The podcast landscape is crowded, to the point that even smart kindergarteners wonder whether anyone’s listening to most of these people talk. But there are also the breakout podcasters who draw enormous audiences, cash in with sponsors, and expand their podcast into other mediums. Wondery, the 2-year-old podcast producer and network founded by former Fox International CEO Hernan Lopez, has the formula for repeated breakout success. We covered five of the company’s noteworthy series in a recent story. And we became intrigued by the Wondery development team’s knack for finding and producing great stories in heavily covered areas.
Recently ClearVoice got a chance to connect with Hernan Lopez and discuss his methodology. He didn’t share all his secrets, but he did give some simple yet crucial strategies. Everything starts with his belief about which of the five senses has the most direct connection to emotion. We’ll let you guess which one that is. (Hint: If you’re a podcast junkie, you already agree.)
Story-hunting: characters + connection = compelling content
Everyone thinks they have a good podcast idea, especially in the business arena. What makes you as a potential production partner/distributor/promoter perk up and say, “Yes, this is an idea that stands out from the pack?”
At Wondery, we’re looking for the visionary creators who know not only what the story is, but what the story is about – and why it is relatable to a large group of people.
What is a mistake that you see business people, particularly marketers, make when they are developing and pitching podcast content?
Too often, you see them tell a story but fail to describe the characters and bring them to life.
Does your team have a lot of conversations with people in podcast-heavy fields that haven’t traditionally been considered fertile story-hunting ground by the entertainment business: i.e. scientists, life coaches? Is that how you scout for shows, or do you let agencies and production partners scout?
Wondery is constantly in conversations, and at the heart of each one is a mission of delivering unique content that resonates with audiences across a wide range of genres. Good ideas, regardless of their genesis, are never turned away.
Casting, development and producing: Allow creative instincts to flourish.
What qualities do you look for in a potential show host? Noticeably, they don’t have to be celebrities. If fame isn’t a factor, what sends someone to the top of your list?
Wondery looks for what we have labeled the Four Fs. We look for hosts who are fiery, frank, familiar and fun. That is where we start.
New series ‘This is War’ is hosted by print journalist Anthony Russo.
You produce in-house and you work with external partners. If someone is a partner, how is the process different? Do they have more autonomy?
With Wondery’s partner shows, they fully own and control the content and process of their own show. We can offer them advice and guidance, but we will not tell them what to say or what not to say on the show. Of course, that’s as long as it’s not something extreme.
Wondery’s latest true crime offering, ‘Felonious Florida’, is produced and presented by the South Florida Sun-Sentinel in partnership with Wondery.
Different levels of commitment and involvement
Is there a process for deciding your level of involvement with a new series? Do you ever decide you like an idea enough to distribute it, but not enough to co-produce/finance it?
All of the time. In particular, when there isn’t a potential to develop a show into another form of IP for us, we won’t finance it.
What’s the difference between shows you produce and shows you distribute, in terms of marketing and distribution resources that you put behind them?
What truly makes Wondery unique among all networks is our complete support both for our original shows and partner shows alike. For instance, when we have conversations with the platforms that carry our podcasts, the content of the show comes first — regardless of who made it.
Telling big stories in audio: A close look at two successful Wondery franchises
The Wondery series ‘Business Wars’ deep-dives into epic battles between two behemoth brands at the defining moment in their history.
Your process for producing ‘Business Wars’ is interesting and seems slightly complicated. Could you walk us through it? How do you storify events that are so well covered in media? It wouldn’t seem you can take creative liberties?
Our series script writers are the unmatched subject matter experts, who have already long covered the business war being documented. We rely on them, through their deep knowledge and reporting, to vividly recreate the scenes as they happened.
What’s the creative process for deciding to re-create something versus playing original audio?
Most of the conversations we feature happened in private, so they weren’t recorded. That’s where we rely on the extensive reporting and knowledge of writers and host to accurately recreate them.
How do you search for and cast the journalist/expert who is going to scriptwrite the cycle? If journalists want to pitch you a “big idea” they’ve covered for years, can they?
We’re looking for the people who have done extensive research about the subject matter.
The ‘Inside’ series, produced by Mark Ramsey, follows the behind-the-scenes process of making iconic Hollywood films like ‘Psycho’.
‘Inside’ seems to have garnered more interest from Hollywood than some of the recent big-budget remakes of these classic films. Is that surprising? Why do you think people are so engaged in a topic that’s been covered a hundred ways already?
It’s not completely surprising as sound is where emotion comes from. Sound stimuli, little do people know, are the first to be perceived by the brain, at 0.146 seconds. Then touch at 0.149 and sight at 0.189.
If you want to test the emotional power of sound at home, try watching a horror movie with the sound off. It’s not scary at all. With this behind-the-scenes franchise, it creates an immersive setting that is hard to duplicate. And podcasts listeners are already choosing to engage with the content they select, whether for 20, 30 or even 60 minutes at a time. So while TV or movies have taken additional runs at remakes or behind-the-scenes, it often misses the stimuli first perceived by the brain, and one that is so critical to the genre.