Podcast production studio Wondery was founded in 2016, and is best known for shows including Dirty John – recently made into a Netflix TV series – American History Tellers, Business Wars and Dr Death.
Wondery is also one of the biggest independent podcast publishers in the US, with a monthly audience of 7.4 million Americans in March 2019, and 37.5m downloads and streams of its shows globally that month, according to analytics firm PodTrac.
April was also the month when Wondery came onto the music industry’s radar, thanks to the announcement of a partnership with Universal Music Group to develop original podcasts based on UMG’s artists, labels and catalogue.
Chief content officer Marshall Lewy has a firm sense of podcasts’ history. “When Serial came along, it was such an original idea to have a story told serially in non-fiction,” he says. “The podcast boom that you’re seeing now is the same thing that happened when TiVo and DVRs and DVD box-sets came out, and people started watching television differently, and bingeing it.”
“That really changed the way television was made, from stories you could dip in and out of, to things like Arrested Development and The Sopranos where you got sucked in to the whole story.”
He thinks podcasts are doing a similar thing now with their long-form, narrative storytelling, albeit in a format whose rules have yet to be set in stone.
“It’s really an ecosystem that is very much open to new possibilities of storytelling and what constitutes a podcast, in a way that even 12 months ago was not necessarily the case,” says Lewy.
“It was a lot more narrowly defined then: some scripted dramas, a lot of talk-shows, a lot of news programmes and then some investigative stories like Serial or Doctor Death.”
Wondery prides itself on using ‘sound design’ in its podcasts more heavily than rivals, but Lewy says it’s keen to push the format in other ways. One show called Imagined Life, for example, puts the listener in the shoes of a famous person, experiencing moments from their life in the first person – but without being told who they are.
“You might be J.K. Rowling, Elon Musk, Lucille Ball. You don’t know until you get to the end. It’s an immersive, sound-designed 40-minute episode taking you through the life of a person. We’re trying to continue to innovate and keep thinking of new ways to tell stories,” says Lewy.
That’s why Wondery’s partnership with Universal Music is interesting: if the label gives the company its creative head, the resulting shows should be more interesting than pure interview affairs.
Wondery is already engaged with music. “We always have a theme song for our shows, which we license from independent musicians. When Dirty John came out, that was unusual. It offers a level both of polish, but also of something that engages the listener. They’re listening to Dirty John and they’re humming the theme song!” says Lewy.
He admits that it has been more complicated to license music from labels, but is enthusiastic about the prospects for working more closely with an organisation like UMG.
“In a report that came out a few weeks ago, the number one category that listeners wanted podcasts about was music. I wouldn’t have guessed that was the top, top thing, but I love music podcasts like Song Exploder and Disgraceland,” says Lewy.
“There’s a huge opportunity there, and we are really excited about that partnership we have with Universal Music.”
Lewy welcomes anyone who wants to get into podcasts, but also offers a gentle warning.
“A lot of people think it’s easy! ‘I’m going to do a podcast: record myself for an hour a week, upload it, and get millions of listeners’. It’s much more complicated than that. The space is more cluttered now, so differentiating yourself is important,” he says.
“The people who are really invested in this medium are really devoted to making something that works. And this really is its own medium: it’s distinct from radio.”
Wondery will continue to explore the boundaries of this new medium: Lewy is interested in the potential for interactivity through smart speakers, for example. “I’d love to do a game show,” he says, citing NPR’s ‘Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me’ podcast, which has spawned its own quiz for Amazon and Google smart speakers, as inspiration.
Meanwhile, Wondery is also experimenting with premium subscriptions through its Wondery+ tier, which costs $5 a month for early access to shows, ad-free listening and exclusive content.
This interview originally appeared in the Pod Only Knows: What’s Next for Music and Podcasts? report that Music Ally co-published with the BPI. Read our report on its launch event here, and browse our directory of the best music podcasts in 2019.