This former iHeart exec used to chase crazy partnerships on Bob Pittman’s jet, now he’s helping public radio take back power from Apple

Owen Grover

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Owen Grover
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iHeart

  • While many businesses are looking over their shoulders in fear at Amazon, the radio industry has its own boogeymen: Spotify and Apple.
  • One longtime former iHeart exec, Owen Grover, has spent more than a decade schooling broadcasting companies on how to survive in the age of music streaming.
  • Now he’s trying a new thing: helping public radio turn its podcasting success into a much bigger, grander scheme.

Owen Grover wants to help public radio take back power from tech giants like Apple and Spotify.

Grover is the new CEO of Pocket Casts, an Australian-born podcasting app bought by a consortium of public radio stations (and show producers) who create the nation’s most popular podcasts: NPR, WNYC Studios, WBEZ Chicago, and This American Life.

In April, Grover left his jet-setting lifestyle as an iHeart exec, and in May, he announced he’d been hired to lead an unusual new effort to help public radio get more control over the internet streaming game.

“I’m the digital guy, the one who is supposed to be the sky-is-falling guy,” he said. “But I’ve been a user of radio, and I understand the use cases. You’re not going to find someone who is the greater believer in the medium and what it stands for.”

Public radio has unquestionably mastered the world of podcast shows. And now its most powerful players are looking to Grover to help them gain an edge on companies like Apple and Spotify.

Bob Pittman in a Tom Ford suit

Grover spent over a decade at iHeart, starting while it was still known as Clear Channel. He joined before the company hired its current, famous CEO Bob Pittman, best known for creating MTV – as well as leading AOL Networks, Six Flags, and other media companies over the decades.

Grover’s job in those days was helping Clear Channel and its stations figure out the new world of websites and apps, going “hat in hand” to radio stations and convincing them the iHeart app would grow broadcasting.

“It was additive, in no way was it cannibalizing,” he said.

By 2010, with the economy in collapse and streaming on the rise, it was clear the investors were going to hire a new CEO.

Bob Pittman

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Bob Pittman
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Michael Seto/Business Insider

Grover remembers fantasizing about the new leadership with his teammates.

“We knew the private equity guys, especially TH Lee, were going to bring in a new CEO,” Grover said. “We joked wouldn’t it be great if they hired a guy a like Bob Pittman? He was the CEO we had in our wildest dreams. We had no real hope he would come to us. Like that was the moonshot CEO of the digital guys.”

But in November, Pittman did indeed join as an investor and senior advisor (he would become CEO the next year) and he immediately pow-wowed with the existing digital team.

“He was wearing a Tom Ford suit, I’ll never forget it,” Grover recalled. In that meeting, Pittman “peppered us with questions.”

Pittman would soon change the company’s name to iHeartMedia and set out to build a digital consumer brand, with Grover in tow.

Six months on Pittman’s jet chasing crazy partnerships

With a new CEO and a new name, iHeart’s Tom Poleman, president of national programming, and John Sykes, president of entertainment enterprises, rolled up their sleeves to create music events and festivals drawing in the biggest names in the music world.

“We wanted to get it into peoples minds that iHeart was bigger than a digital streaming thing. It was something in their lives, it stood for great music, for community,” Grover said.

lady gaga gagaville

Grover was asked to help build partnerships with Silicon Valley. “I spent 6 months on road with him,” Grover said of Pittman.

That meant flying around in Pittman’s private jet (Pittman is a pilot) and holding meetings in Silicon Valley and LA. They talked to Facebook, Twitter, Amazon, Electronic Arts, and more.

When Pittman heard through his friends at Universal that Lady Gaga wanted to do something big to launch her next song, they saw a chance.

Working with Jimmy Iovine’s team (Gaga’s label), they had a crazy idea: What if they launched the song inside of Farmville, Zynga’s popular Facebook game?

“We were flying back and forth to San Francisco to Zynga and LA, and we were flying without a net on this. All we knew at iHeart is we wanted to do stuff no one had done before. And that’s how we premiered a Lady Gaga song inside of a web social game, Farmville,” Grover laughed. Zynga even temporarily renamed the game Gagaville for the promotion.

iHeart created a music player for the song in Zynga, did a bunch of promotions, and helped iron out the deal.

Such projects got iHeart noticed in the greater online world and Grover noticed inside the company.

He moved up to senior VP of partnerships. Then he jumped to the events side, working for Sykes, and found himself doing album release parties for people like Taylor Swift, coordinating between the stars, their digital teams, and iHeart’s teams.

