Wondery has been swallowed by Amazon — and the e-retailing giant’s deep pockets and global reach promise to accelerate the podcast publisher’s growth.
Amazon Music announced its deal to buy the four-year-old podcast startup in December 2020, in a deal reportedly worth around $300 million. After the acquisition closed Feb. 10, Jen Sargent — a longtime media exec who was Wondery’s COO — stepped into the CEO role. She replaced founder Hernan Lopez, who left the company to focus on his recently announced Hernan Lopez Family Foundation.
According to Sargent, Wondery ended 2020 at about 80 employees, and the company plans to nearly double that this year, with a particular focus on expanding the development team. (Wondery currently has 15 job openings listed on the Amazon jobs website.) But it’s not just that Amazon is able to support a larger headcount, she said: It’s the ability of Amazon Music to feature its original podcast series to a large worldwide audience.
“First and foremost, we are tremendously excited about this opportunity to partner with Amazon and accelerate the growth of podcasts globally,” said Sargent, who reports to Amazon Music VP Steve Boom.
As CEO of Wondery, Sargent plans to expand the programming lineup — which has featured a mix of unscripted and scripted podcasts — to reach broader and more diverse audiences while “continuing our culture of taking risks.” That includes plans to delve into new genres and formats, including the launch of a game show later in 2021 and expanding Wondery’s kids and family content.
One of the areas she’s most excited about is smart speakers, specifically Amazon’s Alexa, and the potential to link premium podcast listening with the devices. “We’re just starting to exploit it,” Sargent said.
Sargent acknowledged that other companies had been interested in acquiring Wondery; she wouldn’t identify them, but Apple and Sony Music Entertainment also held deal talks with the company, Bloomberg previously reported.
“When we first started talking to Amazon, one of the things that clicked with me was customer focus – customer obsession works its way into every conversation at Amazon,” Sargent said. Amazon “really was the best fit. We have big aspirations for growing… and Amazon Music has had tremendous growth these last few years.”
Wondery’s original shows include “Dr. Death,” “Bad Batch,” “The Shrink Next Door,” “Business Wars,” “Joe Exotic: Tiger King,” “American History Tellers,” “Tides of History,” “The Daily Smile” and “Imagined Life.”
For Wondery, an important revenue stream has been deals to adapt its most popular original podcasts for TV. Currently, the company has 18 different projects in various stages at different studios. Sargent said that while “we are having a lot of conversations with Amazon Studios” about adapting Wondery shows, there’s not any kind of first-look deal with the corporate sibling: “We will continue to find the best home for our IP.”
Among its TV deals: Apple is adapting “The Shrink Next Door,” based on the podcast from Wondery and Bloomberg Media, as a dark comedy starring Will Ferrell, Paul Rudd and Kathryn Hahn. Universal Content Productions is developing a “Joe Exotic” show based on the Wondery podcast (separate from Netflix’s “Tiger King” docu-series) with Kate McKinnon set to star and executive produce. UCP also is producing a series adaptation of Wondery’s “Dr. Death” for NBCUniversal’s Peacock, starring Joshua Jackson, Christian Slater and Alec Baldwin.
Sargent believes the TV shows will help Wondery gain more exposure — and pick up new listeners for its original podcasts. About 41% of U.S. adults (116 million people) are monthly podcast listeners, per Triton Digital/Edison Research’s latest research. Getting that above 50% will be a tipping point, and Wondery wants to actively “create those on-ramps for topics people are interested in.”
Meanwhile, Wondery Plus — the company’s subscription service providing early access to shows and exclusive content — is continuing under Amazon’s wing. Wondery Plus, available via the dedicated app that Wondery launched last summer, costs $4.99 per month or $34.99 for an annual subscription. “The way we’re thinking of it is, the Amazon Music app is a fantastic music experience and starting experience for podcasts,” Sargent said. “Wondery Plus, it’s not a podcatcher. It’s meant to super-serve our most passionate fans.”
Before joining Wondery in 2018, Sargent was president of Uproxx Media (after the company acquired entertainment site HitFix, which she had co-founded). Prior to HitFix, she worked at companies including Reed Business Information, BV Capital/Bertelsmann Ventures, DoubleClick and JP Morgan.
Prior to its acquisition by Amazon, Wondery had raised about $15 million from investors including Lerer Hippeau, Greycroft, BDMI, Advancit Capital, Water Tower Ventures, Powerhouse Ventures and Waverley Capital, the VC firm formed by Edgar Bronfman Jr. and Luminari Capital’s Daniel Leff.