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All Access Music, the website started 26 years ago by longtime radio trade publisher Joel Denver, presented its annual confab remotely for the first time, changing the name from All Access Worldwide Radio Summit to All Access Audio Summit, representing not just radio, but streaming and podcasting.

In an interview that helped kick off the confab, iHeartMedia Chairman/CEO Bob Pittman made it clear he was down with the switch from a focus purely on the airwaves, agreeing that iHeartMedia is “a true multi-platform company that features digital audio, which has never been hotter.”

With last year’s session postponed by the pandemic, this year’s edition, running Wednesday and Thursday, has gone virtual, with $150 admission fee across the board. Seventeen individual panels are scheduled for the two days, hosted by KOST L.A.’s on-air personality Ellen K today and nationally syndicated Latina morning drive host Dana Cortez Thursday.

The sessions run the gamut from “Why It Was a Good Thing I Got Fired,” “Podcasting as a Parachute” and Nielsen Audio Ratings to “The Changing Dynamics of Programming Local Radio,” “The Future of Talent Acquisition & Coaching,” research data from Jacobs Media and Coleman Insights, an all-female voiceover panel and a discussion with “The Breakfast Club’s” Charlamagne the God, Angela Yee and DJ Envy.

Pittman was interviewed by Denver about the past year in radio and how it was affected by Covid-19. “It’s been constructive,” said the ever-optimistic broadcasting vet who remains bullish on terrestrial radio. “We’ve learned a lot, put some theories to the test… I think the country is coming back. I view this as a natural disaster rather than an economic one. Wherever restrictions are lifted, the consumer comes roaring back. We’re trying not to sell too far ahead, though, and just try to be in the present.”

Pittman, whose experience includes programming WNBC New York as a teenager and then as part of the original team that launched MTV, noted that whenever there is a financial downturn, a new technology arrives to take advantage, as cable TV did in the ‘80s, online advertising in the ‘90s, social media in the 2000s and now podcasting. “Whenever there’s been a recession, advertisers try something new. With TV viewing moving to subscription services,” Pittman noted, “there are fewer places for advertisers to reach, as they increasingly turn to “fundamental” audio podcasts, where on demand listening has created the modern equivalent of Pittman’s old cable promise of niche programming, “providing content for people to watch when they want to.”

Pittman notes consumers are more interested in audio content than they’ve ever been.  “Can we rise to the occasion and put these pieces together?” asked Pittman rhetorically, pointing to data analytics and 3500 inputs into music programming decisions, including the use of AI. “We’re building out our capabilities to build into a future system for ad agencies to utilize.”

The iHeartMedia exec insisted, “Localism is more important than ever. Technology has unlocked the possibilities of recording at home, or anywhere for that matter.” And while personalities can now be put on the air in any market, “the local role of programmers is to turn the math into magic. Regardless of where the talent is, they need to provide local information, which is accessible to everyone on the Internet.

“We can localize music better than ever, increase the array of talent we can put to work in the market. Community involvement, localized commercials, it’s all still as important as ever, but we can do it better because of the tools available to us. We can put any talent in any location at any time.”

Pittman further said, “We have to separate nostalgia for the past with what’s exciting about the future. It’s not necessarily radio anymore. We need to be entrepreneurial and forward-thinking, as technologically savvy and nimble as a start-up. Young people are building their own good old days. I want people who hate the bureaucracy and want to tear it down. We’re able to communicate to our audience on 250 platforms/ Podcasting is radio on demand, host-driven, companionship.

“We need to keep our eyes open to what the consumer is looking for… provide the products and services that the listeners expect from us. Hosts like Elvis Duran, Bobby Bones, ‘The Breakfast Club’ offer podcasts that are building engaged relationships with consumers.”

Pittman says podcasting has increased in revenue more than 200% and the company’s podcasts boast 30 million unique users, more than either the NPR or the New York Times.

“We see a real synergy between broadcast and digital/streaming by promoting the podcasts on the radio. We have to think as a consumer, not as a factory that makes things. We need to be where the consumers are”

As for radio’s role as a musical discovery medium in the wake of DSPs like Spotify, Apple and Amazon, Pittman insists “people are looking for someone to keep them company, to be their friend. It’s not necessarily about the music, it’s about companionship.”

Pittman pointed out today’s advanced analytics and algorithms help radio predict what will be hits sooner than ever. “You need the reach and impact of radio to make the hits. MTV was like Spotify and Apple Music… We have bigger playlists than in the ‘70s to maximize the chances a listeners gets to hear the song they want to hear… It’s the exact same as it was, but with a new, improved technology.”

Pittman insisted radio has gone way beyond call-out with its AI Music Lab, while radio has become more responsive with broadcast personalities now using social media to expand on-air bits. “Our hosts are more responsive and our music more targeted and more responsible to local trends than ever,” he said. “We know early hit indicators sooner than ever. Radio is still the great finisher.”

Responding to lower PPM (Portable People Meter) ratings during the pandemic for terrestrial radio, Pittman said Nielsen has to continue to adjust its metrics to show the changing face of radio listening for advertisers demanding audiences that are not necessarily being measured by Nielsen.

Concluded Pittman, “Audio is in the driver’s seat. We have the big audience… If we can build and create new products and new services, we are building our future. We must continue to create and put our minds to work to take advantage of the opportunities to make us bigger and better.”