iHeartMedia Debuts Audio-Based Programming With Jared Leto, Summit Series At Debut 'SoundFront'

Jared Leto photographed on Jan. 20, 2015 in Los Angeles.

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The success of NPR’s Serial podcast was a wake-up call to Microsoft vet Gayle Troberman, who in October became iHeartMedia’s first chief marketing officer: If more than 68 million people could interact with one audio narrative, why couldn’t radio listeners do the same across iHeart’s 850 stations?

So as one of her first items of business in her new role, Troberman helped commission neuro-scientific research to determine how consumers engage with audio versus visual content. "And we've seen, on average, double the amount of brain activity as a proxy for engagement," Troberman says. "The mind is often more powerful than us as content creators in filling in all the blanks and painting every brushstroke with audio."

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That research is at the heart of iHeartMedia’s first "SoundFront," an upfront-like presentation to advertisers held Wednesday at the company’s New York headquarters that showcased a slate of audio-only programming being pitched for potential sponsorship. Initial offerings include "Heart Of The Beat," produced by Jared Leto, that will feature "storytelling around the idea of the craft of music and deconstructing the journey with people who got there," says Troberman; "Summit Tracks," based on the popular event the Summit Series that will be hosted by Tim Ferris, author of The 4-Hour Work Week; "The Vent," produced by actress Jaime Pressley, "where moms will come together and talk about all the ridiculous things that only moms can discuss"; "Get Mic'd," a competition series to become an iHeart on-air personality; and "Who Is Marty Hirsch?," produced by Mindshare Entertainment, which will be a Spinal Tap-esque audio mockumentary.

Several of iHeart’s content partners were expected to be in attendance at the SoundFront (though not Leto, who was busy filming his role as The Joker in Suicide Squad), while emerging artists George Ezra ("Budapest") and Ella Henderson ("Ghost") performed.

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Since the company formerly known as Clear Channel rebranded as iHeartMedia last September, registered users to flagship app iHeartRadio have grown 37 percent year-over-year to 60 million as of January 2015, with total listening hours up 14 percent in the fourth quarter of 2014 vs. the same period the year prior -- 60% of which were on mobile devices.

The iHeart Soundfront pitch also comes at a time when the ad market for radio is flattening. In February, the Radio Advertising Bureau reported a 1 percent drop in full-year radio ad revenue in 2014 compared to 2013, to $17.5 billion, with a flat fourth quarter of $4.6 billion. However, digital advertising continues to be radio's largest growth area, with radio analytics firm Borrell Associates recently projecting an 18 percent growth of digital radio advertising in 2015, to $583 million -- the first time that category would surpass the half-billion mark.

In addition to its audio programming slate, iHeart will continue to push its namesake event series like the iHeartRadio Festival in Las Vegas, iHeartRadio Awards in Los Angeles, iHeartUlimate Pool Party (which recently announced a move from Miami to Las Vegas) and the Jingle Ball arena tour, which visited 13 markets in 2014.