The key ingredients for a chart-topping podcast, according to executives from the largest independent podcast publisher in the world

Jen Sargent, Wondery COO Wondery
  • Wondery, the podcast production company behind shows like “Dirty John” and “Dr. Death,” spoke with Business Insider about its creative process, from generating ideas to months of production work to final edits.
  • Wondery is known for working with major media outlets like the Los Angeles Times, Boston Globe, and Bloomberg to promote podcasting.
  • The podcast market is becoming saturated, but there’s still room for newcomers, Wondery’s chief operating officer and chief content officer said.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

Podcasting can’t just be a side hustle if you want your show to be a hit, said top executives from Wondery, the largest independent podcast production company in the world.

Wondery launched in 2016 in the early days of podcasting. “Serial” had already paved the way for narrative nonfiction audio, and technology had made podcasts more accessible than ever.

By 2017, Wondery had partnered with the Los Angeles Times to produce “Dirty John,” their hit podcast about the life and crimes of John Meehan that went on to become a Bravo show.

“Dirty John’s success led us to create more and more original Wondery podcasts,” said Jen Sargent, the chief operating officer at Wondery.

Emotional storytelling is one of the most important aspects of a podcast

Not all Wondery’s original podcasts start the same way, Sargent said. Many of its ideas come from inside the organisation, like “Business Wars” and “Imagined Life.” Others come from its news tip inbox, which has led to some of their most successful podcasts like “Dr. Death,” a Wondery chart-topper that started as a tip about a neurosurgeon from a “Dirty John” listener.

“First, we look for great stories,” Sargent told Business Insider. “We look for character-driven stories with a clear beginning, middle, and end.”

Successful audio stories also have to have a limited number of characters, Sargent said, because a “Game of Thrones”-style narrative with multiple characters and stories would be impossible to follow exclusively with sound.

They need to be realistic in terms of access to sources who can give interviews and budget for expenses like travel and licensing rights. They need to be relatable to resonate with a broad audience. And they need to be compelling enough to make them binge-worthy.

“We’re focused on what we call emotionally immersive storytelling,” said Marshall Lewy, chief content officer at Wondery. “Even when it’s a true story, we’ll think about the narrative elements that make it compelling and interesting to the listener.”

Partnerships help a podcast thrive

In addition to the LA Times, Wondery has teamed up with media outlets like Bloomberg, Boston Globe, and The Athletic for shows.

These organisations often provide prize-winning reporters to tell stories with Wondery, but even the best journalists can’t automatically transition to audio storytelling without help.

“Any print journalists who then makes a podcast will tell you it’s a lot different to write for the ear and a lot more work to produce a podcast than they think going in,” Lewy said.

Sargent said Wondery’s partnership with Universal Music Group was the first time a record label teamed up with a podcast. The deal allows Wondery to use licensed music from Universal Music Group, a major step for the podcast industry, as music licensing is often prohibitively expensive.

Wondery has even worked with direct competitors. This past summer it launched a new podcast platform with Stitcher called Podfront to facilitate ad buys.

Wondery is now working with the LA Times’ Chris Goffard, who hosted “Dirty John,” on a show called “Detective Trapp” that’s set to be released in November, Sargent said.

Podcast production time at Wondery can range from less than two months to almost a year

Once Wondery approves a podcast idea, it can take almost a year of investigating, interviewing, writing scripts, perfecting sound design, and more before it’s ready to air, Sargent said.

In rare cases, Wondery can crank out a podcast more quickly. “The Mysterious Mr. Epstein” was greenlit in August when Jeffrey Epstein died and premiered on Oct. 1, less than two months later.

After producers gather content from interviews and scripts, they set the story arc. With true crime podcasts and investigations, the story direction may change even after episodes have aired, so there’s room built in for updates.

Before shows go live, Wondery hosts internal listening events for their employees to gather feedback, Sargent said.

“You just have a voice and sound design and the words to really immerse somebody and bring them in,” Lewy said.

As more professional podcasts enter the market, it’s getting harder for amateur podcasters to grab listeners.

“Ask yourself what is new and different and unique about the podcast you want to make,” he said. “We’ve hit a point where there are so many and it’s getting harder and harder to break through the clutter.”

But the barrier to entry for podcasting is still low and even an amateur podcast can become a hit if it’s emotionally gripping.

“That’s really excited for anyone independent trying to get started,” Sargent said.