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Pandemic Has Helped Radio Discover New Ways To Interact With Listeners, Pittman Says.

Out of the ugliness of the coronavirus pandemic and its impact on the live events business has come what may be a beautiful new way for radio to interact with music lovers. The compression of ten years of technology adoption into months has created “new opportunities,” according to Bob Pittman, as iHeartMedia reimagined some flagship events. In the process, the CEO says what at first seemed underwhelming set new records as listeners embraced virtual events. “The consumer has reached out and bonded with us in new ways,” Pittman said during a recent IAB webinar.

The first clue something unexpected was happening came in March when a timeslot that had been reserved for the iHeartRadio Music Awards instead became “The iHeart Living Room Concert For America.” It featured artists performing at home where often times their contribution came in the form of a clip recorded on a smartphone. “Everyone thought it was going to be a bust – but it turned out to be the highest-rated Sunday night entertainment show on Fox for an entire year,” said Pittman. He pointed out the show also raised $16 million for charity.

That gave iHeart confidence in reworking the annual iHeartRadio Music Festival into a virtual show. It invited artists to take a COVID test and then record one-by-one in iHeartRadio Theaters around the country. The result was a TV show that aired in September. Pittman said the number of social media impressions generated by the show increased 20% compared to the face-to-face version one year ago and its live stream set a record.

“We are learning new ways to work,” said Pittman. “Maybe we have discovered a whole new way of interacting with our audience.”

Podcasts Are About Companionship Too

Live events aren’t the only growth area. The iHeartPodcast Network has seen downloads grow through 2020 as podcast listening has become more mainstream. Pittman thinks one of the reasons that podcasts have done so well this year is that there has been an “insatiable appetite” for companionship. That has played to one of podcasting’s strongest attributes, he said, not unlike how AM/FM listening has held up even when commutes to work disappeared.

“Radio is not about music, talk shows or news – that’s tactics. Radio is about companionship. We give everyone in America a friend anytime, anywhere. Podcasts turn out to be very much like the radio experience. It’s about companionship,” said Pittman. “The successful podcasts are all host-driven, just like a radio station. That person keeps them company. And the host is sometimes even more important than the actual content.”

Pittman believes that is a big reason why iHeart and NPR, two legacy radio companies, are by far the biggest podcast platforms each month on Podtrac’s monthly ranker, calling podcasting a “natural evolution” for expanding their existing relationship with listeners. “The pandemic was an opportunity for us to reach people who had not sampled podcasts or hadn’t listened to many, to sample them and to get interested in them,” he said.

As evidence of that, Pittman pointed to numbers that show unique monthly listening numbers climbed while the number of downloads increased at an even faster rate. “That tells us the audience was listening to more episodes,” he said. Pitman credited that with helping iHeart more than double its podcast revenue during the second quarter compared to a year ago.

Technological advancements are also helping grow podcast listening, according to Pittman. He pointed to the use of a “three-dimensional” audio format used by iHeart on last month’s release of Aaron Mahnke’s 13 Days of Halloween podcast as a good example. It used a cutting-edge audio format that immerses the audience into the show’s sound.

“We couldn’t have brought it two years ago because the technology wasn’t good enough and not enough people were wearing headphones,” said Pittman. “Now we find 60% of digital audio listening is with headphones on, so we’re able to build new products based on that change.”

Highs And Lows Of 2020

From a pandemic to the presidential election, this year has had no shortage of anxiety. Pittman told the IAB event that has meant companies, including iHeartMedia, have faced challenges. A pullback in ad spending led iHeart to make $250 million in spending cuts across its businesses, a move that has in recent days led to new layoffs.

Yet despite that, Pittman said one of the positive things that has happened in 2020 is the racial justice conversation. At iHeart, that led not only to unique on-pairings like the show that brought Rush Limbaugh and Charlamagne Tha God together, but also a commitment by the company that at least half of all its new podcasts will be from diverse creators, including women, Blacks and Hispanics.

“I hope what 2021 is about is a year of building understanding and I think we have a big role in that,” said Pittman. “We have an obligation to bring people together and foster understanding – so that’s what we’re pushing.”

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