LiSTNR vs iHeart: Has SCA’s move reset the market?
In recent weeks, Australian Radio Network’s iHeartPodcast Network turned one, and Southern Cross Austereo launched its new digital audio play LiSTNR. At first glance they’re direct competitors, however the CEOs of each organisation are employing vastly different strategies in how they talk about their offerings. Vivienne Kelly speaks with both SCA’s Grant Blackley and ARN’s Ciaran Davis to see if LiSTNR could change the game.
I first heard rumblings of SCA launching LiSTNR in January.
Rumour was SCA was ditching its relationship with the US-based PodcastOne in favour of its own digital audio brand, complete with a new brand and identity – in this case LiSTNR, a seemingly early-2000s branding decision complete with a mix of upper and lower-case letters and a missing vowel. Tumblr. Flickr. LiSTNR.
My exact enquiry was: “I’ve heard murmurs PodcastOne Australia could be set to rebrand to Listnr (my spelling could be wrong, my understanding is it’s Listener, but missing some vowels).”
I even had SCA’s trademark application, but I guess what I didn’t have was the full scope and scale of LiSTNR.
SCA directly denied the claims, and I was told my information was “actually not correct” – that’s some crafty comms work.
It turns out, I was on my way there, but not completely correct. LiSTNR’s not just a replacement for PodcastOne Australia – although podcasts previously branded under the PodcastOne Australia banner are now ‘LiSTNR productions’ – it’s the new, complete home of all SCA’s digital audio assets.
Its LiSTNR podcasts are there. Its radio catch-up podcasts are there. New podcasts will be housed there, as will new digital music stations. Plus there’s the local event guides, news hubs and hyper-local content for the various locations SCA operates in.
Grant Blackley, the CEO of Southern Cross Austereo (SCA), has been painstaking in his efforts to ensure media and investors know this isn’t a new add on to the company. It doesn’t sit next to, or even within, the primary business operation. It is the primary business operation.
“We will watch [LiSTNR] grow and accelerate over time… and we will invest no less than $5 million in the next six months in further promoting the asset and bringing new content to market, remembering that LiSTNR is in the middle of the business now. It doesn’t sit on the outside of the business. It’s an aggregator to all of our audio streams and we’re adding new audio streams,” he said last week during the group’s financial results.
As well as being at the ‘centre’ of the business, it gives SCA fewer digital brands and platforms to contend with. Instead of the PodcastOne Australia app, the Hit Network app and the Triple M app, it now has a consolidated offering – plus there’s bound to be less confusion with the US-based PodcastOne brand (and less royalty fees).
To this end, Blackley believes LiSTNR is an Australian first. A game changer, and, something it could eventually take global.
“There’s no question that after three years of testing, development, planning and now deployment, the fact that we’ve actually got Australia’s first single-destination audio ecosystem is probably the most satisfying and humbling point of what we put forward,” Blackley tells Radio Today. “We’re going to have a single access point for consumers to be able to personalise their content for free, across 100 radio stations, over 100 podcasts. We’ve got new music channels, new music shows, and, of course, what we’re going to build out over time will be a very hyper-local in-depth news and information service.
“So, in fairness, it brings all of my, and hopefully Australia’s sort of content together in an audio form – and the transition of the company from a liner company into a digital-first audio business is probably the most pleasing aspect of [the launch].”
He believes LiSTNR’s branding and proposition is strong enough, and sufficiently different from its competitors, that the brand also has international potential.
“Localism is key, and that’s something that Spotify doesn’t provide,” Blackley says. “It doesn’t provide that granular news, information, live radio aspect. It’s very much a pure-play in respect to what it has done. It does it very successfully.
“So there’s things that are limitations to some of our peers, and what we’re trying to do it break down those limitations to allow people to enter a world of audio, rather than just one segment of audio.”
What about ARN’s iHeartRadio, and its iHeartPodcast network though? Surely there’s a direct, local, competitor, both in terms of podcasts and a wider app which has both local offerings and global branding?
The iHeartPodcast Network has just turned one
“We don’t always talk about our competition,” Blackley tells Radio Today. “I would say that what iHeart is, is it’s a global app with a radio-first experience. So LiSTNR is Australian-focused with an on-demand first offering through a daily feed functionality. So, bringing together its national and hyper-local news, music content, personal podcasts, what we’re going to deliver is a curated collection of audio, enabling people to personalise audio of topic and interest that most appeals to them.
“That’s very different from what is a global app with a radio-first mentality,” he says of iHeart. “So it’s a very different product. A very different positioning to the marketplace.”
ARN’s CEO, Ciaran Davis, however, sees the global strength of the iHeart brand as a positive, rather than a negative.
“In terms of iHeart, I think we’re in a fortunate position to partner with a global platform,” he tells Radio Today. “We have that platform now until 2036. We have a lot of technological capability, AI intelligence, depth of content that honestly we couldn’t afford to try and build out ourselves here if we tried to do it.
“So partnering with someone like iHeart is a great advantage to us because not only are we pulling in our first-party data and monetising that, but we’re able to tap into their expertise and their learnings and the platform technology developed as well. We’re on the same roadmap.”
And while Blackley has centred LiSTNR at the heart of SCA, Davis is more keen to focus on the power of traditional radio, especially when combined with digital add-ons.
“I think the podcasting market is still in its infancy from a commercial perspective, but there’s no doubt that that’s going to grow over the next two to three years,” he says.
“But what we’re seeing, and we’ve developed this over a period of time, is the integration of radio and digital audio, and how we transfer content and move people around in our ecosystem, and a lot of learnings in the last six months on that. That’s obviously translating and transferring up to the sales teams who are looking at briefs, activities and sort of combining digital audio with broadcast radio. And things like new products that we rolled out in dynamic audio, that’s helping to do that as well. So it’s a growth platform in its own right, but integrated with the power of radio, it gives us a great ability.”
He added: “Digital audio is certainly a platform for growth for us all, but we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that our core business is radio, and it’s doing really well. Advertising is starting to come back, listenership is at an all-time high, and the effectiveness of the medium for advertisers is incredibly strong. But I wanted to sort of really focus in on the power of radio.”