Listen Up: How Wondery Brought Studio-Style Scale to Podcasting

A giant in the world of podcasting needs a “sonic signature.”

So when the prolific publisher Wondery decided it was time to brand its product by establishing an unforgettable signature, its leaders hired the creative-design firm, Made Music, behind the iconic static-screen clip that opens every HBO show. Wondery CEO Jen Sargent recalls that the branding exercise in 2018 helped the company fine-tune its vision of what Wondery podcasts should deliver to listeners.
“Imagine six or seven of us sitting in a room and asking ourselves, ‘Does this sound like wonder to you? Does this sound like wondering?’” recalls Sargent.

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The efforts proved to be time well spent. Since Wondery’s launch in early 2016, podcasting as a medium has seen its listener base skyrocket. Wondery has blossomed into one of the largest producers of popular, recurring podcast series including “SmartLess,” a freewheeling conversation hosted by actors Jason Bateman, Sean Hayes and Will Arnett.

Owned by Amazon since February 2021, Wondery made its mark in a crowded field by bringing a Hollywood-studio process to crafting shows, nurturing hosts and honing a brand identity. The emphasis on producing recurring nonfiction series — including “American Scandal,” “Business Wars,” “Redhanded” and “Scamfluencers” — in large volume every year helped turn Wondery shows into addictive, binge-worthy pleasures for listeners. (Subscribers pay $6 a month for the Wondery+ service to hear episodes early and ad-free.)

In short, Wondery brought the TV experience to podcasting, without losing what is unique about the audio-only format. It builds on radio’s theater-of-the-mind milieu with wildly creative sound- design techniques. “We set out to do Hollywood-style storytelling,” Sargent says.

To get there, Wondery’s creative team considered pretty much everything about how to harness what’s unique about audio storytelling to make its series compelling to the ear. How many voices are too many for a single episode? When does a listener hit cognitive overload? How can subtle musical cues pace the storytelling? What are the sonic tools and tricks that prevent the deadly boring, monotone sound quality of a public radio documentary?

The volume of podcast downloads from the top 10 publishers rose 105% from September 2018 to September 2023 to more than 1.1 billion, according to podcast research firm Podtrac. And Wondery has been unusually fortunate to field shows that were adapted into TV series, including true-crime tales “Dirty John,” “Dr. Death” and “The Shrink Next Door.”

But at its core, Wondery is focused on creating content that is successful foremost as a podcast. It ranks among the top five podcast publishers in the country. In September 2023, Wondery’s shows amassed a total audience in the U.S. of 22 million listeners. The company accounted for more than 166 million podcast downloads or streams, making it No. 2 for the month behind iHeartMedia’s podcast platform, which had a U.S. audience of 32.6 million listeners for the month and more than 387 million global downloads or streams.

Source: Podtrac
Source: Podtrac

“Wondery has played a significant role in the emergence, several years back, of podcasting as a new entertainment medium,” says Steve Boom, who oversees Wondery in his role as Amazon’s VP of Audio, Twitch and Games. “We saw podcasting emerging from being a talk-radio replacement to a really immersive entertainment medium based on original storytelling.” The Wondery team “impressed us with how they thought about podcasting. We recognized that ultimately this can become a very valuable place for the creation of IP.”

When Wondery began, the media world was abuzz with the success of “Serial,” the investigative podcast from the “This American Life” team. “Serial” had all the ingredients to drive media-savvy consumers to explore a new medium that was readily available on their smartphones. Released in October 2014, “Serial” delivered a captivating true-crime tale that sought to exonerate a Baltimore man, Adnan Syed, who had been convicted of murdering his former girlfriend in 1999. Pop culture buzz built steadily over the weeks that its 11 episodes were released, building up to a finale that made the case for Syed’s innocence.

“Serial” was a catalyst for Wondery’s founder, former Fox TV executive Hernan Lopez, to pursue his vision of creating a podcast network that would offer dozens of titles, both acquired properties and originals produced in-house. (Lopez stepped down in 2021 after he was indicted on federal bribery charges related to his work at Fox prior to starting Wondery. He was convicted earlier this year, but in September a judge threw out the conviction for insufficient evidence. Lopez has steadfastly maintained his innocence.)

But as Wondery’s management team and strategic blueprint came together in 2017 and 2018, it became evident that podcast properties like “Serial” and Wondery’s hit series “Dirty John,” taken from a Los Angeles Times feature about a dangerous serial romance fraudster, were few and far between. For podcasting to become a regular part of consumers’ lives, new titles had to be released on a more frequent basis. So Wondery specifically sought to carve a lane that elevated podcasts beyond the interview-based format of so many host-driven shows, but that could be produced in a timely manner. A wider range of content, similar to the soup-to-nuts offerings on the traditional cable TV dial, gave Wondery the volume and circulation it needed to function well as a subscription platform and as an ad-sales vehicle for Madison Avenue.

