After iHeartMedia last month committed to a larger investment into what it has branded iHeart 3D Audio, iHeartMedia Digital Audio Group CEO Conal Byrne said Wednesday the company is looking at a variety of ways to deploy the technology across a variety of podcasts. The list includes some new series on the drawing board as well as existing podcasts, ranging from the historical show Ephemeral to the Will Ferrell-hosted comedy series The Ron Burgundy Podcast.
“We’re looking across a bunch of our shows, to see if we handed this gear over and helped these creators through the process, could they do an extra episode, or a bonus episode, a season with this tech and would it give them a playground that’s different, new and cool,” said Byrne. “The mind boggles when you think about a guy like Will Ferrell playing around with a 3D audio microphone,” he told the RAIN Podcast Business Summit.
The binaural audio offering simulates the way humans naturally hear, with detailed soundscapes that have a sense of distance and position relative to the listener, providing a virtual reality experience in audio. It makes a listener feel as though they are actually in the landscape audio engineers create, with elements that give a listener a sense of movement and location. It can even trigger other senses. The result is a traditional podcast becomes more immersive content and reproduces real-life experiences.
“What we are utilizing is the way the human ear takes in sound,” said iHeart Executive Producer Matt Frederick. He said it looks to mimic what are essentially a pair of omnidirectional microphones attached on either side of everyone’s head. Engineers have been working on binaural audio usages for the past 20 years, but Frederick said recent design innovations for microphones have helped make the technology more approachable. “People are creating omni-mics sitting inside an ear canal that capture audio almost exactly the same way your ear does, and if you play them back with headphones on, you are going to experience things moving in a three-dimensional space,” he said. The cheapest such mics cost about $700. Other tech companies are also developing plugins for editing systems that allow creators to place a sound in a 3D audio landscape.
The test of 3D Audio came last fall when iHeartMedia and Blumhouse Television aligned with producer Aaron Mahnke to release 13 Days of Halloween starring actor-producer Keegan-Michael Key. The series had more than 2.8 million downloads, and the companies have now committed to producing a seasonally focused “13 Days” franchise of podcasts correlating with various major holidays.
Frederick said other producers inside the company are eager to get their hands on the 3D Audio gear to give it a try with their show. “Audio in general has a set number of blocks to work with, and there are rules with how these blocks go. But the real joy in the audio space is when you rearrange those blocks differently and try something new and go in a place where you generally don’t go,” he said.
Bryne told the virtual conference that 3D Audio is just one of the ways his company is looking to take risks and try new concepts to bring podcasting to an even larger audience.
“What is most exciting for us is pushing the boundaries on the different kinds of content that podcasting can make and experiment with,” said Byrne. Podcasting has pushed in previous no-go zones like food and travel, that were earlier considered too visual, and gone deeper into developing fictional series. Byrne said iHeart is also experimenting more with what he calls “social media podcasts” that feature bite-sized episodes with an erratic publishing schedule. “There is so much innovation happening right now in format, in content, in genre,” said Byrne.