Do you want to listen to a podcast while playing a game or building a world? Listen to music while chatting with friends? Watch your favorite musician drop a brand-new album live, or attend a live concert in the metaverse?
If iHeartMedia and Roblox have their way ... you will.
iHeartMedia is almost a stealth contender in podcasting. Spotify, its acquisitions, and its ongoing battle with podcasting OG Apple is pretty much what you hear in the news. (And yes, that’s partly my fault.) But iHeartMedia is a major presence in podcasting as well — bigger than you think. Part of that is leveraging its massive footprint in radio — 850 broadcast radio stations — and part of that is its ventures in owned and created online audio.
“We have nearly 500 million downloads a month when you really count all of our shows,” Conal Byrne, the CEO at iHeartMedia Digital Audio Group, recently told me. “A stat that I love is we have over 50 podcasts that drive over 1 million monthly downloads each, and those are across 19 or 20 different genres. So we are not a one-trick pony.”
Data on the biggest listening platform in podcasting is hard to come by.
Podcasting tools provider Buzzsprout offers widely-cited statistics suggesting that as of June 2022, Apple Podcasts owns almost 40% of the market, followed by Spotify at just over a quarter. Other data suggests that Spotify has 32.5 million podcast listeners per month and Apple Podcasts has only 28.5 million monthly listeners.
Edison Research, however, says that about 170 million Americans listened to what it calls “online audio” as of 2020, and the two top platforms with brand awareness are Pandora and iHeartRadio, followed by Spotify, Apple Music, Amazon, Google, and others.
I suspect those more broadly defined category numbers are more aligned to Byrne’s, and include more traditional radio as well as podcasts. A third of media consumer consume is audio, he says, and 75% of that is broadcast.
In any case, the platform is not small, and he’s planning to take it new places. In June iHeart announced a partnership with State Farm to launch iHeartLand on Roblox to feature “live experiences combining major album releases, some of the biggest hit podcasts and interactive gaming.”
“When a new platform arises like Roblox with 200 million monthly active users or Epic’s Fortnite with 100 million monthly active users ... we sit up and take notice,” Byrne says. “This is almost a mandate inside our company: to meet audiences where they are, to not force them into our app, our platform, to meet them halfway, meet them where they are.”
In other words, why not listen to music or a podcast while you’re playing, building, or socializing in a 3D interactive world? And why not make new live experiences possible no matter where people happen to be?
“The thrust of this is persistent awesome programming, where you feel like you can come and see live podcasts, live artists, musicians performing, interact with them in ways that the metaverse lets you sort of level up how you might interact with them in IRL, amidst all the awesome gameplay and interactivity that these platforms are really good at anyway,” Byrne says.
That’s bringing music and audio to the metaverse. But he’s also looking to bring the metaverse to music and audio.
Byrne knows NFTs have a bit of a bad rep right now. The market is depressed and flooded with fly-by-night get-rich-quickers. But he has a slightly different take on how NFTs can become part of iHeartMedia’s future success in podcasting. And it’s not what you’re going to think it is.
First off, iHeartMedia doesn’t define NFTs like web3 doubters might: over-priced JPEGs that should be free, that anyone can steal, and that don’t have any real value. Rather, Byrne sees three aspects to NFTs, and it’s much more about creating value with them than selling them:
“We thought of this idea of acquiring a series of NFTs like a Mutant Ape, a CryptoPunk, a World of Women, a Loot, a Quirky with the intention of turning those into podcast hosts,” Byrne says. “So we acquired 10 to 15 NFTs. We put a bunch of amazing ... comedy writers in a writer's room. They built back stories for these characters. We brought in some of our best producers, we brought in awesome voice actors, and we're breathing life sort of literally into these NFT characters as podcast hosts for a slate of shows we will launch across the next 12 months called the ‘Non-Fun Squad.’"
That’s a fairly unique take on the NFT opportunity. Refreshingly, it doesn’t involve building a set of algorithmically-created images and selling them for hundreds of thousands of dollars to crypto nerds.
And there will be interesting mashups. What would a show with both a Mutant Ape and a CryptoPunk be like?
“It's Gorillaz for podcasting,” says Byrne.
(Gorillaz, for the uninitiated — which included me — is a virtual band with artificial characters as musicians that has sold over 26 million albums and publishes music videos, interviews, comic strips, and more.)
How iHeartMedia’s NFT characters will rip/mix/burn all kinds of different material and insert it into the metaverse remains to be seen, but you can’t fault the creativity or the effort. It’s an interesting concept, and one that takes what the company does well — audio, stories, publishing — and combines it with where technology and perhaps our culture is going.
Whether it works or not, time will tell.
But it aligns with the insight that Byrne’s boss Bob Pittman, who founded MTV and is now the CEO of iHeartMedia, shared with him:
“[Don’t] assume that you know what audiences want just because the data told you something or didn't tell you something. Data tells you the answers to the questions you asked, not necessarily the answers you need.”
It seems likely that concerts in the metaverse is something that will happen. It seems clear that we’ll want entertainment in our Ready Player One environments just like we do IRL. But will we want the virtual characters of today — the Bored Apes and the mutant zombies of the NFT world — to form the characters in our new listening experiences?
But it’ll be interesting to find out.