'Imagined Life' is changing podcasts as we know it, Wondery's chief content officer Marshall Lewy explains how
Each episode features a prominent personality from our times, and get this, you don't know who the person is until you get to the very end.
Gone are the days when podcasts were just for geeks. Today, different demographics are consistently easing into podcasts talking about everything under the sun. Television biggies have also seen the potential of this rapidly growing industry - Amazon Prime's 'Homecoming' starring Julia Roberts, Bravo's 'Dirty John' starring the likes of Eric Bana and Connie Britton, the upcoming Facebook Watch 'Limetown' starring Jessica Biel to name a few.
However, podcasts can often turn monotonous if not done right. At some point, you get tired of listening to a somewhat audio essay. And that's where 'Imagined Life' comes in.
The first podcast narrated completely in the second person, it effectively puts listeners in the shoes of the subject during each episode. The program is the newest hit by Wondery, a leading independent podcast publisher and creator of tons of fan favorites, including 'Dr. Death', 'Over My Dead Body', and the smash hit, 'Dirty John'. Each episode features a prominent personality from our times and get this - you don't know who the person is until you get to the very end.
We caught up with Marshall Lewy, Wondery’s chief content officer to learn about Imagined Life, if the podcast industry was facing an identity crisis and what it takes to make it.
Why did you pick this type of narrative for the podcast?
We call Imagined Life a "second person biographical guessing game.” We chose this type of format because there’s nothing else like it out there - some of our other shows feature immersive scenes where we ask you to “imagine” that you’re in the shoes of someone else. But this is an entire show where you are in the shoes of another person for the entire episode, and you only discover who “you” are at the very end.
What goes on into the process of choosing your subjects for each episode of the podcast? Why did you pick Martin Scorsese as your topic to kick off the second season?
We want to pick subjects who are universally known, but where there may be aspects to their life that you didn’t know before. And when the listener gets to the end and finds out whose story they’ve been listening to, there’s a strong feeling that you’ve gained a greater appreciation for someone you think you knew all about. Scorsese fell into that category. I also picked him because, as a filmmaker myself, he’s a hero of mine!
Did you guess who "The Handler" was?— Imagined Life (@imaginedwondery) March 25, 2019
We had a few different ideas ourselves! pic.twitter.com/KQtQlCQNG6
Podcasts are listened to more than ever before in the United States according to a recent study today - what do you think brought about that change?
It’s been building for a decade now, and certainly since the explosion in popularity that started with 'Serial.' This year, the number just crossed past the halfway point, so now more Americans listen to podcasts than don’t. I think it’s a type of content that fits with our lifestyle today, where we can access it on our smartphones or in our cars.
What do you think about the trend we saw last year with podcasts being turned into TV shows - Dirty John, Homecoming and the likes?
The storytelling in podcasts — character development, cliffhangers, etc. — lends itself to TV, which is why I think we’re seeing that transition more and more.
With the different demographics easing into podcasts, where do you think the industry is headed? Do you think it’s facing an identity crisis of sorts?
No, I don’t see an identity crisis at all. It’s simply crossing into the mainstream more and more, and there’s still plenty of room for the types of podcasts that exist to grow. We’ve tried to be on the forefront of new formats from the beginning, and want to continue to do so.
There were many critics who felt that Dirty John’s TV adaptation didn’t do justice to the podcast - what do you think the greatest challenge is when it comes to adaptations like these?
I think the truth of stories like Dirty John or Dr. Death can be so hard to believe they actually happened, that the fictionalized version needs to honor that truth (and the people who listened to the podcast), but also not be afraid to change the story for a new medium. Personally, I was a big fan of how Dirty John was brought to the screen.
In an increasingly crowding world of podcasts, how can one set themselves apart?
People are looking for new formats, new voices, higher production quality. Everyone thinks they can have a podcast, but it’s not as easy as it looks. I’d say it’s important to really understand what goes into making a good podcast, to know what else is out there, and to know what is unique about what you’re bringing out into the world.
Are podcasts the new streaming services/the next big thing?
It’s never good to be the “next big thing”! Because that party ends. I like to think of it in terms of how much room that still exists for new podcasts to continue to push and evolve the medium.