How To Make a Compelling Companion Podcast According to Pros

Advice from Roman Mars, Bari Finkel, Christopher Johnson, Dan Taberski, Krys Marshall, and Will Malnati

Hollywood is in the middle of a long love affair with podcasts. Evidence of that can be seen in the number of podcasts being turned into TV shows, including The Shrink Next Door, Nice White Parents, and The Edge of Sleep. Increasingly, though, that relationship is going both ways, thanks to the rise of companion podcasts.

As the name implies, companion podcasts are meant to accompany a television show or film.

Some are recap shows, like Here To Make Friends, which recaps the action on The Bachelor. Others are re-watch podcasts like Veronica Mars Investigations and Again With This, which looks back at Beverly Hills 90210. There are also companion podcasts created by former cast members—like Office Ladies with Jenna Fisher and Angela Kinsey and Talking Sopranos with Michael Imperioli and Steve Schirripa—which offer fans a fun peek behind the curtain. While those shows are official-ish, the buzz they have created has been noticed. Networks and studios are steadily getting in on the podcasting fun, creating their own official companion podcasts for their TV shows, helping to generate buzz, and controlling the narrative surrounding them. That means there is a growing marketplace for excellent companion podcasts across the spectrum, from pure behind-the-scenes shows to post-show recaps to podcasts that tell related stories, but stand on their own.

To help newcomers learn what works in this world, we turned to some pros.

  • Pineapple Street Media’s Bari Finkel has been at the forefront of companion podcasts, starting with her work on The Knick show at Panoply and the HBO podcasts for Chernobyl and Watchmen. Finkel also worked on Lovecraft Country Radio and Behind The Scenes: Stranger Things for Netflix.
Photo provided by Bari Finkel
  • Dan Taberski is best known for his Headlong series, but also worked on Behind The Scenes: Stranger Things for Netflix and Pineapple Street and is now breaking new ground with his Apple TV+ series, The Line.
Taberski—Photo courtesy of Apple
Marshall—Photo courtesy of Apple
  • Will Malnati, CEO of At Will Media, who helped produce podcasts For All Mankind, Siegfried & Roy, and others for Apple as well as The Boys: The Official Podcast separately.
Malnati—Photo courtesy of Apple

Audience first

When it comes to making companion podcasts—and Finkel has made a lot of them—she finds it’s best to start by stepping into the fans’ shoes, a process that is helped by early access to scripts and screeners. “We really approach these from an audience perspective,” says Finkel, whose projects include HBO’s Chernobyl, Watchmen, and Lovecraft Country Radio and Netflix’s Behind The Scenes: Stranger Things. “It’s like letting the questions that we have when we’re watching the show drive what we do with the podcast. We figure if these are the conversations that are sparking between us, they’re probably conversations and questions that other people are going to be having.”

The creator of the For all Mankind podcast takes a similar approach. “I think it’s… Just try to really try to understand who the audience is you’re talking to and come alongside them and really kind of ask yourself … what is it that they want to hear and how can we make that experience interesting and fun,” says Malnati. That podcast takes fans behind the reality of space travel, answering the questions that people are most likely to have while watching the action. “They really wanted to explore beyond the things that you see on the screen, the deeper meanings behind the technical aspects of the engineering, and the science that really goes into what it means to travel into outer space,” Marshall explains. This not only answers fans’ questions, but also gives people watching the show a reason to tune into the podcast each week, which leads to the next point.

Further the story

While recap shows and re-watch shows are tied to the storyline, some of the best companion podcasts move the conversation beyond the narrative. On the podcast that accompanies the film Judas and the Black Messiah, which tells of the betrayal of Illinois Black Panther Party Chairman Fred Hampton, Hampton’s son tells listeners about the real-world events behind the movie. “This podcast was designed to let Chairman Fred Hampton Jr. have a forum for ‘setting the record straight’,” Mars explains, adding that “a two-hour movie can’t do justice to a whole person’s life,” and the podcast gave them the opportunity to expand on that.

The result is a show that lets listeners “be a part of the real history.”

