Podcasts have become a wildly popular form of media in recent years with millions of people tuning in to their favorite shows each week. In this article, we'll show you how podcast development works for television. You’ll also learn how to develop a podcast series.
Whether you're a seasoned podcaster, an interested buyer, or a complete beginner, this guide will give you an overview of the podcast development process. Read on to turn your podcasting passion into a TV success story.
The rise of podcast series has led to them becoming intellectual property (IP) in their own right, spawning lauded television series such as The Dropout, The Shrink Next Door, and WeCrashed. Podcast development is the first step of how these shows become a podcast TV series.
Production companies such as QCode Media and Wondery have even built an entire business model of creating series specifically for podcast development for film and TV. So while the market may be saturated, great series continue to stand out.
But how are podcasts developed and sold for television? We spoke with the creator of one such successful series to get their insights on how to develop a podcast series.
Erick Galindo is a prolific writer, showrunner, and producer in the podcasting space. Apple honored his seminal podcast Wild in 2021 as having the best episode of the year. His recent podcast Ídolo: The Ballad of Chalino Sánchez is currently being developed as a series with Universal TV.
Ídolo: The Ballad of Chalino Sánchez was a huge hit upon its debut. It made several best-of lists by heavy-hitters such as NPR and the LA Times. It also won two Ambie Awards (podcasting’s Oscars) in the Best Non-Fiction Writing as well as the Best Society & Culture podcast categories. So how was Erick able to turn his podcast into a series?
“I was running this streaming documentary series for Time Warner Cable. At that time, I was listening to a lot of podcasts. Then I saw the KCRW Radio Race was happening, and me and my co-showrunner at the time decided to do it. We wound up placing in the top ten.”
As the saying goes, luck is opportunity meeting preparation. While Erick’s first foray into podcasting felt like a lark, he was already successfully producing documentary series about topics he was interested in.
Still, producing a four-minute nonfiction radio story was a challenge. But Erick was up for it. He put all his skills and creativity into the project, and it paid off. His story placing so highly in the KCRW Radio Race competition made him realize he might be onto something.
“I was able to continue by doing some podcasting at LA Taco, and then at the local NPR station here in Los Angeles. After that, I was able to work on my friend Walter Thompson-Hernández’s podcast.”
There’s a famous saying in Hollywood; ride the horse in the direction it’s going. This means once you are gaining traction, keep up the momentum. Erick himself followed this advice with a decidedly LA twist.
“Kobe missed more shots than anyone in the NBA because he took more shots. No matter what, I always took the shot. I probably took more shots than Kobe. And that eventually led to me selling three different podcast series at the exact same time.”
All three of these series went on to be considered for podcast development. But one decidedly tapped into the cultural zeitgeist at just the right time.
Ídolo follows the career and murder of widely influential narcocorrido singer Chalino Sánchez. The murder was never investigated, and the mystery surrounding it brought Chalino’s fame to even greater heights.
Erick had a personal connection to the material. At one point, Chalino had lived down the street from his house growing up. For around 10 years, he tried to tell Chalino’s story in a mainstream way. This included writing a screenplay, pitching a documentary, and working on various newspaper articles.
But it was finally in podcast development that Erick found he could tell a Latino story in a way that resonated across the world.
“Podcasting was a really good way to tell the story because he was a singer. His voice, and his music, is how he lived on. I saw it as this cinematic world. Doing that required a lot of interesting starts and stops. But eventually, we were able to do something unique by blending scripted and unscripted moments to tell the story.”
Blending both scripted and documentary audio to build context has become a signature of Erick’s shows. Not only is it stylistically interesting, it adds conflict and drama to fuel the engine of an ongoing series.
“Chalino was a guy whose life was shrouded in tall tales and mystery. So we thought, let’s just put together those scenes. Let’s recreate these myths with actors and sound design. It gave us a lot of freedom to dip into those scenes that feel like they’re from a movie.”
Erick purposefully incorporated cinematic elements into his podcast. This made it an easy sell to adapt into a series. Buyers didn’t have to do the legwork of wondering, what would this audio series look like? From the start, it was very clear what type of show the podcast could be.
