iHeartMedia hopes to leverage its substantial existing audiences to expand its virtual presence in the metaverse. The media giant promises a literal “whole new world of enhanced engagement” through interactive performances and immersive game play.
The metaverse has been described as an online digital world where people can engage with different brands and experiences. What exactly that world will grow to become someday is still being figured out. But today, the metaverse can be described as the “hypothetical virtual world enhanced by virtual reality and augmented reality,” one industry observer said.
“Think of the metaverse as a collection of 3-D worlds fused together for the purposes of connecting with a larger audience.”
There are skeptics who worry the term is being thrown around recklessly and is a long way from delivering on its promise. (Just Google “Facebook metaverse” and you might see headlines like “Facebook’s metaverse is an empty, sad and unpopular flop.)
What iHeart has created is iHeartLand, part gaming and part entertainment. It is part of Fortnite and Roblox, but the company envisions it as more, positioning itself to be ready to meet audiences in whatever future metaverse iterations come along.
“Our goal is to meet audiences where they are while delivering innovative, incredible programming to constantly challenge ourselves to take entertainment to the next level,” said Conal Byrne, CEO of the iHeartMedia Digital Audio Group.
iHeartLand features a calendar of music and podcast performances at State Farm Park — yes, they sold the naming rights — that give fans a chance to play and interact with shows and artists in new ways. For instance Roblox users can become a music “tycoon.”
iHeartMedia promotes iHeartLand as a destination dedicated to bringing fans closer to big stars through gameplay. “iHeartMedia in expanding our engagement with our users,” Byrne said.
The company has plans to host 20 major events over 12 months on Fortnite. It kicked off the virtual schedule hosting a Charlie Puth concert in September. Other artists scheduled for concerts include Ariana Grande and Travis Scott.
Observers say the extension of iHeartMedia’s brand and activations comes at a time when entertainment and media companies are accelerating their plans to build a space in the online digital world.
The metaverse “is such a natural fit for iHeart to integrate on-air radio content and talent,” said veteran programmer Buzz Knight, former executive VP of programming at Beasley Media.
“The potential for iHeartLand is massive if they can be committed to the large investment of time and money and figure out a seamless way to integrate with their existing ecosystem.”
Producer and media observer Evan Shapiro, in an interview with the NAB Amplify website this fall, identified the four major segments of the media economy as audio, video, gaming and social, all of which figure into iHeart’s plan. Shapiro calls it the “media universe.”
As for the metaverse, it has become an all-encompassing expansive term, says Byrne, but by iHeart’s definition it can mean at least three things: “Web2, which is the internet of today and includes Fortnite and Roblox and gaming platforms. Then Web3, which is immersive and built on blockchain technologies and includes the likes of Sandbox. There is a lot of interest in NFTs. Web3 has very small audiences so far but a lot of potential.
“The third version is augmented reality, and by many people’s definition it’s the real metaverse. And overlaid on the real world. That’s the future.”
iHeartMedia’s expansion into that first layer of the online virtual digital world is a logical step, Byrne says, considering the amount of content it generates and the number of personalities it employs.
“A move to the online virtual programming space is a natural progression. The reason we want to start there, and it’s just a start, is because iHeart is a collection of a lot of things. We are a collection of broadcast talent and influencers and entertainment that is a superpower. We have some of the best story tellers and conversation makers in all of media.
“The second thing we are is a mass-reach media company. We have almost a thousand radio stations and the iHeart Podcast Network, with just huge numbers of podcasts downloaded each month. When we see places that are growing and expanding quickly, and Fortnite and Roblox are two such platforms, they are becoming mass-reach platforms, and we decided we want to be there with our brand,” Byrne said.
[Related: “Meet Me in the Metaverse“]
Byrne says iHeart reached out to Fortnite and Roblox in the fall of 2021 and began brainstorming about what iHeart would look like on those platforms. Thus dawned the beginnings of iHeartLand.
iHeartLand looks different in the two platforms, Byrne said, with each carrying its “own distinctive style look and feel.”
iHeartLand is more than a token-based economy on Roblox, according to Byrne, though the gaming neighborhood does have iHeartBucks.
For instance, upon arriving to iHeartLand on Roblox, “each user will be given a simple music studio to personalize. From there, users will build their way towards a music empire by harnessing the power of audio and must search the streets of iHeartLand to collect sound energy to deposit back at their studio.”
An iHeart media release continues: “The sound energy powers the studio while generating listeners and iHeartBucks, which are used in-experience to upgrade their studio with cool equipment, playlist programming, studio pets and more.”
iHeartLand minigames on Fortnite include Cranking 90s, Speed of Sound, Leap of Faith and others, according to the promotional material.
“Players can head inside the iHeart building to view a small-scale overhead map of the island to find their way throughout iHeartLand, a broadcast recording studio and iHeart’s famed radio Tuning Tunnel found in its actual New York City headquarters.”
iHeart CEO Bob Pittman recently told Inside Radio: “Tokens finally give us a way to build a really robust loyalty program.”
The broadcaster worked with Atlas Entertainment on development of its Fortnite island and the game development studio known as The Gang Stockholm for its Roblox iHeartLand design.
iHeart hadn’t released public data about the number of visitors to its online digital world as of this writing, but after opening in Roblox on Sept. 14, iHeartLand had generated 1.5 million visits over just a couple of weeks, according to Digiday, an online magazine that reports on digital media.
The demographics for Fortnite and Roblox are very young, according to iHeart, though that audience is getting older.
“For example, when we started building iHeartLand in Roblox, two-thirds of their audience was 16 or younger. That’s incredible — of 200 million Roblox users a month, two-thirds 16 or younger. Now, that has aged up to over 50% of users are over 16. So it’s aging up quickly. We have to program concerts and gaming for the appropriate age group. Not just Gen Z, but Gen Alpha. That makes it a fun challenge.”
Byrne says iHeart hopes to shape the next generation of the metaverse by offering more immersive experiences.
“I think this kicks off a bona-fide new platform for us to eventually successfully monetize. We want to do a lot more concerts. We are also super interested in the metaverse in how it applies to the real world, or augmented realities and of course Web3. There is real power there in how they operate with tokens and currencies.”
Byrne says a cross-department team at iHeart is overseeing the metaverse project, from product and business development to in-house engineering and design teams.
Sponsors of iHeartLand, including State Farm and Intel, are interested in iHeart’s ability to launch cutting-edge innovation with mass-reach media that deliver audiences, Byrne said. “This gives advertisers the ability to crack a new space before their competition.”
Radio World invited Cumulus, Beasley Media Group and Audacy to share their plans for the metaverse.
Cumulus declined to comment on any metaverse plans.
Audacy Chief Digital Officer J.D. Crowley provided a statement to Radio World: “Like all new technology and distribution opportunities in the past, Web3 and the metaverse will both open new opportunities for us to engage with our fans and have the potential to unlock new lines of business.
“Right now, we’re all in a test and learn phase, and we have a number of pilot activations in development, from our events, to brand partnerships, to content distribution. And like with any new space, we’ll see what resonates with consumers and lean in accordingly. The question is not if, but when and how.”
A Beasley spokeswoman said the broadcaster is “currently exploring potential opportunities in the metaverse” but declined to discuss specific plans.
“We see the value and potential opportunity for audiences in the radio/audio industry,” she said.