For that show, Johnson, who produced the series, wanted to immerse listeners in the creative process by talking to the actors, including LaKeith Stanfield and Daniel Kaluuya. However, instead of just taking fans behind the scenes, a conversation led them down a further path. “After talking to Chairman Jr., we realized all the different directions that we could go into bringing together a series that wasn’t necessarily going to follow the same pattern as your traditional companion series,” says Johnson. The result is a show that lets listeners “be a part of the real history” by talking to Hampton’s son and wife, as well as Che Brooks and Stan McKinney, Black Panthers who knew Hampton in real life and can offer fans a whole other facet of his life and times.

Similarly, Dan Taberski’s The Line (which both Taberski and Apple would point out is not a companion podcast) was reported in parallel to the documentary of the same name, which will be released on Apple TV+ later. “When the visual doc comes out, it’s a completely different approach to the similar story,” says Taberski. “Not even the same story, because we sort of go way farther down the road of Navy SEALs.” This tactic makes both pieces of content mandatory for interested audiences.

Get to work early

“The lessons that I have learned and kind of continue to apply is to plan,” says Johnson. “Iterate your vision as much as possible in the beginning, whether that’s outlines, storyboarding, whatever it is, but really draft out as much as you can.” He notes that the need for exhaustive planning is not unique to companion series, though. It’s any series. “There’s no secret to any of this, there’s no mystery, it’s ‘plan as much as you can’ on the front end (interviewing) and back end (editing),” Johnson says. Johnson and his team were lucky in that filmmakers Ryan Coogler and Shaka King were very engaged and were able to help them get incredible access to the cast, friends, and family. “They really believed in this podcast and wanted it to happen, as did Chairman Jr.,” says Johnson.

Most companion podcast producers get early access to scripts and screeners so they can start watching or reading early and base the shows on the story. As in Johnson’s case, shows and networks that are invested in podcasts tend to help podcast creators gain access to cast and crew. Of course, not everything goes to plan. “Ideally, we have a couple of months lead time,” says Finkel, during which time they are planning, “piloting host dynamic,” and outlining ideas. That doesn’t always happen, though. “On Lovecraft, I think we officially started with them two weeks before the [podcast] series launched,” says Finkel, laughing.

Be as fan-inclusive as possible

Making a companion podcast is complicated by the fact that not all fans have interacted with the series or film in the same way. “Obviously, if you’re thinking about the show after you watch it enough that you then want to go and listen to a podcast about it, you have a certain level of engagement,” Finkel says, but then points to the Behind the Scenes series they did on The Umbrella Academy to show the challenges of making a show for everyone. “You have the audience who read all of Gerard Way’s graphic novels, who then went and watched the TV show, who now are coming to the podcast, but then you also have people who just watched the show, and then you have people who are just interested in the superhero aspect or, like, how TV is made,” she explains. “We try to strike a balance between all of those things and all those audiences.” When choices have to be made, though: “We definitely err more on the side of people who have engaged with the show.”

While making a companion to a film, the 99% Invisible team decided to make the first episode of the series for everyone, whether or not they had seen the movie, but “from episodes two through five, the experience is significantly enhanced by the film experience,” Johnson says. “Like, you can come and listen to this and understand it, but to really, really enjoy it, you will do well to have seen the film.” That tactic potentially lures in new listeners while helping build buzz for the movie. If you’re intrigued by the podcast’s story, you’ll want to watch the film, too.

Film podcasts have another hurdle, too: “You build a community’s rapport with a TV show, unfolding over time,” says Mars. In the case of a movie, you can’t build rapport week by week with TV episodes, but instead have to rely on one viewing of a film. “I think a [movie companion podcast] has to sort of justify its existence a little bit more,” says Mars. “The bar is a little bit higher to clear. I think that this one worked because it existed for a reason.”

