Tuning into the Future of Radio With iHeartMedia Network President Darren Davis

Darren Davis
was named President of the iHeartMedia Networks Group at the top of the year, and since then has focused his attention on the growth of the group’s component divisions, expanding the iHeart brand and the integration of terrestrial and digital elements. A broadcast lifer who’s been intoxicated by the medium since childhood (as he explains below), Davis lives and breathes radio—though he probably needed to breathe through his mouth while talking to us.
Tell me about your day. You get up you get out of bed you make a cup of coffee…
Well, before I get out of bed I’ve spent 20 minutes on email. I’m getting old enough where one eye doesn’t work that well in the morning, so I’m lying there with one eye closed, reading my email. I have two offices: The iHeartRadio team in Tribeca with the New York  stations and in Midtown with the iHeartMedia Networks Group: Premiere, Total Traffic and Weather, and our 24/7 News. I spend half my day downtown, half my day in Midtown, and the other half commuting back and forth between the two!

How does the digital platform interact with the broadcast platform?
Our goal is to be everywhere our listeners are with the products and services they expect and iHeartRadio allows us to do just that. With iHeartRadio we can extend our iconic station brands and relationships we have with our listeners across multiple platforms. iHeartRadio  provides 24/7 instant access to more than 1,900 live radio stations (including both iHeartMedia and non-iHeartMedia stations) from anywhere across the country and also allows listeners to also create their own artist- or song-based custom station right at their fingertips. It  truly is an all-in-one digital service.

In fact, one of the main reasons we brought in Chris Williams, our SVP of Programming for iHeartRadio, was to give the brand a point of view and personality, to be a living, breathing thing the way Z100 is, to give it stationality. Chris handles the programming, marketing  and the social for iHeartRadio. Every way the iHeartRadio brand touches the consumer, that’s Chris. We’ve come a long way with iHeartRadio: more than 435 million downloads of the app; more than 50 million registered users, a milestone reached faster than any digital music service and even faster than Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest; and iHeartRadio has surpassed 70% brand awareness in just three years. My favorite part of that story is that it’s our case study for the power of radio, because we got to that level of awareness not by  buying television commercials or ads in the Sunday paper, but just by talking about it on the radio.

Who are the other key team members?
Alissa Pollack is our head of Artist Relations for iHeartRadio, in addition to her other responsibilities with Mediabase and Premiere. iHeartMedia has great relationships with musicians, labels and artist management — we want to continue to be an important partner for
them and now with iHeartRadio, we can do even more.

The launch of the Barry Manilow station on iHeartRadio, for example.
I was just chatting with Barry about that. He’s getting tremendous feedback and so are we. That’s not something that would have been put on  broadcast radio, but it’s a big hit for us on iHeartRadio. Artist and brand stations are just one of the many things we can do on the iHeartRadio digital side, on 11/1 we launched a variety of digital only stations including Country, Gospel, Jazz or Classical Christmas stations. That’s the fun—you get to think outside the box and users love it — over 62 million people listened to iHeart-Media’s Christmas  Stations in 2013.

When you’re approached by a label, artist or manager about a project, what are the questions you ask, the boxes you tick off before you can design an approach?

It doesn’t need to be a one-size-fits-all sort of solution. A lot of it depends on how big their social fan base is. When we do our guest DJ channels or takeover stations where artists are hosting them, that’s a big way people become aware of them—fan clubs talking about it.  We discuss tour schedules and the sequence of single releases, so we can put it all together in a fashion that makes sense.

Explain the interaction between the iHeart digital platform, your syndication platform and the terrestrial part. “I’ve got four billion streams on Spotify,” and everyone’s boss in the music business says, “That’s great, but what about KIIS-FM?”

