How Wondery Creates True-Crime Podcast Hits Like ‘Dirty John’ and ‘Over My Dead Body’

5 Questions: “We wanted to do something different with true crime: No one dies in the first episode,” chief content officer Marshall Lewy says of the new podcast “Over My Dead Body”

Last Updated: March 7, 2019 @ 1:19 PM

In 2013, a Florida State law professor was killed at his home in broad daylight. As two suspects head to trial this June in what is now believed to be a murder-for-hire, a podcast about the case has already reached No. 1 on the Apple charts and sparked interest across Hollywood.

“Over My Dead Body,” released last month, has become the Wondery podcast network’s third true-crime hit, following the success of 2017’s “Dirty John” and 2018’s “Dr. Death” — which each received more than 20 million downloads in 2018. “Dirty John,” which was adapted into last fall’s Netflix TV series starring Connie Britton and Eric Bana, has been downloaded more than 50 million times in total since its premiere.

That success has led to eight-figure revenues last year for Wondery, the 20th Century Fox-backed company launched by CEO Hernan Lopez, a former executive at Fox International Channels. (A company rep declined to provide more details.) Plans include both the expansion of podcasts as well as the hiring of a development executive to spearhead the filmed adaptation of existing projects, including “Over My Dead Body.”

Wondery’s “Business Wars,” about the world’s biggest business rivalries (think Netflix vs. Blockbuster), is currently being packaged as a series, with the pilot written by “Mad Men” writer Janet Leahy; FX bought the rights to “Gladiator,” about disgraced NFL player Aaron Hernandez; and “Dr. Death,” about the crimes of neurosurgeon Christopher Duntsch, is in development with Universal Cable Productions.

Wondery’s programs range from true-crime to “tentpole” investigative series like “Business Wars” to celebrity podcasts like the recently announced “Getting Along With Justin Long,” with the star of “Dodgeball” and “Tusk.”

According to Wondery chief content officer Marshall Lewy, the five-part season one of “Over My Dead Body” averaged a million podcast downloads per episode. Like “Dirty John,” the breakout-hit-turned-TV-show about a con artist who tricked women into marrying him for money, the first season of “Over My Dead Body” lays out in extravagant detail the life its subjects: Markel and Adelson, whose rocky marriage offers clues into Markel’s untimely death. “Over My Dead Body” is hosted and written by reporter Matthew Shaer and co-writer Eric Benson. Future seasons will investigate other cases of people pushed to their limits

Lewy recently discussed what made “Over My Dead Body” a success, how Wondery works with investigative journalists and the balance between immersive storytelling and factual journalism.

1. Take us through the creation of “Over My Dead Body” to the final product.

Matthew Schaer is a great reporter. He wrote six episodes early on of “Business Wars,” for the season on Nike vs. Adidas. While we were working with him, he came to us with a story about this man Dan Markel, who was murdered after a bitter divorce in what looked like a murder-for-hire plot. Simultaneously, Hernan Lopez and I were thinking of a larger series called “Over My Dead Body.” It would be stories about normal people who were pushed to the limits to the point where one in fact kills the other.

That was about a year ago. Then we brought on a producer and worked with them closely. We worked really hard to get a terabyte of information from the Tallahassee police department. We wanted to speak to people who had never been spoken with before.

We also wanted to do something different with true crime. No one dies in the first episode. That was a decision that we put forward that after “Dirty John” and “Dr. Death,” they’ll know there’s going to be a dead body. Let’s take our time and make sure we are building the world to understand where both of them are coming from.

2. How much input does Wondery give when it collaborates with investigative journalists?

We’re working closely with them. For even most print journalist, the idea of telling a story in audio is a new experience. What might work on the page will not always work on audio. You have to consider the number of characters because of the number of people you can introduce in a story. Even how you interview people and what questions you’re going to hear when it’s for a podcast. That, and we also distribute and market and get the podcast out to the world.

3. What are the advantages of doing an investigative piece like this on audio versus on the page?

Podcasts allow the people who are speaking to be heard completely and more intimately. Both for the person who is speaking and the person listening, they get to understand a person better. In print, quotes are cut up. In TV, you have to get through the story fast. With podcasts, we are in an interesting medium where listeners are willing to dig deep and concentrate. You’re only seeing that in scripted TV. With news, you’re not afforded the time to get to know people.

4. You have a filmmaking background, as executive producer of HBO’s “Project Greenlight.” What kind of insight does that give you when helping to make these immersive stories?

We’re always conscious that these are real people’s stories. We want it to have journalistic integrity and be accurate. But also, like some of the best docuseries that are out there, there’s a certain genre to podcasts. You have to let them know who is the hero, who is the villain. If this was a horror movie, what kind of movie would it be? That’s going to inform the decisions we make.

5. Podcast networks are getting more involved with major corporate brands, including content partnerships. What is Wondery’s partnering strategy?

We’ve done a sponsored podcast with Anheuser-Busch called “Heritage Road” in 2017. We’ve had two custom podcast episodes with brands. “American History Tellers,” we did a custom podcast episode with Lincoln on the history of the motor company. We’re not trying to make a branded agency inside of Wondery — we want to focus on creating our own show slate.

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