consumer habits. “Even though it shifted we still saw this uptick in usage. I think it’s about companionship. We don’t care if they’re at home, commuting, or at the office – we’ve got something they’re interested in and they’re going there,” he said.

Pittman told ad buyers that he intends to keep iHeart quick on its feet, so its podcasts hold their appeal even as the data shows Americans themselves have widely varying mindsets. “We still don’t know where it’s going, and I think more than ever we have to be wildly flexible,” he said. “We just have to keep our mind open. And I think we are finding the consumer is gravitating more than ever to things that are really timely, that are relevant, that seem to match the moment.”

Conal Byrne, President of the iHeartPodcast Network, agreed companionship is a key factor for why Podtrac data put it at No. 1 in April. But he thinks familiarity is also working in their favor. “We have been in this business a long time, we have some of the biggest shows launched first in podcasting and still publish today, and I think there’s some aspect to people cycling back to content they knew and trusted and want to binge during these times. Usually those are the kind of shows that rise back to the top when people feel stress or anxious,” Byrne said.

The coronavirus has necessitated a closer examination of consumer trends as podcasters like iHeart adapt their lineup. After all, unlike the long lead times of television, a podcast can debut in a matter of days or weeks. “We research the consumer and there’s a daily report that goes out every day that to our creative people,” Pittman said. “We’re watching the trends of what’s bothering people, what’s worrying people, what do they miss — we’ve been watching through this pandemic and it’s been amazing to watch the changes in consumer sentiment day-to-day and how it varies by geography.”

That led to the discovery of what Pittman called a “huge hole” for American seniors who not only missed their prom because of school closures, but almost universally will not be wearing a cap and gown for a public graduation ceremony. That led iHeart to create Commencement: Speeches for the Class of 2020, a podcast-centric digital event that features superstars of business, technology, entertainment and radio recording on-demand commencement addresses for those graduating either high school or college. The series was published Friday (May 15) and it has had hourly promotional backing on all iHeart radio stations. “That’s the secret weapon we have,” Pittman said.

Looking ahead, Pittman said iHeart is already working on its next project. It is likely to be focused on a post-lockdown job fair theme with a series of podcasts featuring experts who will help young people starting their careers in one of the worst job markets in decades. “We’re talking about this huge unemployment for graduates and so what they need more than ever are some experts to talk to them about how to get a job, where do you go, what’s important — a job fair not of 20 guidance counselors from school, but some of the great experts,” said Pittman. “We’re also looking at what other topical things people are going to be looking for.”

The Battle For Talent

As the battle among publishers for big names has grown more competitive in recent years with some even winning multimillion-dollar guarantees, Pittman isn’t surprised to see high-profile talent continue to break into the ranks of podcasting. “Creators want to be on every new platform – they always have, and they always will – and I think platforms benefit from that,” he said. Pittman thinks the companies with the biggest reach will continue to have a better success rate at signing those names. “They want a hit. If they spend all this time creating something, they want it to be big and successful,” he said, telling advertisers that the combination of 850 radio stations that reach 91% of Americans and the iHeartRadio app puts his company on the same footing as television.

Pittman said there is also a desire to monetize what they create. “They don’t want to do this for free and we work very closely with marketers on matching the right sponsors, brands and products to be in each podcast — and I think the creators appreciate that,” he said.

Byrne agreed, saying he has heard positive feedback from podcast creators they work with, such as Will Ferrell, Aaron Mahnke and Shonda Rhimes. “They actually feel like the advertising in podcasting puts them in the driver seat, gives them a little more control to tell those messages and own the whole piece of content,” Byrne told advertisers.

Pittman also acknowledged that success leads to more success, the so-called flywheel effect, and that helps iHeart attract celebrities as they see their counterparts ink deals with the company. Byrne said the iHeartPodcast Network also benefits from a combination of roughly 350 national podcasts as well as more than a thousand local podcasts from its radio stations.

Pittman said that can mean some local podcasts that never appear on the national radar are huge hits in the cities they call home. He pointed to the podcast version of the “Mojo in the Morning” show heard on iHeart CHR “Channel 95.5” WKQI. “If you live in New York, you may not know Mojo, but I look at Mojo’s podcast as a percentage of the population of Detroit — and that percentage is a higher percentage than our biggest national podcasts are. It’s pretty amazing,” said Pittman. “We’ve got the ability to super-serve these towns as well as the country.”

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