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Wondery CEO who built a podcasting powerhouse vows to fight federal corruption charges

Wondery Chief Executive Hernan Lopez and Chief Operating Officer Jen Sargent in the company’s display window in West Hollywood.
(Genaro Molina/Los Angeles Times)
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When former TV executive Hernan Lopez heard the gripping true crime podcast “Serial,” he was hooked. He believed the public radio series was the start of new form of storytelling that would inspire the idea behind his start-up.

Four years after its launch, Wondery has grown into one of the nation’s largest podcast publishers, drawing acclaim for producing compelling audio programs based on real-life stories. Some, like the medical malpractice investigation “Dr. Death” and the true crime story “Dirty John,” which was produced in partnership with the L.A. Times and reported by staff writer Christopher Goffard, have been developed into TV shows.

Now, the West Hollywood business is at a crossroads as it explores a possible sale during a period of rapid consolidation in the podcasting industry.

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Lopez also is facing a legal battle that has clouded his own future at the company he founded. He is among two former Fox TV executives charged with money laundering and wire fraud over alleged bribes involving broadcasting rights to the World Cup and other high profile soccer tournaments. Lopez has pleaded not guilty to the charges filed in March.

“I’m completely confident that when I have the chance to be before a jury, if it ever gets to trial, I’ll be vindicated,” Lopez said in an interview with The Times.

He added that the charges have not changed his role at the company and that he has no intention of stepping down.

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“I poured my heart and my soul into this company that I’ve built from the ground up, and I intend to do that for as long as I can and for many years,” Lopez said.

The podcast industry, once fragmented and scattered with smaller publishers, is now dominated by a few large players. In recent years, Spotify, iHeartMedia and SiriusXM have spent millions buying podcast businesses to beef up their platforms. Last year, Spotify bought the New York-based podcast production company Gimlet Media for about $230 million and recently announced a partnership with Chernin Entertainment to turn some of Spotify’s original podcasts into TV shows and films.

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The competitive climate has made it tougher for smaller independent players like Wondery to survive on their own, potentially making it an attractive target for studios or other companies seeking to expand their content libraries.

“It shouldn’t be surprising that we continue to get approached over the years by companies that just want to directly take us private or make us part of their company [or] funds that want to invest in Wondery to help us continue our growth,” Lopez said.

Wondery executives declined to disclose finances, but they said that the business is profitable and that it has raised $15 million from investors. Last year, after raising $10 million, Wondery was valued at more than $100 million.

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Bloomberg, which first reported on Wondery exploring a sale, said the company could fetch $300 million to $400 million.

Wondery has had discussions with companies including Sony, according to two people familiar with the matter who declined to be named because they were not authorized to comment. Other potential buyers could include Spotify and Apple, sources said. A person close to Spotify said they are not considering buying Wondery. Apple declined to comment.

“We have heard a wide variety of valuations,” said Norm Pattiz, executive chairman of PodcastOne, a Beverly Hills-based podcast network that was purchased by LiveXLive in an all-stock transaction in July. “A lot of deals have been done, so clearly it’s a good time to be a seller. The next couple of years will show whether the buyers made the right deals or not.”

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Lopez, of Los Angeles, was previously head of Fox International Channels, a division of 21st Century Fox. He left the company in 2016. That same year, he founded Wondery, later receiving financial backing from Fox and other investors.

He recalled when the digital video recorder TiVo came onto the market and series like “The Sopranos” changed the way TV shows were made and consumed.

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“There was a change in technology in television that changed not only the way people watch television but the kind of television that got made and watched and was popular,” Lopez said. “I had the idea that the same thing was going to happen to audio.”

The studio scored a hit with “Dirty John” — it also produced and marketed two other Times podcasts, “Man in the Window” and “Detective Trapp.” Wondery’s own originals also proved popular, including “Dr. Death,” which premiered in 2018. The series, which focused on a Texas doctor accused of medical malpractice, attracted 17.5 million listeners in its first season.

The podcast has been developed into a TV show that will run on Peacock, NBCUniversal’s new streaming service and stars Joshua Jackson, Alec Baldwin and Christian Slater.

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To date, Wondery has produced more than 50 original podcasts and has 16 shows in TV development. Many have reached No. 1 on Apple Podcasts.

Wondery had a U.S. audience of more than 8 million listeners in October, making it the sixth largest podcasting publisher in the country, according to Podtrac.

With employees based in West Hollywood, New York, San Francisco, Portland, Ore., and London, Wondery now employs 70 people. Earlier this year, it expanded its West Hollywood office, adding a new recording studio, to keep pace with the growth.

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Many of Wondery’s podcasts are available on multiple platforms, a contrast to a growing number that are exclusive to just one service.

“I see opportunities, because we’re in the unique position of being able to give our talent, our creators, the widest possible audience,” Lopez said.

Last year, Universal Music Group announced a partnership with Wondery to create podcasts based on its song library, labels and roster of artists. The collaboration’s first podcast, “Jacked: Rise of the New Jack Sound,” will premiere Nov. 17.

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“We felt like Wondery had done a good job of carving a niche out for themselves and becoming like the HBO of podcasting,” said Barak Moffitt, executive vice president of content strategy and operations for Universal Music Group.

In June, Wondery launched its own app (with paid and ad-free options) featuring more than 12,000 podcast episodes by the company and its partners, providing more data on how users consume its podcasts.

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But the indictment against Lopez — the reason many investors backed Wondery — has created uncertainty about the company’s future leadership. Also named in the indictment was Carlos Martinez, the former chief executive of Fox Networks in Latin America.

Attorneys for both men have said their clients were innocent and would be exonerated. A federal judge recently denied a motion by the former Fox executives to have a separate trial from a sports marketing group also involved in the government’s corruption investigation.

Some podcast executives are surprised that Lopez remains Wondery’s chief executive, said Nick Quah, founder of Hot Pod, which publishes newsletters about the podcast industry.

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“People feel weird about it,” Quah said. “He is not just the leader of the company, he is the face of the company.”

Lopez, however, appears to have the support of key investors.

“Everybody respects him both internally and externally,” said Jon Goldman, board partner of Greycroft, an investor in Wondery. “His instincts are amazing, and his execution is flawless.”

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Lopez is looking ahead, saying he wants to expand Wondery internationally. Already, the company has translated such shows as “Dr. Death” and “Business Wars” into other languages and plans to do local language productions. It’s also working with partners to adapt podcasts into other properties such as TV shows or books.

“Every time we launch a new show, we’re creating this evergreen IP that really can go different places,” said Chief Operating Officer Jen Sargent. “Our goal still is to become the leader in the podcast space globally, with a brand that is synonymous with immersive storytelling, and that’s really what we’re aiming for.”

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