Whether it’s using evocative sound design, descriptive dialogue, or a killer score, thinking cinematically will help buyers understand what the podcast’s vision will look like on screen.
“Executing it was a lot of work. But I’m proud of what we were able to do. The genre he sings in, narcocorridos, their music was telling these kinds of stories before Reservoir Dogs or Mean Streets. There’s explosions. Gunfire. Mysterious deaths. His songs are so cinematic, it’s impossible to tell his story in any other way.”
Erick not only picked a story he was extremely passionate about, he chose one that could naturally be told in a cinematic way. It was also a story where it thematically made sense to incorporate his own artistic licensing.
Ídolo proved it had legs by becoming a massive hit in the podcasting space. Originally, Erick had received pushback when pitching Chalino’s story to studios and producers.
“There was interest prior to the podcast, but there was also this idea that it wouldn't resonate with middle America. For me, the podcast and how well it did was a proof of concept that was fully faithful to the medium of audio.”
It’s important to remember that a proof of concept doesn’t mean taking shortcuts. The material has to not only stand on its own but also be primed as a success before it will even be considered for podcast development.
From a buyer perspective, it’s important to consider the amount of anticipation the series is generating even before it premieres. This adds significant value to the IP. Similar to book publishing, waiting until the actual release date may be too late.
“Execs started hearing about it. The Boston Globe wrote a teaser before the show came out, so we had multiple offers before the show even dropped. Once it was released, we had even more. It was in the top 1% of all podcasts in Asia. Europe. It blew me away. We had a very specific story, but it had a proven universal appeal.”
Steve Martin coined the saying, be so good they can’t ignore you. Producing a podcast that can transcend mediums isn’t easy; it needs to be great and have a significant buzz behind it.
Erick had a problem that many writers dream of: too many offers to develop the podcast for TV. He had to decide with his team on how to proceed, and what podcast development steps were next.
“I created the show, but I had a lot of partners on the business side to get it financed. So that’s always a conversation. You want to do what’s best by your partners who are, frankly, looking to recoup their costs. It’s hard to recoup on ads alone for a limited series podcast. But selling it to a studio can be lucrative.
There were a lot of offers that were more cash in hand but didn’t have a high ceiling. We went with the people who offered us the best deal, and that happened to be a studio. The strike happened right after we signed, so we haven’t gone to networks yet.”
Before approaching networks with a podcast TV series model, many studios will want to build out the strongest possible package.
“Selling the show though is just the start. Now, we start the chase. We have to chase after actors, showrunners, collaborators. The package is increasingly more important. They’re making less stuff, it’s a risk-averse business.”
Regarding podcast development, many podcast TV series had a lucrative package before having a pilot or series produced. This includes Julia Roberts in Homecoming, Christian Slater and Joshua Jackson in Dr. Death, and Renée Zellweger in The Thing about Pam.
It’s important to create rich worlds and characters collaborators want to attach themselves to, so your podcast TV series has its best chance at being bought by a network and making it on-screen.
But what if your podcast doesn’t break records, but you still believe in the material and think it could be a podcast TV series? Erick had some advice regarding podcast development.
“I didn’t let go of the Chalino project for 10 years. I didn’t hold onto it with a chokehold, but I was always ready to pitch it. You need to be deeply passionate if you want to sell a project in any space. You’re going to get a lot of no's. And also no’s disguised as maybe’s.
Ultimately, have a diverse portfolio of your work. If you have this podcast you believe in, great. But also have a screenplay. Have other projects. Be ready with a pitch for lots of different things. You never know what people want.”
Don't put all your eggs in one basket. As a creator, you should have multiple projects in development at all times. This will give you more possible podcast TV shows to present to studios and producers. It will also make you more resilient if one project falls through.
Creating a podcast you're proud of is a victory. Hopefully the above article gave you some ideas for podcast development to adapt your material into a podcast TV series. If you’re looking to get more of your work on-screen, check out this article on Decoding Incentives Lingo or get that buzz going with How to Promote Your Film on Social Media.
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