Nobody should think for a minute that we’re sitting here at the iHeartRadio office coming up with great ideas for artists in a vacuum. Digital isn’t something we do on the side; it’s absolutely integrated into everything we do at iHeartMedia. We’re working every day to come up with holistic programs that make sense. When we work with an artist or advertising partner, we have the ability to reach hundreds of millions of listeners by utilizing our multiplatform assets including on air, digital, mobile, social and through live events. That’s our strength, being able to tie all things together. I think that’s why we’ve gotten more than 50 million registered users on iHeartRadio so quickly. We couldn’t have done that without all the great events, without the other 850 local radio stations embracing, promoting, loving, and really  integrating iHeartRadio into the fabric of everything they do. It’s important that broadcast folks don’t see digital as a threat, rather as a huge opportunity. It doesn’t take away from the listening of broadcast, in fact it’s additive. We’re embracing it because it’s going to guide  us into the future.

Give us a recap of your background.
I’ve been doing this more than half my life; it’s what I always wanted to do. I was seven years old when I fell in love with the magic of radio. My dad would drive me to the local radio station in Grass Valley, California and we’d take donuts to the morning DJs. I was going to college at George Washington in D.C. when the phone rang and it was WASH-FM which was at that time owned by Chase, which became Evergreen, which became Chancellor, then AMFM and then Clear Channel. They said that they’d received my application to  become an intern and could I meet with them. I don’t believe I had applied to be an intern; I had sent them a DJ audition tape and I was so bad they threw it into the intern bin. But luckily somebody found it and they called, and I met with them—that was 22 years ago last  month as a matter of fact—and then started interning at WASH as a helper for Baker & Burd morning show.

How did you work your way up the ranks?
Within a few months the GM pulled me in and said, “Kid, we’ve pulled together some money and we’ve got $17k for your fulltime salary. You’re going to be morning show producer/van driver/general programming helper. What do you think?” and I said, “I’ll take it!” I absolutely had a ball. I was leaving my dorm room at 2:30 in the morning to head off to work at WASH when everyone else was stumbling in from the night on the town. By the time I graduated from GW I had already been fulltime at WASH for three years. I was the fulltime overnight host for several years. I was 24 when I became the PD at WASH, and I’ve been in DC, Houston, Detroit, Chicago, and now, New York. 22 years, more than half my life I’ve been doing this, it’s the reason I’m so passionate about everything I do, because I just love it so much. I feel like I haven’t had to work a day in those 22 years because it’s all been so much fun. It’s what I always wanted to do.

That’s quite a trajectory.
I’ve been very fortunate and had a ball, but I want to help radio continue to thrive, to not only help  myself but the thousands of employees of this company continue to thrive. I want us to have another successful 10, 20, 30, 40 years of doing this. And it’s why I’m so excited about iHeartRadio and having a chance to guide that strategy. Because the digital side of what  we’re doing is going to help radio expand into the future and help our brands live a long, healthy life.

What’s your vision for the future of iHeart?
Digital is another means to deliver the brands and content our listeners want and we will continue to embrace it. We want  iHeartRadio to be everywhere our listeners expect us to be. iHeartRadio is already available on more than 35 device platforms across web, mobile phones, tablets, automotive, smart TVs, gaming consoles and more, so you will continue to see this trend. So far this year,  iHeartRadio has announced integrations with Android Wear, Amazon’s Fire Phone and Fire TV, Android Auto, Google’s Chromecast, Apple’s Car- Play, Samsung’s Gear 2 smart watch, Qualcomm’s AllPlay and new auto partnerships with Subaru, AT&T Drive, GM, Jaguar Land Rover, Kia and Volvo. Also mobility is crucial, it’s changing lifestyles—from a connected home to a connected consumer. Convenience and simplicity is king. Also, we’ll continue to host successful events around the iHeartRadio brand, such as The iHeartRadio Music Festival, Music Awards, Jingle Ball Tour, Ultimate Pool Party and many more. Events like these connect  artists with their fans. And the events give our broadcast stations something powerful that sets them apart from other radio groups.
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