Conal Byrne

You by now saw the Inside Radio/Podcast News Daily list of the Top 10 Most Powerful People in Podcasting (read it HERE). At the top is Conal Byrne, President of the iHeartMedia Podcast Network. Podcast News Daily caught up with Byrne to talk about where he sees podcasting today and where it’s heading in the year to come. That includes nearly 100 new original shows in the iHeart podcast pipeline. The iHeart app already has 250,000 podcasts driving 130 million downloads a month.

An edited transcript follows.

There’s been a lot of change in podcasting during the past year. Anything you’re on the lookout for in the coming 12 months?

What’s fun about this medium right now is that when I hear people say it has hit peak content and that there are an overwhelming amount of podcasts out there—for example on the iHeartRadio app we now have 250,000 podcasts—it sort of makes me laugh because I feel like we’re just getting started. There are entire genres to be filled in from music to food to travel to fiction, not to mention more multicultural voices in our medium. And so when we look out at our pipeline of almost 100 shows across the next 12 months that we plan to launch, those are the kinds of things that we want to focus on. We don’t want to just do what’s already been done. We want to try to fill in new genres and bring in new voices to the medium. So I think you’re going to see the medium widen a whole lot and democratize even more across a bunch of other genres and voices. It will probably be the most exciting 12 months the medium has ever seen because of that.

On a business side, anything you’re looking for in the next 12 months?

Today one of the biggest questions in podcast is whether the podcasting business should be subscription driven or ad sales-driven. I think at the end of the day widely distributed content will win in this medium, especially at this point in the medium’s lifecycle. It is just better to have content everywhere people want to access and consume it. We have to listen to the consumer. So we’re sticking to that model and distributing it everywhere, from the iHeartRadio app to Apple Podcasts and everywhere in between. That’s what wins and will have this business double and triple in size.

What about tech changes on the horizon?

As far as the next 12 to 24 months ago, we’ll probably see a couple of inflection points hit the industry. For example, podcasting is still a very iOS-driven medium. In the next 12-24 months, as apps get better and better for Android users in the podcast space, we’ll have a lot more Android users discover and realize how great podcasting is as a medium. That’s half the United States. And I also think smart speakers will drive a lot more podcast consumption. For a device that’s so omnipresent in our homes, relatively little podcast consumption happens on smart speakers and I think that will change. People will start to listen to more podcasts on their smart speakers and maybe more shared listening. A couple of shifts in audience sizes will be thanks to things like that.

iHeartRadio is agnostic to iOS and Android. What do you see for your app?

There’s an iOS lean mainly because people over the last ten years came to associate podcast content with iOS devices. And over time—and pretty quickly I think—that will start to shift a bit as word starts to get out there and more people listen to podcasts and, as a word-of-mouth medium, the content drives more Android listeners into it.

How are your conversations with advertisers changing?

For the first five or six years podcasting advertising was very direct response driven with coupon codes or specific URLs. The reason you were given those was because a brand was trying to track leads to see if their ads performed. It was the early days of podcasting and we didn’t have a lot of data or targeting in the medium. In the last two or three years, that has changed pretty quickly. At iHeart now we now not only have scale—250,000 podcasts driving 130 million downloads a month is a lot of people and a lot of attention. But we also have pretty significant data and targeting now. And all of that means we can now have conversations not just with DR clients but bigger brand equity campaigns and the huge brands of the world. As that shifts in podcasting, the medium is going to mature and its revenue as an industry is going to grow. I think that’s the biggest shift you’re going to see in the next year or two. That’s why I’ve spent so much time with those brands in the last year to update them about where we stand as an industry. It makes it easy when the quality of the content is so high. And the content is so much fuller than it ever was. There are whole genres in podcasting that weren’t there a year ago.

It must help that you can walk in with a Will Ferrell doing a show like The Ron Burgundy Podcast and bust the image some might have about the industry coming out of America’s basements.

What’s beautiful about this medium is we do both. Will Ferrell is one of the most creative people I have ever had the pleasure of being in the orbit of. It is the top of the mountain creatively. And he brought all that creative force to bear on his podcast. But at the same time we also work with creators like Jake Brennan, who launched a podcast two years ago on his own, from his house, because he had a passion for music history. He called it Disgracedland. It blew up on its own. Independently it was driving 200,000 to 300,000 downloads a month. Now his show is up around 2-3 million downloads because we pummeled with all the marketing that we can bring to bear on something like that. This is a true indie artist. We were fans of Jake before we ever did business with him. We brought him into our slate about six month ago and we’re going to launch a bunch more shows during the next year or two.

What advice do you give podcasters to help grow the medium?

It sounds like a very vague, broad answer but the thing that has stayed true to podcasting from day one is authenticity. The Cannes Lions just wrapped up in France and one of the biggest messages out of this year was that authenticity on the part of brands is the most important thing right now. Brands need to be truly honest and authentic in front of their consumers. I love this message because it has been so part and parcel with podcasting since day one.

How so?

When you are listening to a podcast—and this is very similar to broadcast radio—it feels like you’re on the telephone with a good friend. It doesn’t feel like a mass media, it feels like an intimate media. This is why podcasts are translating so well on the live tours because super fans want to sit in the presence of podcasters who they think are companions or friends. It is amazing to me as the medium has grown that it has stayed true. The relationship with fans is like nothing I have ever seen. Stuff You Missed in History Class hosts Holly Frey and Tracy V. Wilson are hosting a guided tour of France about French history this summer, selling out one to three thousand seat theaters. All of that is built on this relationship that I have not seen in other mediums. So as you try to make your show something, just try to stay true to what you do and what makes you awesome. The best advice I could give is do the show that you would be doing if the microphone was off and out of the room because that’s the best show you can do. And when you see people who have the most successful shows, these guys would be doing this anyway—we just happen to record it.

If you're going to Podcast Movement in Orlando this week, look for Conal Byrne, and the rest of the Top 10 Most Powerful People in Podcasting and say "congratulations!"