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Radio Giant, Riding Podcast Boom, Takes ‘Stuff You Should Know’ Global

Three times a week, millions of people who crave detailed explanations of time zones, deepfakes, artificial sweeteners and other trivia listen to the latest episodes of the podcast “Stuff You Should Know.”

Soon, the program — already one of the most popular in the world, with more than a billion downloads over its 11 years — will have the chance to attract an even larger and more diverse audience, thanks to a global expansion planned by its new owner, the broadcast giant iHeartMedia.

As part of the plan, “Stuff You Should Know” and five other podcasts will be made available early next year in Spanish, Hindi, Portuguese, French and German, iHeartMedia announced on Wednesday.

The courting of international audiences is evidence that the booming podcast business sees potential growth beyond English-speaking nations when major media companies have fully embraced a medium that was once the province of independent hosts working out of basements and garages.

For years, iHeartMedia, which operates about 850 radio stations in the United States and has a popular online music app, iHeartRadio, mostly sat on the sidelines of the podcast revolution. Now it is going all in. Last year, the company bought Stuff Media, the studio that produces “Stuff You Should Know” and other shows, for $55 million, and Robert W. Pittman, iHeartMedia’s chief executive, considers podcasts an essential part of iHeartMedia’s offerings.

“We realized that the behavior of this consumer was the kind of behavior we see on radio,” Mr. Pittman said in an interview. “It’s companionship; it’s the human voice; somebody is keeping me company. We think of podcasts as a way for us to extend that companion relationship.”

By some estimates there are up to 700,000 podcasts, many of them amateur productions. But the market is changing as big media companies invest more in the medium, drawn by the advertising revenue brought in by hit shows.

Podcasts generated $479 million in advertising in the United States last year, according to estimates by the Interactive Advertising Bureau, which projected that the market would grow to just over $1 billion by 2021.

Even Mr. Pittman, who began his career as a 15-year-old radio D.J. in Mississippi and still speaks with the confident cadence of a radio announcer, has a podcast: “Math & Magic: Stories From the Frontiers of Marketing.”

The potential revenue brought in by international podcasts will come in handy for iHeartMedia, a company that last month listed its shares on Nasdaq after emerging from bankruptcy with roughly $10 billion lopped off its debt load. Until now, the company’s business has largely been restricted to the United States, although the iHeartRadio app is available in Canada, Mexico, Australia and New Zealand.

The dive into podcasts may be a necessity for a company built on audio. This year Spotify has spent more than $400 million to acquire several podcast companies while signaling that it might buy more. A new service, Luminary, arrived in April with an ambitious plan, backed by $100 million in funding, to be the Netflix of podcasts, with exclusive, ad-free content.

On Wednesday, Entercom Communications, the second-largest broadcast radio company after iHeartMedia, announced that it was buying two podcast companies, Pineapple Street Media and Cadence13.

American listeners helped create the podcast boom, but the medium is expanding rapidly around the world. More than half of Spotify’s podcast audience is outside the United States, the company said. Last month, two podcast companies, Stitcher and Wondery, announced a partnership to capture more advertising in Britain.

“It has always been more global than we thought,” said Tom Webster of Edison Research, which tracks consumer media behavior.

Erik Diehn, Stitcher’s chief executive, said that about 15 percent of the company’s traffic came from outside the United States. Conal Byrne, the president of the iHeartPodcast Network, said that the international popularity of “Stuff You Should Know” was underscored last year when the hosts toured Australia and New Zealand.

The translation plan that iHeartMedia has come up with for its podcasts is a substantial bet on the growth of the medium overseas. To prepare new editions of the shows, it must transcribe and translate scripts and cast voice actors and hosts who can approximate the tone and attitude of the originals, like the low-key, geeky enthusiasm of Josh Clark and Chuck Bryant from “Stuff You Should Know.”

“I wouldn’t quite say we’re looking for the Josh and Chuck of India,” Mr. Byrne said. “But you find really good voice talent — people who don’t just sit there and read a script, but can truly bring it to life.”

The first batch of international iHeartMedia shows comes from the company’s Stuff Media acquisition, including “Stuff You Missed in History Class,” “Stuff Mom Never Told You,” “Stuff to Blow Your Mind,” “BrainStuff” and “TechStuff.”

The process of translating podcast scripts, with their slang and quirky Americanisms, creates an interesting set of problems. Matthew Lieber, the managing director of Gimlet Media, one of the studios acquired by Spotify, said that his company had once considered international versions, but rejected the idea of mere translations or voice-overs as “serving audiences warmed-over American food.”

Once Gimlet Media became part of Spotify, however, it had greater resources. Next year, Spotify plans to introduce German, Spanish and Portuguese versions of “Sandra,” a fiction podcast from Gimlet about the anxious humans behind an Alexa-like voice assistant. The show is set in Guymon, Okla., so its creative team has had to imagine equivalent places in Germany, Mexico and Brazil.

Mr. Pittman, one of the founders of MTV, said that he saw iHeartMedia’s move into podcasting as a necessary measure to stave off disruption by a new technology. He noted that the television business was slow to adapt to the changes ushered in by the rise of cable decades ago and, more recently, by the rise of the on-demand model pioneered by Netflix and other streaming companies.

Looking at podcasts, Mr. Pittman said, he realized: “If this is something the consumer expects from us — it sounds like us, feels like us — then it is something we ought to be doing, too.”


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