With the largest podcast audience and nearly five hundred podcasts under its banner, iHeartPodcast Network President Conal Byrne was our pick to top the annual Most Powerful People in Podcasting list for 2020. PodcastNewsDaily caught up with him to talk about what iHeart is doing and get his take on where the podcast industry is right now.
Podcast News Daily: With iHeart grabbing the top spot among podcast publishers three of the last four months, you are a solid pick for the number one slot on our Top 10 list again this year. How'd iHeart become dominant?
Conal Byrne: First, we're not just strong in one or two categories, but try to cover several genres, and this helps drive our overall audience. From comedy podcasts like our new network with Will Ferrell, to fiction shows coming up with Blumhouse Entertainment, to our huge sports slate with Dan Patrick and Colin Cowherd, to a string of true crime hits in partnership with TenderfootTV – according to Podtrac we are strong in more genres than anyone else, which is very deliberate. We also have just been doing this a long time – with several of our shows like Stuff You Should Know having back catalogs of more than 1,000 evergreen episodes that drive superfan binge listening and continue to grow every year. Then there's the power of iHeartRadio itself to launch these shows like no one else. The company owns almost 900 radio stations, reaching nine out of ten American adults. That makes for massive launch marketing campaigns for shows like Forgotten Women of Juárez or Missing in Alaska or The Piketon Massacre, which hasled to a recent string of really strong hits that are driving some of the biggest audiences we've ever seen.
PND: At Podcast Movement last year, you said "Podcasting is now central to iHeart." Has that changed, or has it been proven true a year later?
Byrne: That is more true now than ever. Podcasting is core to the entire company now, highly prioritized by every single team – from the radio programmers to the marketers to the sellers (more than 2,000 of them, across the country). It makes all the difference and gives the division a level of support and focus the likes of which we'd only dreamed of before.
PND: What are you hearing from podcast advertisers this year?
Byrne: I believe that the single best ad product in media today is a host-read podcast commercial. Podcasts have one of the lightest ad loads in media, with the lowest ad skippage rates because the ads – your brand's story – are from the hosts themselves. And it seems that the ad market at large is beginning to agree, as podcasting becomes more and more of a must-buy for most innovative campaigns today. We're also seeing a growing interest in branded content, building podcasts with specific brands in mind. We have a few terrific examples there like one of my favorite shows , called The Only Way is Through, in partnership with Under Armour. In short, I think this medium lets a brand tell its story to an engaged audience like none other right now.
PND: Is there any disagreement these days that podcasts should be free and not subscription based?
Byrne: There are really two different approaches to podcasting presently: One, paywalling exclusive content on a single app. Good for the app, not good for listeners because they now have to pay for content that was previously free, and not good for creators because their audience will be limited, and not good for sponsors because there is not enough scale in exclusive distribution. At IHeartRadio, ours is the opposite, and we think, better model: Very wide distribution so listeners find the content they want, where they want; creators connect with the audience sizes they deserve; and sponsors can scale their messaging. And this is the key: Wherever we distribute, we control the host-read advertising in those listens through dynamic ad insertion into every ad tag, on every episode, in every feed, every time, which we can geotarget, audience target and verifiably report back, to our brand partners.
PND: What impact has COVID-19 had on the podcast industry?
Byrne: We saw interesting shifts toward the beginning of quarantine in our industry, like listeners looking for more content outside of true crime, for example. At iHeartRadio, we reacted fast by creating content for the moment like The New Corner Office, about how better to work from home. We also saw listeners cycling back to our "Stuff" shows, so we created playlists out of their huge archives, themed to help people quickly find trustworthy, relevant content during this time. And we held to our launch schedule and kept publishing, moving almost all of our productions to remote setups within weeks, and not missing a single launch date. That led to a string of hits over the last few months like Fake Doctors, Real Friends and The Piketon Massacre and the Red Table Talk podcast. Because of this, we've seen strong, undisrupted growth in our audience and revenue across the year so far.
PND: eMarketer recently predicted podcast revenue will grow 10% in 2020 over the last year and will top $1 Billion In 2021. Sound right to you?
Byrne: The growth has been incredible, as the ad market starts to realize the power of a podcast ad. And, so far this year, that growth has not slowed down at iHeartRadio. Based on our own trajectory, it would not surprise me if we pass $1 billion next year.
PND: The number of people listening to podcasts keeps climbing, but there seems to still be a discovery problem in the industry. What's going to change that?
Byrne: Too much good content is a growing pain of the industry, but I'll take it! Recommendation engines will improve over time. Right now, our best mechanism for exposing people to new, great podcasts is simply to promote them in the shows they already love. It's one of the benefits of having 225 million downloads a month: It gives you a lot of opportunities to recommend what might be someone's new favorite show.
In addition, with iHeartMedia, and our 91% reach of the U.S. population with just our broadcast radio alone, we have the ability to provide the necessary scale to introduce podcasts to the vast majority of Americans.
PND: Do you have a favorite podcast genre?
Byrne: Right now I'm particularly excited about what's possible in the fiction genre. And I love that podcasting is evolving past true crime and maturing into what you might call "audio documentary" instead. I feel like some of the shows I'm most proud of are good examples of this like The Missionary and Somebody. But the truth is different genres serve different proposes for me. In the morning, I'll use our own shows as an example. I turn toward news and politics commentary, with a show like The Daily Zeitgest. In the afternoon, I bounce around from serious stuff like Committed or Family Secrets to lighter shows like Las Culturistas. On weekends, I might want something longer form and more evergreen, like bingeing a season of Aaron Mahnke's Unobscured, or an old episode of Stuff You Should Know. There's podcast content for every moment of your life, which is why I think the medium is growing so fast.
PND: What else would you like readers to know?
Byrne: It's so rare that a new medium launches and actually takes hold. And that's what's happening in podcasting right now – a bona fide new medium with a burst of creativity and an explosion of listeners. It's very exciting for creators, audiences and sponsors alike. I feel very fortunate to be a part of it. And look out for our fall lineup - a few jaw-dropping hits are around the corner.
See the complete 2020 Most Powerful People in Podcasting list HERE.