Conal Byrne

The first-ever iHeartRadio Podcast Awards will be handed out Friday during a ceremony at the iHeartRadio Theater in Los Angeles. There are 22 categories in all, most of which were voted on by fans. (Read the list of nominees HERE.) The 90-minute event will take place in front of a live audience with a live stream. We recently caught up with Conal Byrne, president of the iHeartPodcast Network, to talk about the inaugural event. An edited transcript follows.

Of the 22 categories, 17 winners are being decided by voting online and on Twitter and Instagram. Now that voting’s close, how was listener reaction?

What you really see through social voting is what shows have very strong super-fan bases that they can mobilize and get voting. It’s always fun to see that. We were built on that ten years ago—shows like Stuff You Should Know—which have super fan bases the likes of which I have never seen. It speaks to the medium. Podcasting is this incredibility intimate medium with really strong super-fan bases. And in a medium like that, whenever you open up social voting it’s always a really nice surprise because you get a pretty big reaction and it’s fun to see.

How so?

Because you see those fan bases come to life.

Did you see any interesting trends emerge in how votes were cast?

Nothing shocking except that sometimes you see a show that’s not necessarily the biggest show but it has a very powerful fan base. Like a show that wasn’t the juggernaut in its genre but had a really strong fan base who wanted to support it.

Did podcasts that have an on-air radio presence have an advantage?

We didn’t see categories where people were tipping the scales because of what you might call a home field advantage. None of that happened, which is something that we were very wary of. As a radio company we didn’t want to launch a podcast awards ceremony and have all the radio nominees win because they could bring out the megaphone and bring their radio fans. We wanted it to be about podcasting. To be candid, thankfully we just didn’t see that. It looked like podcast fans were voting at the end of the day, which is cool.

The five biggest awards—Podcast of the Year, Breakout Podcast, Best Branded Podcast, Best Social Impact from Podcast/Host and Podcast Innovator Award—are being selected by a blue-ribbon panel. How did that work?

First of all, it was a pretty arduous process to whittle down the nominees. There were hundreds of incredible podcasts in 2018. It’s a lot of the reason why we decided to launch some kind of awards show to celebrate what I think are some of the best creators in the world. There just wasn’t a central awards celebration. So whittling it down from hundreds of great shows to only a few was tough. You start with what were the biggest shows of the year, vis-a-vis sheer downloads. And then you can look at rankings across a few different platforms, from iHeartRadio to Apple Podcasts. And then you assemble the best and the brightest from the industry. There are several CEOs from podcast networks in the judging pool and we were also very intentional to have a diverse group of voices who are not all listening for the same thing. Some people are listening because they think minority voices are very important to podcasting. Others are listening because they think deeply-researched and rigorously produced podcasts are the best. We tried to assemble a team that could speak to all of those criteria and could get them voting. I think we ended up with a really cool panel of diverse people looking at this nominee list.

What sort of criteria went into the decision-making to pick the winners?

I can tell you how I voted. I really valued authenticity, credibility, strong production, and just for lack of a better word, pioneers—the people who are pioneering and pushing this medium. I really value that. I’ll give you an example. True crime swept our medium in the last two or three years. But the kinds of shows I really love are shows like Happy Face that we launched about six months ago with a different way into the true crime genre. Instead of focusing on the killer, it focused on the daughter of the killer and her life story. So I was looking for shows where the hosts were authentic and credible in their work, and the show had really good production value, but more than anything that I felt they were taking a genre and just taking it further and trying new angles and perspectives. That for me was a really big criteria but it’s different for each judge.

Speaking of pioneering, NPR has been selected to receive the first-ever iHeartRadio Podcast Pioneer Award. Can you talk about why NPR was chosen to receive this honor?

It was a communal decision at iHeartRadio to do that. We have a very strong relationship with NPR, and of all the other podcast networks out there in the world I admire them the most. Along with HowStuffWorks, NPR was among the very first entrants into this medium 12 years ago. So no matter how the voting shook out, we wanted to make sure that NPR was recognized. It’s really that simple.

It’s great how podcasters are so collaborative and complementary of one another.

Mediums are like that early-on. There’s kind of a honeymoon period in the first decade of a medium where there’s a great deal of collaboration and mind-sharing that happens across competitors and creators. Podcasting is in that. It’s a great time to be a podcaster and in the medium because there is a lot of creativity that’s getting shared across different shows – even if we’re fighting with each other every day over rankings. It’s still a very communal feel to this medium which makes it great.

There have been other podcast awards in the past. What makes the iHeartRadio Podcast Awards different?

We’ve had a medium where creators were getting recognized in a fractured way. There were different awards as part of other larger award ceremonies. HowStuffWorks won a bunch of them over the last ten years, like Webby Awards for podcasts. I think it’s a different thing when you have the biggest producer of live events in the country come along and say they want to launch something that will be the central podcast night of the year to really commemorate what these guys are doing. That feels much different than the fractured awards that have been given our here or there. The reaction has been interesting as the event has come together. The community has seemed to really embrace this and say this is really awesome.

The show will be live streamed this year. Do you think we’ll get to a point where it gets a TV simulcast, like the iHeartRadio Music Awards?

It felt like the right place to start given that it’s still a digital medium to distribute it through a digital platform. But we have seen nothing [but a] doubling of this medium year after year for the past several years, so I of course see it going it that way. I genuinely believe some of the best content in the world is getting created for podcasts. The things that we all talk about every month are podcasts now, from Serial to Atlanta Monster. So it’s a medium that punches way above its weight in terms of driving cultural conversations so I do believe this will end up with bigger and bigger distribution platforms up to TV.

Before we let you go, any thoughts about where the podcast business is going in 2019?

It’s going to be a good year for podcasting. You have a medium that’s been chomping at the bit for ten years and growing amazingly. But it has in front of its three or four inflection points—points of massive acceleration in audio. Most podcast listening happens on iOS right now. The Android audience is essentially missing. And yet when you look at the U.S. about half of us use Android-powered phones. So if I have an Android-powered phone, chances are I don’t listen to a podcast. That’s an inflection point. When there are better apps on Android devices, you will see a quick doubling of the podcast audience. The second thing is social media. Think about where you watch videos—probably on YouTube and Facebook. You essentially can’t listen to podcasts on Facebook; there’s no product for it. One of the biggest content distribution platforms in the world doesn’t really do podcasts yet. That’s another inflection point which could be another doubling of our audience. And then Alexa and cars, those last two places. iHeart has already penetrated Alexa really well with broadcast radio and I think we can do that now with podcasting. And with cars getting more connected, all the carmakers are focused on how to turn their dashboard into an entertainment system. As that happens, podcasts will get paths right into the vehicle and become even easier to listen to. Any friction or disruption will just go away.

What about content?

The content is already there; the content is incredible. Now there will be these inflection points that the medium will hit where there will be a doubling and tripling of audience in the next year or two. And that to me is the most exciting thing.