Podcasting, Once a Niche Labor of Love, Now Can Open Doors in TV and More

Producers look to audio hits like Lore for the next great show

When Walking Dead producer Gale Anne Hurd was looking around for a new project to bring to television, she didn't settle on a hot book—comic or otherwise. Instead, it was a year-old podcast called Lore, created—and produced on the cheap—by Aaron Mahnke.

"I think Lore was perfect for a transition to television," Mahnke told Adweek. "It's fresh, being very unlike anything that's out there in the genre. It's also insanely popular, and television networks want to eliminate a lot of the risk, so a popular show helps them start something new while having a ready-made audience just waiting to support it."

Lore, launched in 2015 and winner of an iTunes' Best of 2015 award, currently has more than 3,600 five-star reviews and reaches 2.5 million monthly listeners—all drawn to what Mankhe admits was a personal passion that found a waiting audience. "Lore taps into a growing love of the supernatural, unexplainable and historical that so much of popular culture seems to be obsessed with," Mahnke said.

It's clear that the current podcasting resurgance is opening doors for other big opportunities for its creators, TV being the main gateway to widespread recongintion and success. Just ask Mahnke.

Starting in 2017, Lore's focus on fear, the dark side of history and people's most haunting nightmares—"The truth is more frightening than fiction," goes the podcast's tagline—will debut as an anthology show on television. And the show will have blue-chip backers: the producers of The Walking Dead. "It's taken me months to wrap my head around that," said Mahnke when he told fans of the TV deal. "Crazy? Yep. Reality? Amazingly, yes!"

Brett-Patrick Jenkins of Propagate Content, which is part of the Lore TV deal, told The Hollywood Reporter, "Serial inadvertently created a completely new playground for storytelling and intellectual property. Aaron Mahnke is the Stephen King of podcasting."

The success of podcasts like Serial, considered podcasting's first bona fide breakout hit with its "one story, told week-to-week" format, moved in a flash from obscurity to more than 2 million downloads per episode—thanks in part to its captivating first story, dissecting a murder case and the debatably innocent man jailed for the killing.

Serial's success has lured storytellers into the longform audio format, where stories evolve over time before audiences of highly committed and deeply engaged listeners—just the kind of consumers that television producers yearn for in a highly cluttered media landscape.

Serial itself is being adapted by Fox 21 Studios into a show, though the details of what that may look like—it's not expected to involve the Adnan Syed case from Serial's breakthrough first season—are unclear for now.

But the bridge from people producing podcasts on the cheap to high-profile television projects has become a trend. One of the first to cross over was IFC's Maron, the scripted comedy about a comic with a successful podcast, which was based on Marc Maron, a comic with a successful podcast called WTF with Marc Maron, which debuted in 2009.

Adapting WTF into the scripted Maron was part of a strategy at IFC to seek out stories that could be adapted into original series no matter where they are—podcast, web series or comedy shorts.

"We continue to look at podcasts and other platforms as fertile ground in our development process," said IFC svp of original programming Christine Lubrano. "(It's) a strategy recently highlighted by our newest original series, Brockmire, starring Hank Azaria, which started out as a digital Funny or Die short."

The explosion of podcasts means there are gems waiting to be discovered—and for some legacy media, created from scratch as a kind of content lab where shows can grow and find their audience before ever appearing on television. Even for talent not looking to experiment with a new storytelling form or style, the podcast can be a springboard nonetheless, as ABC News has discovered.

"Our ABC talent love that podcasts allow them to deeply engage with their audience on topics often of personal interest," said ABC News Radio vice president Steve Jones. "And for audiences, ABC News podcasts offer a more intimate experience that can deepen their relationship with our personalities and shows."

A decade ago, New York's WNYC Radio turned to podcasts to build on the station's unusual experiment fittingly dubbed Radiolab. The podcast series, the producers said, would be "about curiosity. Where sound illuminates ideas, and the boundaries blur between science, philosophy, and human experience."

And it took off. Since its podcast debut in 2006 , the brand has grown into a radio show heard on 500 public radio stations across the country, and a 21-city national tour that mashed up storytelling, music and comedy.

WNYC's Freakonomics also started as a podcast and is now distributed as a traditional radio show to public radio stations. The station also produces Alec Baldwin's interview series "Here's the Thing," which has compilations of Baldwin's interviews compiled to air as radio specials.

Lore's Mahnke says the way people consume the audio is the secret to its success.

"Part of what makes podcasting so powerful and relevant to listeners is that it's audio, and audio fits into the cracks in our lives," he told Adweek. "That 15-minute drive to the grocery store, or the evening walk with the dog. If I'm doing something that doesn't allow me to use my hands or brain, I'm pumping audio into it. So podcasting is perfect for those moments."

With no limits on the kinds of stories or content that can be adapted to the format, Mankhe says "it's hard to find a person who won't connect with podcasting." And that passion project produced on the cheap has grown into something far, far bigger—and become Mahnke's only job. "I found the perfect time to build a project around my own personal interests, and so far, it's paying off in spades!"