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The Serial effect: America’s biggest radio company is getting into podcasts

Leto Podcast iHeart Serial
Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP
Warm up those vocal chords, Jared Leto. It’s podcast time.
Published This article is more than 2 years old.

iHeartMedia is the biggest terrestrial radio broadcaster in the US: Its 858 stations around the country attract some 245 million listeners each month. The company also has a big events business, and a growing digital presence.

Nonetheless, iHeartMedia finds itself in a predicament, and not just because broadcast radio is being challenged by online streaming music services like Pandora and Spotify. The company once known as Clear Channel has racked up billions of dollars in losses over the past seven fiscal years, and has a mountain of debt on its balance sheet, a legacy of a buyout by private equity investors in 2006.

The company’s latest proposition to advertisers? Original content, including video, but also, and more interestingly, podcasts.

This week, at an event in New York, the company announced a string of new podcast products, including ones with actors like Jared Leto and Jaime Pressley, and on topics that appeal to millennial audiences, like indie video gaming, pop culture, and relationships.

Podcasting and radio are obviously a natural fit. The intimacy of audio lends itself to high engagement levels that advertisers are just starting to recognize, and which iHeartMedia is just beginning to try to capitalize on.

Even though the underlying subject matter couldn’t be more different, iHeartMedia’s new podcast plans were inspired by the success of Serial, the true-crime spinoff from the popular This American Life series. The weekly podcast captivated a large numbers of listeners, and a second season is expected to begin airing later this year. “I don’t think it’s an accident that podcasts have had this resurgence, and Serial is the perfect example of consumers seeking content that they can pause and engage with and be part of shaping,” says Gayle Troberman, chief marketing officer for iHeartMedia. “Serial was a wakeup call—that we loved—because we have all this research to show the power of audio.”

It’s further evidence that the podcast has arrived not just as a serious form of media, but also as a promising business opportunity. As to whether it will bring in enough advertising revenue to move the needle at the iHeartMedia parent company level, stay tuned.

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