EXCLUSIVE: iHeartRadio is doubling down on original scripted podcasts with a dystopian sci-fi series, The Second Oil Age, that is already being set up for a television adaptation.
iHeart’s podcast chief Conal Byrne tells Deadline about the new series as well as deals with Blumhouse, Shonda Rhimes and Will Ferrell as well as his take on the audio landscape.
The company, which has about 850 radio stations in the United States and carries more than 250,000 podcasts on its iHeartRadio Podcast Network with 750 originals, is producing The Second Oil Age in-house after it was created by Stuff To Blow Your Mind host Robert Lamb.
The Second Oil Age is set in 2186, when humanity’s thirst for oil took them to the bottom of the sea and the threshold of an alien civilization. Through a bargain with a deep-sea species known only as the Tritons, people were able to tap previously unreachable oil reserves. This birthed a new age of fossil fuel dependency: the Second Oil Age, a second chance for a floundering civilization that refused to change. But the demands of the new age have altered the human condition itself.
The story follows Synøve Pan, an agent of UDEX Petroleum, the most powerful organization in the world. They’ve conditioned her to resist the telepathic abilities of the deep sea entities they both depend on and fear. Through her ordeal, she’ll wake to the true threats of division and hatred that threaten the world of the Second Oil Age.
Conal Byrne, President of iHeartMedia’s Podcasting Division, told Deadline that the short-form audio drama drew inspiration from 1990s sci-fi films and weird fiction. “Robert is constantly fascinated by the new genres that podcasting is covering. He is also a devout sci-fi fan, so it was only a matter of time before Robert set his sights on experimenting in the fiction space and, specifically, in the sci-fi dystopian future genre. We are big fans of Robert‘s and true believers in his talent, so as an experiment, we asked him to dream up a futuristic sci-fi world just to see what he would come back with.”
UTA is already packaging The Second Oil Age for television and is in talks with producers to turn it into a high-end scripted series. “Podcasting is an incredibly good medium to test intellectual property for TV and film because you can move quickly and cost-effectively. Plus, you can test ideas in front of audiences at scale to see what resonates and what does not. All that said, our goal here is to first make an amazing podcast series, before all else,” added Byrne.
The former Discovery exec said that fiction will be one of the podcasting genres that booms over the next few years. “We actually think there will be an explosion of high-quality audio drama content in the next few years and this could potentially become one of the dominant genres in the medium. The reason for this is simple, there really is nothing to match the power of the human imagination. The ability of the theater of the mind to kick in and fill out a fictional world is a truly amazing thing and we think that audio drama, or fictional podcasts, will tap into that in a big way.”
He admits that it is a more involved production process than non-fictional content, given the scripting, casting and directing, but that it is “still much faster and more cost-effective than video production.”
The company has recently struck deals with A-list Hollywood creators including Shonda Rhimes, Will Ferrell and Blumhouse Entertainment, which are expected to lead to both scripted and non-scripted content.
“Top tier creators are moving into podcasting for a few simple reasons – the medium allows them nearly total creative freedom, production is cost-effective and fast, and a creator can test ideas in front of audiences at scale to see what works and what doesn’t,” he added. “We can’t wait to see what they launch and our goal is to simply support them in this medium in ways that only we can.”
Byrne said that with 150M downloads a month and 25M unique listeners, the company believes podcasting is a “permanent new way” for audiences to hear new stories. But he admits that the growth of the medium has led to more competition with the likes of Spotify, Luminary, Entercom and Wondery but that iHeart has the scale to compete.
“With more and more podcasts getting launched every day, and the number of creators and listeners exploding year-over-year, it is getting harder and harder for podcasts to get discovered and listened to. That is where we can help. iHeartMedia has one of the only networks with real scale in this medium,” he added.