Marshall Lewy, Chief Content Officer of Wondery, first worked with the network as an Executive Producer on Dirty John, the hit podcast about a con man worming his way into a California family, which put Wondery on the map. Since then, Lewy has been a producer on several more, including Dr. Death, Over My Dead Body, and most recently, The Shrink Next Door—a podcast examining the catastrophically dysfunctional relationship between a man and his therapist, whose actual job title might fall somewhere between “hypnotist” and “dictator.”
Wondery has not been immune to controversy. Just over two months ago, the network dropped Sword and Scale—one of the most recognizable crime podcasts out there—from their roster, after host Mike Boudet made a (series of) offensive comment(s) that sparked a public outcry. All the same, in the mercurial and often chaotic podcast industry, Wondery’s investigative miniseries have become something of a constant, as the network becomes increasingly well known for polished and precise audio journalism. CrimeReads reached out to Lewy for a wide-ranging conversation on true crime, Wondery’s growing library, and the future of podcasting in a world that can’t stop changing.
Emily Stein: In terms of the broader context of true crime or investigative journalism podcasts, is there a void in that space that you’re wanting to fill when you put a new podcast together? Something that you haven’t seen done in other true crime podcasts? Or on the flip side of that, is there anything you’ve seen other similar podcasts do that you specifically want to avoid?
Marshall Lewy: We are trying to tell stories where the crime at the heart of it says something about the way that humans interact with each other. And in the case of something like Dr. Death or Gladiator, it’s also an institutional failing that’s happening—or larger questions that everybody can relate to.
With Dr. Death, one of the things that we talked about was how this can’t just feel like a slasher story, where this guy butchers patient after patient and there’s no larger purpose. It’s about the failure of the medical system to stop someone so egregious, and about why he did what he did. With Over My Dead Body and Dirty John, it was about personal struggles that hopefully everyone can relate to: Whether it’s family or relationships and love, we put our trust in other people.
One of the things we try to do maybe a little differently from a lot of true crime podcasts is to go beyond exploring the crime and the mystery. We think of it in terms of—what other genre is it as well? Is it a psychological thriller? Is it a soap opera? We’re talking about real people’s lives, and we’re very mindful of that in our journalism. But as far as how we’re delivering or conveying the story, I think we’re trying to give people the chance to connect with it on a human, emotional level as well—not to just play detective.
The other thing we do is, the podcast is not about how the reporter uncovered the story. I think because of the crazy success of Serial, that’s become the kind of template that a lot of true crime is built on. I like those shows, but we try to do something different. In a movie, the director doesn’t come out and start the movie by explaining how he was going to make it —“We tried to shoot at a real jail, but the jail wasn’t available, and so we went here”—and we don’t do that either. We just jump right into the story. That’s what we worked on with Matt: Rather that start with, “Here’s a murder, this is who died, and I went to uncover it,” we started from the beginning—with Dan and Wendy meeting—and built it from there.
Stein: In a bonus interview of Over My Dead Body, Matt Shaer said that because of the people at Wondery, he learned how to ask the right questions in a way that would get answers that are stories, instead of just “yes” or “no.” What’s your approach to get those kinds of conversations going?
Lewy: We work with a lot of print journalists, from Chris Goffard on Dirty John through Laura Beil and Matt Shaer and others, and it is a very different way of asking questions—because print reporters are sometimes asking questions to simply confirm or deny information, and then they can spin the way the story is told in the script. In audio journalism, it’s like, “Pics or it didn’t happen.” If you want to convey what happened in a scene, it’s important to get the person who’s telling the story to speak as much as they can in scenes and reflections. This is what audio journalists do so well in This American Life: “Tell me what happened. Put me in the shoes, walk me through the space.” You’re working with these incredibly successful reporters in the print space. They’ve been doing it one way for decades, and all of the sudden you’re asking them to do it a different way.
Stein: I think that’s one of the aspects of podcasts that feels so vibrant—it’s all audio, so you can’t always rely on the sorts of cues and filler lines that you may be able to in other media.
Lewy: Right. And we do use sound design more than others and create scenes, so we can do that—but our preference is to have the details told in the interviews.
Stein: Wondery does seem to pay more attention than a lot of other networks to sound design and music. I saw that you recently closed a licensing deal with Universal Music Group.
Lewy: We’re really excited about the partnership, because we’re going to be creating a couple of podcasts built around music with them. There are so many great stories. And it just came out in an Edison Research study that some of the largest demand for new podcasts is in the music space.
Now we’ve got some ideas with [Universal], and are digging through other great music story ideas—including some that have a crime angle to it, and some that are just more “making-of” type ideas. But their roster of artists is just ridiculous. To be able to work with the artists they have and the music that they have across all these different eras is a really cool opportunity.
