Wondery And Their Wonderful Year Of Storytelling

Wondery had an amazing 2018. In their third year of existence, they became a top five publisher of podcasts with just under seven million unique streams and 40 million downloads in December alone. All their hard work was recognized at this weekends iHeartRadio Podcast Awards where they had four different shows nominated for awards in six categories: Inside Jaws for Best Entertainment TV Podcast, Business Wars for Best Business Podcast, Dirty John for Best Crime Podcast, Dirty John and Dr. Death for Breakout Podcast, Dirty John for Podcast of the Year with Dr. Death winning for Most Bingeable Podcast.

And they have no intention of slowing down now. If you believe Wondery CEO and founder Hernan Lopez, they’re just getting started.

“Last year we doubled our audience and revenue and this year our goal is to do it again,” he told me over a Skype conversation. “This year we want to launch six event miniseries. Last year we did three with Dirty John, then Gladiator and Dr. Death. I realize that not all of them may reach the scale of Dr. Death, but we surely are going to give it our best.”

Wondery raised five million worth of capital back in March and that goes a long way towards producing quality podcast content since each of their three big “event” shows had a budget in the six-figure range.

Their accomplishments this year are even more impressive when you consider that the other top companies NPR, iHeartRadio, PRX, and This American Life have been around a decade or more and are all connected to traditional radio. Wondery is fully independent and is just entering its fourth year.

Hernan believes that the results Wondery has achieved are a result of having a distinctive voice and producing stories in a style that’s different from almost everyone else in the podcast space. He says the sound and storytelling style of those other companies have more in common with the traditional radio format while Wondery’s are much more akin to tv or movies.

The use of sound effects in Inside Exorcist and Inside Jaws is very similar to Dirty John and Dr. Death and Gladiator and are unlike any used by any other podcast. Listeners are starting to figure out that a show is a Wondery show even before our sonic logo airs at the beginning of each episode just like a consumer would watch a Pixar movie or a Marvel movie and they can tell which company made it.

A sonic logo according to iHeartMedia “is essentially a musical note or series of notes that captures the essence of your product or company.” And that is exactly what Man Made Music, who helped create the HBO and AT & T sound, have done for Wondery as their sonic logo uses distinctive tones like NBC or Netflix that sets a mood that Hernan says “signals to the consumer that a great story is about to start.”

In that vein, Gladiator is a great story with a style and sound that feels fairly inspired by HBO Films and their epic football coverage that turned recaps of games into epic dramas. In Gladiator, it wasn’t so much about telling a story on the field as it was about all the events that surrounded it. “There are so many parts of the story,” Hernan says.

You realize how many people failed Aaron Hernandez. He was a victim of child abuse, sexual abuse, and CTE but there are so many people who are victims of those things and don’t become a murderer. So we had to portray the complexity of Aaron’s story and the backdrop was the system of professional football that pushes young athletes to the extreme and spits them out when they’re no longer useful.

Wondery has become adept at finding the meat of a complicated story and Hernan certainly doesn’t do it by himself. They have 30 employees and 10 of them belong to the content team most notably, Jeff Schmidt who did the “Inside” series introduced by Mark Ramsay and has been designing their best shows. They also work with other design houses that take the Wondery sound and use it on Wondery shows like Business Wars and American History Tellers with host Lindsay Graham*. (*note: not the Senator). The Wondery style started on day one and Inside the Exorcist and Inside Jaws were among the first shows to bring that style to the marketplace.

But it’s not only the in-house team that finds the ideas that become a story, Wondery welcomes listener feedback and submissions as well. Listeners can submit story ideas right on the Wondery website, and about 10 of them have been used. Most of them don’t have enough detail so researchers dig in to see what else they can come up with, sometimes connecting with a local reporter to see if it fits in with their structure. For an event miniseries, Hernan and the team look for interesting characters or unusual situations that cause the listener to feel a connection and think “I never would have done this.” “Most listeners,” Hernan says, “need to have a point of view of what is happening in the story and how it relates to them.”

Despite all of their success in the podcast field, larger media attention, like a recent New York Times article, has often been focused more on their podcasts that have become tv projects like Dirty John, or more recently Gladiator. Wondery, of course, welcomes the extra attention as it brings more listeners to their podcasts, which is where they’re focused. On a matter of scale, the greater media attention paid to television makes a lot of sense as tv advertising revenue is at 70 billion while podcast revenue by 2020 is expected to reach $659 million. Although podcasting is considered a small player in the greater media industry Hernan is very optimistic about the industry’s future envisioning a time where “some of the larger media companies begin acquiring assets and building production in-house.”

But for now, the former CEO of Fox International Channels for 18 years is more focused on the present and the next great show they have coming up called Over My Dead Body launching on Valentine’s Day.