Be reflective

Approaching a show from the perspective of an audience member means not just thinking about it as a fan, but also in a broader cultural context. For example, on Lovecraft Country Radio, Pineapple Street Media prioritized having a majority-Black staff on the podcast, which reflected the series. According to Finkel, “the show itself represented so many different types of people of color and that’s what made that show so good.” Having a production team and hosts who could recognize, reflect, and run with the conversations brought up on the Lovecraft Country television show were key to making a great podcast. Plus, it never hurts to have a staff eager to get to work. “What makes the [companion] shows so good is that the people who are working on them are actually excited to be working on them,” Finkel says. “Because so much of it is for fans and for people who want to go the extra mile to engage with the show.”

Find the right host

As with any show, finding the right person to address the audience is important. On For All Mankind, that meant opting for a cast member. “A lot of projects that we work on, we’ll have a designated host that isn’t involved in the thing that we’re talking about,” says Malnati. “But in this case, Krys [Marshall] was so organically and authentically built into the project and its process that you can tell the difference in every word that she says.” Marshall agrees that she was a natural fit to take on the dual roles of starring in the TV show and hosting the podcast. “I’m just a really curious person. I love asking questions and I’m always talking to our showrunners about ‘How does this happen? And how does that work?’ And so when the opportunity came, I jumped at the chance,” she explains.

Photo courtesy of Apple

Finkel was thrilled with the hosting relationship between writer and podcaster Ashley C. Ford and Lovecraft Country writer Shannon Houston on Lovecraft Country Radio. “They just happen to have an incredible dynamic,” Finkel says. “Shannon had never even done podcasting before and was just a natural.”

For Judas and the Black Messiah, the 99% Invisible Team they opted for longtime film critic Elvis Mitchell, who had great rapport with Chairman Fred Hampton Jr. “He was a perfect choice because he’s extremely well-loved and respected as a film critic,” says Mars. “And it was kind of funny—to a person, every time there was a filmmaker who came on the air when they saw Elvis, they were just like, ‘Hey, Elvis.’ They love him. So, yeah, finding the right host is critical and he was the perfect choice.”

Set your metrics for success

Companion podcasts are in some sense marketing materials for the TV or film they accompany, but the people making them still want them to succeed on their own. Judging that success is a bit in the eye of the beholder, since if the person footing the bills is happy, the podcast creator should be happy, too. So how do you assess success? “Look at the depth of engagement, the ratings, reviews, the social conversations, all that stuff,” says Malnati. “It’s like all the signals you would look at for our podcasts, those are what we look at. And if you look at the ratings and reviews on this show, they’re phenomenal.”

Marshall judges things a little differently: “It’s been really fun hearing folks say, ‘Hey, I just loved the podcast, and it drew me to the [TV] series.’ That’s been great and I think that was what we’d hoped for all along.”

Think outside the box

As production houses like Pineapple Street develop expertise in companion podcasts, they are finding new ways to apply what they’ve learned outside the sphere of explicit companion shows. Take, for example, the Netflix show Strong Black Lead, made by Pineapple Street, is not technically a companion podcast, but has become a platform to highlight the contributions that Black people have made in Hollywood and the entertainment industry. It’s engaging and empowering and an important conversation to listen to in tandem with binge-watching on Netflix. So while it’s not technically a companion podcast, perhaps it should be and creators should pitch more shows like it.

“They are both fully robust projects on their own, which to me is the future,” says Taberski.

Similarly, The Line series was created in tandem with the documentary of the same name and while Apple and Taberski both make it clear that The Line is not a companion podcast (“I’ll think of a name and get back to you,” says Taberski). However, the podcast and ones like it may be a glimpse of the potential of companion podcasts. “They are both fully robust projects on their own, which to me is the future,” says Taberski. “This is where I want to see it go. I want to see podcasting really embrace documentary storytelling in a way that is sustainable and I feel like projects like this are something I’ve always wanted to just see get made.”

For Taberski, standalone documentary storytelling is the future of podcasting: “I want people to look at podcasting as the place to tell documentary stories and not just as IP.” Of course, Taberski isn’t the only person who believes podcasts and audio are more than enough—Timber readers are right there too and Hollywood, it seems, is coming around to the idea.

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