Stein: Things are changing really quickly in podcasting, even just in the past few months. Spotify has bought Gimlet, Anchor FM, and Parcast, everything’s being adapted for TV, and pay models are changing with platforms like Luminary. Some people are getting anxious about pay walls in particular, and feeling like these changes might end up cutting out indie podcasters who aren’t well known—because people aren’t going to shell out money for a platform that only has people that they’ve never heard of. How do you view all of these changes that have been happening so rapidly? And what do you think they say about the future of podcasting?
Lewy: Yeah. I honestly don’t know the answer. [Laughs] But I agree with your premise, which is that a lot is changing really quickly, and that there’s this renewed interest in the space. And I’ve seen it as well. Certainly compared with 12 months ago, and 6 months ago, and even since the new year, it’s constantly changing. We’re based in LA, and new people in the film and TV space are paying attention to podcasts and wanting to create them.
But also you have things like Luminary, who are spending a lot of money to create these new, exclusive podcasts with proven talent inside and outside the podcast space. And whether people are going to choose to pay for those podcasts or not, I don’t know.
For us, we’re not a platform; we’re just a publisher and producer of podcasts and we distribute our podcasts everywhere. And we create sometimes podcasts exclusively for a platform, like we did the new seasons of Hollywood & Crime and Locked Up Abroad for Luminary. It doesn’t really affect us in our day-to-day, but we’re rolling with it in a lot of little ways. We’re just making the best shows that we can.
Stein: As someone who works in true crime, you’ve probably had conversations before with people who don’t like true crime, or who have issues with it—either the whole idea of it, or maybe they’ve been turned off by certain podcasts or certain personalities within the true crime podcasting world. Do you have a response to people who maybe have qualms about true crime? Or do you just feel like it’s okay to not reach everyone?
Lewy: I honestly have some of those same concerns about true crime. That’s why we try really hard to make sure that the podcasts that we’re creating are very accurate, for one thing. Even though we are telling it in a dramatic fashion, all of the podcasts have been extremely accurate, and we’ve worked with the Boston Globe Spotlight team, and Christopher Goffard is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, and now we’re working with Joe Nocera at Bloomberg Businessweek for our new one. We’re working with these amazing journalists.
While yes, there’s a crime at the heart of the story, I honestly don’t think of them as true crime. And that can sound sort of pretentious, but just in the way that we’re tackling them creatively, we’re not thinking of them that way. Yes, there’s a certain degree of exploitation in the sense that people are taking in these stories for their own interest, not for professional reasons, so there’s that. But I would hope that any one of our shows that they’re listening to, they’re getting something else out of it as well.
Stein: I also feel like “true crime” is such a broad umbrella. I can find that frustrating, when people try to characterize the entire field.
Lewy: I guess I do sometimes find it disingenuous when people act as though what they’re doing is so high-minded, and try to deny that they’re trying to get people to listen to their podcast. Whatever reason they’re telling their story, they have a personal interest in reaching a big audience with this true story that they’re telling.
Stein: Yeah. You know how people say that some writers are “writing for the drawer”—I don’t think that a lot of podcasters are podcasting into the void.
Lewy: For the drawer?
Stein: Podcasting for the drawer.
Lewy: Could be a name for a podcast. Podcasts for the Drawer.
Stein: Yeah, actually. New project. So is there anything you can tell us about Wondery’s plans for what’s next?
Lewy: We have four more of our investigative miniseries coming out this year, and our new one is called The Shrink Next Door. It’s a partnership with Bloomberg and Joe Nocera, a great journalist. It is a crazy story, but nobody dies. It’s about a therapist who controls and manipulates one of this patients for 30 years—I don’t know if that qualifies as true crime.
Stein: Whoa. That’s fraud, right? So that’s a crime.
Lewy: Yeah. With Over My Dead Body, we’re releasing two episodes specifically about the Prodfather.
Stein: Which I know is how Over My Dead Body came to be—that Matt Shaer started investigating this violent Jewish rabbi known as the Prodfather. That’s a really wild story.
Lewy: Yeah. It’s crazy. That was fun, and then we’re continuing Over My Dead Body, to follow the Markel murder trial, which is in June.
Stein: Are you going to have a whole other series devoted to the trial? Or are you going to have update episodes, like with Dr. Death?
Lewy: We’re not going to have a whole other season. Depending on what happens—because it could go a few different ways—we will definitely be covering it, and having bonus or update episodes. And in the fall we’ll be working on our next season of Over My Dead Body, which will be an entirely new story.
Stein: People pushed to their limits.
Lewy: That’s right. I don’t think we’re ready to talk about what it is, but it’s another wild story. Not a married couple, but people who are pushed to their limits so much that one of them wants to kill the other.
Stein: Wow, yeah. I love how that doesn’t even narrow it down.