“We look for stories with a beginning, a middle and an end. We don’t attempt to do ‘Game of Thrones’ for podcasting because you couldn’t keep the voices straight in your mind,” says Sargent, who joined Wondery in 2018 as chief operating officer and was upped to CEO after the Amazon sale. “You couldn’t keep the characters straight. There’s just too much cognitive overload with trying to do something like that in audio form. So we think about what the listener experience is going to be. How do we introduce this story and get them into it right away with a strong cold open? One success led us to try a little more and a little more.”

One of Wondery’s trademarks is the multi-episode documentary or historical look-back series in which the host or pair of hosts provide all of the character voices. On paper, that sounds confusing, but in practice it works, even with male hosts embodying female characters and vice versa. The contributions from Lindsay Graham (not the U.S. senator), who hosts “American Scandal,” and Alice Levine and Matt Forde, hosts of “British Scandal,” take listeners through the story in an entertaining way.

“Podcasts were once mostly chatcasts — a kind of repackaging of the radio format with two people talking at the mic. There wasn’t really a middle ground for something that was well made but aimed at a large mainstream audience,” says Marshall Lewy, Wondery’s chief content officer. “We started to create shows that would grab the listener by the heart and the head while also teaching them something.”
The rapid growth of podcast listenership coupled with the intimacy of long-form audio has opened up opportunities for deep dives on subjects that would have previously seemed far too niche for mainstream media.

“It turns out there are a lot of people out there who care about history, ancient and otherwise,” says John Dickerson, the CBS News anchor and chief political analyst. Dickerson is a podcasting pioneer as host of Slate’s “Whistlestop” and “Gabfest” series. “If you have a good story and you put passion and creativity into how you tell it, you’ll find there are people on the other end that will listen,” he said.

The sheer variety of shows that Wondery offers is a big plus for the service, underscoring why scale was important to building the company as a podcast destination. The service produces hundreds of new episodes every year.

“We have a really broad cross-section of listeners,” says Nicole Blake, Wondery’s head of franchise development. “What’s amazing is that it’s never one thing that gets people to listen, it’s the combination of things that we have to offer. This team has created something that is incredibly special to our users.”

An early revelation was that slices of history both obscure and legendary, both recent and old, were ripe for revisiting in this format. “American Scandal,” for one, has reported on everything from how DuPont covered up a 1970s environmental disaster to more widely known incidents such as the Cuban missile crisis and the Patty Hearst kidnapping. “British Scandal” has taken a look at the indecency trial of Oscar Wilde and the contemporary transgressions of Boris Johnson’s administration. History professors might scoff at the Reader’s Digest approach, but listeners love it.

“We’ve found that these narrative-style shows with only one or two voices really helped drive the storytelling,” says Lewy. “Instead of dry recitations explaining something like the history of Ellis Island, we’ll start with a host saying, ‘Imagine you’re on a boat with hundreds of other people …’ and we sound-design to build on that.”

It’s a heady time for Wondery as it firmly settles into the Amazon-verse. The parent company’s enormous global footprint is a big benefit to helping Wondery attract subscribers. The resources of a business with a market cap of $1.4 trillion will also go a long way toward helping Wondery expand significantly with local-language podcast production in overseas markets.

Steve Boom emphasizes that Wondery is a strategic asset for Amazon as an advertising sales platform and a complement to the original TV series and movies offered by Amazon Prime Video. “Amazon is a really big advertising company these days,” Boom says. “Podcasting is a great opportunity there. They’re still a relatively small market segment today, but we’ve seen how quickly things can grow. We see it as core to having a successful [streaming] service.”

Sargent sees Wondery’s business growing nicely along parallel tracks that reinforce each other. It’s a business that rises or falls on the quality of ideas and execution rather than the budget. “What’s special about it is that you can produce podcasts faster than other forms of media,” she says. “When we find an audience — and those audiences rival TV now — then we can say, ‘OK, let’s turn this into a TV show or a book or a consumer product line or a live-event experience.’”

Nonetheless, every conversation with Wondery, or with Amazon executives involved in podcasting, seems to be buttoned by a promise that the company’s core mission is to invest in podcasting as a vibrant medium unto itself.

“We think audio first: How valuable can we make the IP in the audio form itself? And then we can take it to the next level,” Boom says.

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