From Pitch to Finish: “Local Stories, Global Audiences” with Wondery at the Hot Docs Podcast Festival Showcase
Returning to Toronto for my first post-pandemic visit to Hot Docs for this year’s 30th anniversary celebration (April 27-May 7) was well worth both the (red-eye) trek and (three-hour) time zone change. Besides getting my spring sneak peek at some of the best documentaries likely to land at a US fest/theater/streamer this fall, I was able to experience the added bonus of an inaugural festival within the fest: the Hot Docs Podcast Festival Showcase.
In addition to five live events at the Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema—including buzzy evenings with the Radiolab guys, the Scamfluencers ladies, and the ubiquitous Kara Swisher—the Hot Docs Podcast Festival Showcase dedicated May 3-4 to six podcast-centric panels and masterclasses at the gorgeous TIFF Bell Lightbox (a cinema treasure built on donated land long-owned by hometown hero Ivan Reitman and family). Experts from Jazmín Aguilera, Head of Audio for the LA Times, to Renan Borelli, Deputy Audience Director for Audio at the NY Times, to Arif Noorani, Director of CBC Podcasts, took the stage over two jam-packed days to provide both insight and guidance into navigating a too-often opaque, still-evolving podcasting world.
And one of these hour-long discussions, “‘Local Stories, Global Audiences’ with Wondery,” featured a trio of international panelists who certainly knew a thing or two about locating the universal in the niche. Wondery is the (currently) Amazon Music-owned audio storytelling entity behind such true crime juggernauts as Dr. Death, Over My Dead Body, The Shrink Next Door, Scamfluencers, and many more. (No word on whether a podcast about the company’s original founder, former head of Fox International Channels Hernan López—convicted back in March of participating in a FIFA-involved bribery scheme to secure exclusive World Cup broadcasting rights for 21st Century Fox—is in the works.)
Scandals aside, Wondery has also burnished its brand with more uplifting fare (i.e., chat pods like SmartLess and How I Built This)—which might leave many an aspiring podcaster to wonder what exactly Wondery is seeking when it comes to future content; not to mention what the organization’s stated “local to global” priority even means. Fortunately, these were some of the first questions broached by panel moderator Kasia Mychajlowycz, an audio producer/journalist and special projects producer at The Globe and Mail, to her two Wondery-employed interlocutors, Jessica Radburn (Head of International Podcast Content) and George Lavender (SVP of Content). And both were happy to expound in detail. (Perhaps too much detail at times, to be honest. As the speakers valiantly strove to stress the necessary equilibrium between the global and the local, the bigger picture and the specific story, I couldn’t help but recognize an odd sort of Goldilocks vibe coursing through the insightful conversation.)
For Radburn, it’s important that a story be deeply enmeshed in local nuances, while also possessing "universal themes" that can be unlocked (through story structure, etc.). In contrast, “global to global” refers to a show that reaches multiple audiences from the outset—which often means connecting through a known IP or a talent with a worldwide reach. Lavender agreed, but cited his own preferences by referencing the great Miyazaki, who says that stories need a “low and wide entry point, and a high and purified exit.” This led to an in-depth discussion about Who Killed Daphne?, Wondery's podcast about the murder of the Maltese journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia. That story actually came to the company through journalist (and host) Stephen Grey, who’d already spent years investigating the murder (and thus had relationships with Daphne's family and friends). He’d even collected quite a bit of audio along the way. Though it was the first serialized podcast for Grey, a British investigative journo and special correspondent for Reuters, the tale was one he knew on an intimate level. (Lavender also made note of the fact that he especially enjoys working with storytellers like Grey, who crisscross between mediums.)
After playing a clip from Who Killed Daphne?, Lavender went on to explain that the “low and wide entry point” is the character and plot, while the “high and purified exit” involves power and corruption. Radburn in turn stressed that the work is not just “entertainment,” but is thoroughly fact-checked, with the rigors of journalism itself on transparent display throughout the series. Mychajlowycz then pointed out the very specific politics that were likewise on display. How does a storyteller take a country’s unique customs global? she wondered. Indeed, a US audience probably wouldn’t understand the parliamentary system, Lavender ventured—which meant that that aspect had to be made simple and clear. Which also led to the team debating how important this was to even highlight. Does the parliamentary system really need to be explained for the average American to connect to the story? After all, as a listener, you don’t need every last piece laid out in black and white. (Which led Radburn to mention that she’d tried to find a Dr. Death-type tale in another country, with no luck. Universal healthcare safety nets failing is just not the same story.)
