Companies looking to make a name in podcasting have mostly done so by spending lots of money on flashy names, big acquisitions, and valuable content libraries. But increasingly, the audio itself, and the recording techniques used to capture it, are becoming the selling point.
Today, iHeart Media announced that it’s investing in binaural audio, also known as 3D audio, which effectively places listeners in the room of a recording and makes them feel like it’s happening around them. Listening to a show in 3D audio sounds like you’re in the scene and hearing things exactly as you would in real life because the microphones are often shaped like a human head or a pair of ears. This means the sounds hit your ears as they would normally, a zooming car, for example, might be louder in your right ear and then move to your left as it passes, slowly fading from your right. (The Verge’s audio director Andrew Marino published a ton of 3D audio clips here if you want some examples.)
iHeart is launching an entire slate of shows dedicated to the technique, under the name iHeart 3D Audio. It will feature programs made with Blumhouse Television as well as podcast creator and producer Aaron Mahnke.
The company has built three studios specifically equipped to handle 3D audio recording and employs a team of 12 producers who are trained in capturing binaural audio. By the end of 2021, iHeart plans to have 10 to 12 series produced with the technology, says Conal Byrne, president of the iHeartPodcast Network. The team also plans to host live radio events because iHeart owns hundreds of US radio stations, during which it’ll encourage listeners to don a pair of headphones to enjoy the binaural experience.
“I think a lot more should be in 3D audio than is,” Byrne says. “And so as we look across the slate of shows we have from A-to-Z, across 2021, most of those, there’s a 3D audio version that’s probably better than what [we’re] doing normally.”
Byrne sees the form as a tool for storytelling, sure, but also as a new way for sponsors to send a message — and another way for iHeart to differentiate itself from all the companies looking for brand partners.
“I think 3D audio to make a new kind of a 30-60-two minute ad could really kind of — I’m not going to suggest will reinvent podcast advertising — but could definitely push it further toward immersion,” he says. “So we’re going to offer that.”
iHeart isn’t the only network to harness 3D audio, and creators have been doing so for years. Indie network Paragon Collective has used the technology for some of its narrative shows as well, including The Oyster and Darkest Night.
“What I really like about 3D audio is it just sucks people in, so where I’ll use it a lot now is when a character’s whispering to another one, so you can get in their head, or it makes a huge difference when you’re using these sound effects on 3D audio and the user’s in the middle of the room,” says Alex Aldea, founder and CEO of Paragon.
Binaural could become more popular than ever for a few reasons. For one, it’s more immersive, which is good for getting people to listen and stick through a podcast. It’s also compatible with any pair of headphones, meaning listeners don’t need special equipment or software to enjoy it. And finally, narrative podcasts are booming with many networks looking to gain an audience for their shows and a way to differentiate themselves. If you try 3D audio and love it, you might look for more shows like it.
Another network, QCODE, which makes narrative shows with big-name stars, is looking to take the next step in podcast audio and create surround-sound experiences. The company tells The Verge it’s been mixing its shows in Dolby Atmos. Crucially, no major podcast apps support the standard yet, despite companies like Apple supporting it on their hardware devices, like the AirPods Pro, the HomePod, and Apple TV 4K. QCODE is essentially preparing for a day when podcast app makers are ready to support the standard.
“Creating these environments and this experience is going to be a really new thing, and a really positive one for this type of storytelling,” says Rob Herting, CEO at QCODE. “It’s not to say that it’s a replacement for good storytelling, and you can’t think of it like a gimmick, but I think when used well, it can be really, really impactful.”
Podcasts are increasingly becoming IP machines, or a way to make a story come to life and sell a potential film or TV adaptation. Surround sound and 3D audio are just the next steps in that journey to keep listeners tuned in and make podcasts seem even closer to the experience of watching something on the big screen.