Succeeding — realistically — in podcasting’s topsy-turvy world

How Wondery does it, from ‘Dirty John’ to ‘Gladiator’

January 15, 2019
Category: Business & Work

You might think Hernan Lopez is a go-go proponent of podcasts as the future of storytelling. His company, Wondery, partnered with the Los Angeles Times on “Dirty John,” a podcast success that Bravo TV then developed with Eric Bana and Connie Britton. Last week, the Wondery CEO optioned another chart-topping podcast, “Gladiator,” produced with the Boston Globe’s Spotlight team, to the TV network FX.

The Boston Globe’s “Gladiator” podcast. (Photo/Wondery)

Yet another Wondery true-crime podcast, “Dr. Death,” is being developed by Universal Cable Productions. Rival Gimlet Media first produced the podcast “Homecoming,” which became a big-budget, Julia Roberts-starring Amazon Original series. (That journey to Hollywood was chronicled on another Gimlet podcast, “Startup”).

So, should revenue-starved media companies again consider going full throttle into podcasting, counting on secondary sales in TV or film? Not so fast, said Lopez, who had been a longtime FOX executive.

“We’re creating stories that need to resonate and support themselves financially as podcasts,” said Lopez. That statement comes after a year in which Wondery rose from the ninth to the fourth largest podcaster, measured by monthly U.S. audience, according to Podtrac, and after nine Wondery podcasts topped the iTunes top podcast list for 70 days. (The top three are NPR, iHeartRadio and This American Life/Serial.)

Wondery CEO Hernan Lopez. (Photo/Wondery)

Wondery CEO Hernan Lopez. (Photo/Wondery)

Lopez said that if television or any other medium wants to develop a film or TV series from a podcast, that’s gravy, at least for now. The pathway from podcast to video is far from a given, though not as unreplicable as The Ice-Bucket Challenge was to nonprofit fund-raising.

The podcasting world is limited, for now, by the advertising pie, he said. Even with the secondary rights sales and licensing (three Wondery podcasts now are available on American Airlines flights), advertising makes up 80 percent of Wondery’s revenues. The limitations on numbers of advertisers have prompted some outlets to cut back on podcast resources.

Wondery’s cautious approach is sound, said David Schutz, director of content for the South Florida Sun Sentinel and a Wondery partner on the true-crime series “Felonious Florida.”

“Breaking even is not enough,” Schutz said. “Newsrooms have to be careful on what they bite off. If you do it right, it’s going to be expensive. And remember, podcasts are free for listeners.”

For Schutz, the big question is: “How to do you produce one of these things at a reasonable cost and make money off it? We’re still learning.”

Lopez’s L.A.-based company, launched in 2016, has specialized in nonfiction, emotionally immersive stories.

“We found that podcast listeners preferred true stories,” he said. “We tell true stories using the narrative and character-driven storytelling that comes from example. When we are producing ‘Dr. Death’ — yes, we want to get all the facts right, but we want to know who is the hero, who is the antihero, who are the people that people want to listen to?”

Other podcasters have had success with fiction. Gimlet lured Catherine Keener, Oscar Isaac and David Schwimmer to star in its “Homecoming” podcast, and Rami Malek is working on a podcast now. Jessica Biel has produced and starred in “Limetown,” a Facebook show based on a podcast of the same name.

Wondery has sought a unique, identifiable voice in its work, Lopez said, hoping that listeners who liked one of its podcasts would be inclined to listen to another, as moviegoers became loyal to Pixar or Marvel.

What is that style? Not the public radio sound of top Podtrac-rated podcast companies NPR or This American Life/Serial or even PRX/Radiotopia (just behind Wondery at No. 5).

“Our style is very different,’’ Lopez said, “more in common with TV and films.”

A unified style may help in cross-promotion. “Dirty John” listeners became “Dr. Death” listeners, and “Dr. Death” listeners became targets for Bravo’s  “Dirty John” TV series. The TV campaign for “Dirty John” drove other listeners to the podcast that inspired it.

This year will bring another season of “Dr. Death” and new podcasts such as “Over My Dead Body,” a Tallahassee-set series that combines true crime, love and family. That series is launching for Valentine’s Day.

Also back are regular popular podcasts such as “Business Wars,” which show how two businesses vie to dominate; and “Imagined Life,” which focuses on biographies of people, often lonely or different, who grew up to be famous.

Many of the “Imagined” stories have something in common, Lopez said: “Stories of aspiration as a young person being squandered by parents who didn’t understand their true talent.”

Or: Strong and talented women, married to the wrong people. Divorced, their true potential was realized.

A few things Wondery has learned about storytelling have rubbed off on its journalistic partners.

“What we were looking for is how you transform yourself from writing for regular news platforms to that more cinematic platform of storytelling? How do you tell stories in a way that is still true to the facts and truth and is still compelling enough to hold their own in a competitive audio space?” asked the Sun Sentinel’s Schutz .

Schutz said Lopez was useful in helping “Felonious Florida” effectively develop cold opens (or anecdotal leads, in journalese). Lopez stressed that you introduce a key lure in the first three minutes to keep listeners involved. In a way, podcast specialists are teaching journalists all sorts of necessary skills rarely used outside of long narrative writing.

“Journalists, we look for the news nuggets,” said Schutz, entering the third season of “Felonious Florida” with Wondery. “What we’re looking for now like reporters trying to do podcasts, we’re looking for details: How tall was the sign? What was the lighting like? What were they wearing? Did he have facial hair? Did the girl have pigtails? Where was she going?”

To Patricia Wen, head of the Boston Globe’s Spotlight team, working with Wondery changed her way of thinking about the phrase “a good talker.”

I used to think it was like a shallow thing — as if it was about how articulate someone was over the content of what they said. But later, through working with Wondery, I realized it was about someone whose voice evokes emotion and authenticity. They sound real — and believable,” Wen said. “They might stammer or weep. I came to appreciate, far more fully, the power of audio.

“I also learned how you have to simplify your story telling in podcasts — not in a dumbed-down way, but in a way that is more linear and easier to follow. Investigative reporters like to add statistics and charts to bolster our findings, for example, and too much of that can be deadly in a podcast. … It was fortunate that in making ‘Gladiator,’ we got to produce a six-part print series, as well as a six-part podcast, so hopefully we got the best of both worlds.”

Related from Poynter:

What podcasts are teaching traditional reporters

How ‘Felonious Florida’ topped the iTunes charts

In crowded field, some media companies sour on podcasts