Q&A with Will Pearson ‘01, COO, iHeart Podcast Network
Pearson discusses his journey into podcasting, shares insights on the industry, and sheds light on how his company has adapted to remote work during the pandemic.
The following interview is from the March newsletter of the alumni network DukeJournos.
You made a career switch in 2017, moving away from your 15-year role as president of the online magazine Mental Floss to begin work in the podcast arena. Was it difficult to pass on control of Mental Floss—a platform you launched from your Duke dorm room with fellow Dukie Mangesh Hattikudur that has since grown to reach 1 billion readers with more than 19 million viewers per month across the site? What ultimately made you decide to move on to something different?
So, in 2011, Mangesh and I actually sold Mental Floss after running it independently for a decade. We felt like it was time to give it an opportunity to go to another level, as part of a bigger company that could invest in some new things like creating board games or a video division. We stayed with the company afterward for a couple more years, so your timeline is correct, but we always told ourselves we wanted to keep doing this as long as it felt like a start-up and, whenever it started to feel like a company that was established and running itself, it would be time for us to move on.
In 2016, we started feeling like it might be time to think about what to do next. We were prepared to go our own separate ways and do new things, but then were approached by a company called Stuff Media (home of “How Stuff Works”) about coming on board to help them spin off their podcast division. At that point, there were 15–20 podcasts in the “How Stuff” family. We helped them grow, launch several new shows, and then, a year later, had the opportunity to sell it to iHeart. So, back to your previous question, leaving Mental Floss was much less difficult or emotional than I thought it would be. We missed the people, of course, but felt like it was time. Mangesh and I were excited to try something new together.
You have now been producing a podcast with Hattikudur for four years—“Part Time Genius”—in partnership with “How Stuff Works.” This is in addition to your role as Chief Operating Officer of the iHeart Podcast Network. What drew you to podcasting?
I had never produced a podcast before. I was not a huge podcast listener at that point either, but I was very intrigued by the idea of the medium. Also, Mangesh and I wanted a bit of a break from the leadership role of managing teams and building a business. We wanted to just jump in and have fun with this podcast opportunity—maybe it would be a 6-month thing, maybe a year, and then we’d take on more responsibility at the company. It was several months before we got involved in any larger capacity. He got involved in a content development role. I got involved in general business strategy. At this point, we really rarely get to record our podcast “Part-Time Genius.” When we do, it feels like a break or even a therapy session to just create something together.
Your podcast “Part Time Genius” spans some pretty humorous topics. Some episode titles include: “What’s the correct way for a queen to eat a banana?”, “Did a volcano eruption really help invent the bicycle?”, and “Things for rich people (that were originally for poor people).” To date, which episode was your favorite to produce?
That’s a tough question. Early on, it was really fun to just pose these weird questions to each other. I love the ones where the answers are surprising and challenge traditional understandings of how things work, like, “To what extent does working out really help you lose weight?” But I also really love the silly ones like “Will we ever be able to live without sleep?” and just trying to understand the basics of that.
What does the role of Chief Operating Officer of the iHeart Podcast Network actually entail? What does your day-to-day look like? What are your favorite and least favorite parts of the job?
I’ll start with the fun part. I feel like I get the best of both worlds in the sense that I love the startup feel, but I also work in the startup part of a much larger media company that has been around for a while. iHeart radio has been here for decades, but this podcast division just came on board and is rapidly growing, moving a million miles per hour. I love developing new show ideas we are going to launch.
What unique challenges has the COVID pandemic presented to the work you do and how has iHeart as a company been approaching the challenge?
The obvious challenge is that we had 100 shows, all recording in studios everyday, and to suddenly have to do that remotely was a major undertaking. Many of these shows have co-hosts used to being in the same room and having that in-person interaction. They had to quickly pivot to producing via Zoom.
I was blown away by our team’s ability—the producers deserve all the credit in the world—to be able to respond to the issues posed. It’s not just a matter of shipping equipment to all the talent, it’s a matter of shipping and then coaching them all on how to use it… and, frankly, being their therapist and helping them through it and letting them know they are going to be okay. We were able to see a whole new side of the producers; their empathy and resourcefulness in helping all this talent really shone through.