When Hurricane Sandy hit, Grover helped produced the 12.12.12 concert to raise money for relief. “I didn’t sleep for six weeks,” he said.

When Grover moved back to the digital side, he worked his way to general manager. Just before he formally resigned, iHeart was claiming 100 million registered users of its app, although it wouldn’t say how many of them were monthly active users.

The rise of Apple and Spotify

But during those same years, Spotify was coming on strong, capturing listeners, especially young listeners, in a way its predecessor, Pandora, never did.

Spotify CEO Daniel Ek

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Spotify CEO Daniel Ek
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Ilya S. Savenok/Getty Images/Spotify

“Spotify disrupted two businesses, the 99-cent download business, and the retail business,” Grover said. “Young people figured out, why buy a CD when you can stream and use this app?”

In its last quarter, Spotify claimed 170 million monthly active users and 75 million premium subscribers, up 30% and 45% year-over-year, respectively.

Apple, which launched its own music streaming in response, is a distant second at 38 million subscribers, it says.

But Apple still owns the podcasting market through iTunes and its podcast app, commanding 55%. The other half is shared between Spotify, Google Play, iHeart and smaller apps, like Stitcher, Radiotopia, and Pocket Casts.

The current big battle is for the car, the classic zone that radio has traditionally owned. Internet streaming is now accessible in every new car radio, in most of the after-market radios, and can be easily be added to most older cars.

Grover and team had to ensure that iHeart’s app was everywhere, too, including in the car and in the after-market radios.

“We had to make sure you are going to be where ever listeners expected us to be,” he said.

Public radio comes calling

Radio still reaches massive numbers of listeners, over 240 million people a month, the industry says. So the industry is far from dead. But it’s hurting.

this american life

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This American Life

Despite the growth of the iHeart brand and its app, Grover’s old alma mater is currently in bankruptcy, and was never able to climb out of the roughly $20 billion of debt incurred during the Clear Channel buyout. And the nation’s second largest owner of radio stations, Cumulus Media, just completed its long trek through bankruptcy earlier this month (June 4).

The industry is clearly facing a choice: Rise like a digital phoenix from a market scorched by internet players like Apple, Google, and Spotify, or become extinct.

Looking over the landscape, Tom Hjelm, Chief Digital Officer for NPR (who held same role at WNYC previously), and Goli Sheikholeslami, CEO of Chicago Public Media WBEZ, hatched a plan. Public radio needed to own its own podcast ecosystem. But they didn’t want to start from scratch.

Laura Walker, CEO of NY’s NPR station WNYC, had known Grover for years. She asked him to help that coalition evaluate Pocket Cast, an app that already had a glowing reputation, over 500,000 podcast programs, and “hundreds of thousands of users,” Grover said.

Taking control

Public radio was, in many ways, made for podcasting. For decades, NPR and its affiliates have been broadcasting the kind of stories that keep you sitting in your parked car after you’ve arrived at your destination, listening to the end.

Turning those into streaming podcasts has been a no-brainer. “This American Life” is the most popular podcast in the nation, and public radio shows also account for 12 of the top 20 podcasts according to podcast measuring site, Podtrac. Others include UpFirst, RadioLab, and Ted Radio Hour.

Pocket Casts

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Pocket Casts
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iTunes

Public radio has even launched a few successful apps, like NPR One and WNYC Discover and “This American Life.”

But beyond individual apps, public radio didn’t have much control over the broader podcasting game.

Shows are heavily dependent on others’ streaming apps, particularly from Apple.

And they are dependent on the tools those apps provide to measure the audience, what data they want to share, and so on.

So they decided to buy Pocket Cast.

How much this public radio consortium, which relies heavily on donations and charitable grants for its income, paid for the app wasn’t disclosed. The five app developers who built it would only hint that it wasn’t a lot. “Sadly we chose to not sell our souls or you all out for crazy amounts of cash money,” they wrote.

But Grover said he plans to use this app to help independent podcasters improve their audiences in much the same way he used the iHeart app to help radio stations compete against the streaming upstarts. Those shows will continue to be available everywhere, not just his podcast player app.

But Pocket Cast will offer them special data analysis tools that will do improved measuring, help them test new business models, and the like, he said.

“We’re trying to build a better mouse trap to benefit the whole industry, to help producers with more of what they need to allow them to thrive,” he said.

He added that those years at iHeart doing crazy deals and begging radio stations to jump into digital would come in handy.

“All of this experience uniquely qualified me for this role,” he said. “I’ve already fought all of these fights.”

Are you an iHeart insider with a story to tell? We want to hear it. jbort@businessinsider.com