If you're a fan of podcasts, surely you're familiar with Dirty John, the true-crime podcast series that was the #1 podcast on iTunes for several weeks. Dirty John was produced as a collaboration between the Los Angeles Times and the Wondery, the podcast startup that produced more #1 podcasts last year than any other company, including hits like Young Charlie and Inside the Exorcist

Wondery's latest release is Business Wars, an in-depth look at high-level business competitions between companies like Netflix and Blockbuster and Nike and Adidas. (The first installment, Netflix/Blockbuster, hit #1 on Apple podcasts -- and deservedly so.) 

I talked with Hernan Lopez, the founder and CEO of Wondery, about the idea behind the startup -- and what every podcaster can learn from Wondery's success.

Like the majority of entrepreneurs, you spent time working for a big company before launching your own.

I spent about 19 years at Fox Television running the international channels... but for many of those years, I was a "wantrepreneur." (Laughs.)

I was daydreaming, talking to entrepreneurs, talking to founders of companies we acquired... and I couldn't help but think I wanted to start my own company. 

Over time I had become fascinated by the migration of attention from the big screen to the personal screen. Videos had been done, games weren't something I consumed... and I saw podcasts as a unique opportunity.

Podcasts are a medium that haven't been anything close to fully developed and still have enormous potential -- and don't require consumers to fundamentally change something they're already doing.

Podcasts require zero change in behavior.

What was the shift like, going from running a multi-billion dollar enterprise to running a startup?

Intellectually I knew I had to adjust my expectations and the scale of what I was doing. Before I was running a $3 billion revenue business... and now I was starting from zero. So I knew there would be an adjustment.

I didn't know how big that adjustment would be, though. (Laughs.) 

Plus I had to learn the taxonomy, I had to understand the market drivers... entertainment is entertainment, but podcasts are very different from television. 

Regardless of the potential that exists, the podcast field is already very competitive. How did you decide you could make Wondery stand out?

My TV background made me fascinated by one particular opportunity. Think about the history of television before and after TiVo and on demand -- on demand changed the way people watch TV, but it also changed the kind of television people watched. 

Serialized, complex dramas like Game of Thrones or Breaking Bad were not possible before on-demand existed. The Wire really took off when people could watch on demand.

Radio is similar. Radio is meant to be consumed live, but you couldn't do Dirty John on radio. But you can do Dirty John in a podcast. 

Podcasts dramatically change the kinds of stories you can tell. 

Plus, audio is a much more intimate medium. You're listening, you get immersed, you find yourself identifying with the characters and the subjects... people get to work and sit in their cars and keep listening because they can't wait to find out what happens next. 

That happened to me with the Cold War episodes on American History Tellers. 

Our goal is immersive storytelling. Like with American History Tellers: Imagine you're living in Pennsylvania in 1961. You get a knock on the door. It's the FBI. They ask you questions about your neighbor and whether you think he's a Communist... it really puts yourself in that person's shoes.

You realize it's not just a story -- it was real.  Our goal was to show how events affected not just nations, but average people, too.

We want you to see yourself in our stories.

When you're looking for a new series to produce, what do you look for?

Stories that engage, of course. And storytellers that have a passion for storytelling and know how to connect with their audience in a unique and relevant way.

When we consider whether to bring a podcast on board -- many people have a podcast and come to us hoping to grow their audience and monetize their podcast -- we listen for the four Fs: Frank, fiery, familiar, and fun. 

They don't have to have all four -- but they do need to have at least one of the four.

Then we try to put ourselves in the shoes of the listener. Would I listen? Would I take time away from something else in order to listen to this? Does it stand out? Would I actually seek this out?

So what was it about Business Wars that interested you?

First, the subjects are fascinating. There are millions of people interested in strategy, branding, competitive advantages... and even if you're not in business, you probably are or were a customer of the companies involved.

That's why the first episode is Netflix versus Blockbuster and HBO. Then we'll look at Nike versus Adidas. Those companies are household names, but many people don't know the inside stories behind their successes and failures.

In this case the host is not fiery per se, but he's frank, familiar and fun. And the script is fiery. (Laughs.) Like when Carl Icahn buys shares of Blockbuster and Hollywood Video and pushes them to merge, and then Icahn gets stuck with shares he couldn't sell... and what he does after that is fascinating.

You produce content, but you also help people that want to grow their podcasts. How does that work?

The two main parts of our service are monetization and building audience size. There are 400,000 podcasts listed, and thousands more launch ever month... yet we've had 5 shows reach the #1 slot on Apple podcasts, the arbiter of popularity. We know how to grow an audience. 

But the process starts with understanding goals. Some people want to monetize through advertising. Others want to build a brand and get support through Patreon

Let's talk about  advertising. Do you have suggestions for companies that are considering advertise on podcasts?

First, realize that podcast advertising is 100 percent better than radio advertising.

Start by listening to the ad reads. Would you buy the product based on this ad read? Some podcast hosts are great at ad reads and really make a connection with the audience. Others do not.

Then look at the content of the podcast itself: Does it match with listeners you imagine will be your buyers?

Sometimes the connections are not obvious, though. There are agencies that specialize in buying podcast ads, and they have really honed in on how to identify the shows likely to work for you. They'll give you advice on which shows are likely to be best for your specific product or service.

And keep in mind that it often doesn't matter whether the show has a huge audience or a small audience. Some people get a lot of traction through a collection of small shows, others do well with one show, like Dirty John, that has 3 million downloads per episode.

Bottom line, agencies have found a way to make the ads perform such that you can actually track the results and attribute them to the podcast. Podcast analytics are a very important tool.

Before we started the interview you told me every entrepreneur should be listening to podcasts. Why?

You should listen to podcasts for three basic reasons. One, as a listener. Great podcasts are extremely entertaining. Two, as a potential advertiser.

And three, for research. Many entrepreneurs, and many founders of big companies, get interviewed on podcasts -- and they tend to be a lot more open and forthcoming than they are in a print interview or on television. 

When I was at Fox and I wanted to learn what, say, Vice or Buzzfeed were up to... there were plenty of in-depth interviews that helped me learn a lot about where media was going. 

Want to know what people in your industry are thinking and doing? Listen to the podcasts they're on. They'll tell you.   

It's funny you say that. Your new series Launch is about writing a book.

Three out of five people want to write a book. Clearly you didn't daydream about it, though. (Laughs.)

When we first heard the idea we thought it would be a subject with a narrow audience, but a U.K. survey we found said that 60 percent of people say their top dream is to be an author. Yet few follow through on that dream.

So what does it take to go from daydream to launch? That's what people want to know -- so that's a story we're telling.

Published on: Feb 19, 2018
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