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iHeart’s Conal Byrne: Subscriptions Won’t Fix A Problem That Doesn’t Exist.

Even as more podcast apps offer the opportunity to swap a credit card for an ad-free listening experience, iHeartRadio remains a holdout to subscription podcasting. That is unlikely to change anytime soon. Conal Byrne, CEO of the iHeartMedia Digital Audio Group, says in an op-ed that offering consumers the opportunity to pay for a medium that has always been free amounts to offering a solution to a problem that does not exist.

“In other mediums, when people started to pay for things that were previously free, it was because something glaring was getting fixed. That’s the basic rule of consumption,” Byrne writes in an article for Forbes. “But as media companies are wanting to buck that trend in podcasting by unnecessarily turning to subscriptions, they’re trying to charge for something that's currently free. They want to fix a problem that doesn't exist, and you just can’t do that. It’s inconvenient to users who don’t see the value. The future of podcasting is in its accessibility to audiences, leading to growth in all markets.”

Subscriptions may be new to podcasting, but Americans have been flooded with pay options during the past few years. In a move that accelerated during the pandemic, research shows the typical household subscribing to nine services at a time when inflation is forcing Americans to rethink where their money is going. Byrne also points to research that shows 84% of Americans say they don’t want to pay for a podcast subscription. “That’s because podcasts are already widely distributed and free with a light ad load, often in the voice of the creator. There's simply no reason to upcharge consumers so they can remove that ad load,” he says.

Thanks to streaming music services, and to a lesser extent podcasters, Edison Research reported last week that more audio consumption is going to ad-free paid audio than ever. Its data shows that among Americans aged 13 and older, 39% of their daily audio listening time goes to paid services. That is up ten points from 2016. The numbers are even more dramatic among 13- to 34-year-olds. Among that younger breakout, Edison says half of all daily listening time is done to an ad-free audio service. That’s up from 35% in 2015, or an increase of more than a third during the past seven years.

“As younger demos spend more time with ad-free audio, we have to consider what ad-free options audio companies might be able to offer beyond the traditional streaming model,” said Edison Director of Research Laura Ivey in a blog post.

Beyond subscriptions, Byrne writes in his op-ed that podcasting’s audience is becoming more diverse by the day. While the typical podcast audience skewed younger, white and slightly more male in the past, he says there continues to be a shift toward a more diverse audience, especially with Latinx and female listeners. During the past four years, the number of female listeners have increased by 76% while there’s been a six-fold growth rate among Hispanics.

“That’s not an insignificant shift, and as CEO of the largest podcast publisher globally, we’ve been paying attention,” said Byrne. He pointed to recent iHeart content initiatives such as the Black Effect Podcast Network with Charlamagne Tha God and My Cultura with Enrique Santos.

“The driving force behind this course correction is mainly that it’s the right thing to do, of course, but it also makes the most business sense,” Byrne said. “If you want to reach a diverse audience, you need to have a diverse group of creators and content.”

Byrne also waved the flag for RSS feeds, which some companies such as Spotify have dismissed as outdated technology. But Byrne says RSS allows creators and publishers to retain control of their content. “If I were to launch a YouTube channel, I don’t really own that content—YouTube does,” he says. “Same for an Instagram profile—Meta owns it. But in podcasting, the content is mine because the RSS feed—the distribution—is mine and at my discretion.”

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