As for pitching, Mychajlowycz was curious to hear what each of them thought was the one thing any potential podcaster should know. Surprisingly, Radburn cited the openness at Wondery—emphasizing the fact that they’ve even developed stories from tips. No “flashy decks” required, she proclaimed. While Wondery tends to commission projects that can sustain for 6-8 episodes, they are always open to “disruption.” For his part, Lavender added that the “low and wide entry point” is important to the pitch—as is who is telling the story. What is the storyteller’s actual connection to the tale?
That said, there can be varying degrees of development throughout the production process, and the storyteller doesn’t necessarily need to have a fixed ending. (Lavender very much enjoys shaping stories as they unfold.) Though knowing your characters, plot, and theme is always essential. (As is knowing what shows Wondery has already done—so you don’t pitch anything resembling them!) Radburn pointed out that a variety of audiences love “topical chat shows,” before cautioning against saying “it’s for everyone.” She believes one needs a sense of who the podcast can be for—which will affect tone, etc.—but warned against being too broad to start with. That will only serve to water down a project.
To avoid “problem pitches,” Lavender stressed that finding balance between the plot, characters, and "larger idea” is crucial. He often gets pitches with riveting protagonists or plots that don’t go anywhere, or just one grand idea with no intriguing characters. Radburn noted that she quite dislikes pitches that resemble “thin magazine articles,” and television projects that fell apart and are now being teed up as podcasts—without any reworking to fit the audio storytelling medium!
Moving on to the Q&A portion of the panel, an audience member inquired about providing “care” to your local characters once a podcast is released to the wider world. Lavender suggested tailoring support according to the needs of each individual project, though broadly speaking, to ensure that no one is surprised. Participants have to be kept informed every step of the way, right down to where the story is going—even if the team doesn’t know. (In that case, let the characters know you don’t know.) Mychajlowycz added that you shouldn’t put anything into your final product that you haven’t already addressed with your characters; ask the difficult questions and then patiently give everyone the opportunity to respond.
Likewise, all participants should be apprised of the tone, and how the story itself is being framed. Radburn brought up Harsh Reality’s main character Miriam Rivera, a trans woman who was a contestant on a Bachelorette-style UK series that used her gender identity as its “twist.” The Wondery team chose to seek the maximum possible input not only from the folks they interviewed, but also from the audience. Radburn then pointed out that journalistic ethics also differ by country. For example, in Japan you have to respect entities like corporations, which means soliciting input on scripts (even if you don’t ultimately take that advice).
When another audience member asked about navigating the main topic versus various “rabbit hole” threads, Radburn replied that her teams sometimes wrestle with adding in through-lines, which tend to feel contrived if they’re not organically connected from the start. She cited the trend of weaving climate change into stories, which doesn’t always work. Lavender added that it’s helpful to share your own perspective on the story. (“Surprise us,” he also urged.) That said, if everything is crystal clear from the very beginning it’s usually a sign that something is missing. Having one’s worldview or perspective shift is a plus.
In closing, Radburn brought up another shift - to in-home listening, especially since the pandemic; though this varies by region. In Mexico, there’s a lot of co-listening with families, while Americans and Canadians tend to consume content in cars. (So make sure your sound effects don’t lead to distracted driving!) While this hasn’t really changed Wondery’s approach to distribution, they are experimenting with a pivot to video in certain countries (Brazil being one). Lavender noted that knowing the habits of listeners is likewise crucial. You have to always put yourself in the audiences' shoes. Essential advice for podcasters, and also storytellers of every stripe.
Lauren Wissot is a film critic and journalist, filmmaker and programmer, and a contributing editor at both Filmmaker magazine and Documentary magazine. She also writes regularly for Modern Times Review (The European Documentary Magazine) and has served as the director of programming at the Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival and the Santa Fe Independent Film Festival.