A ripped-from-the-headlines tale tops the charts amid a new wave of fictional podcasts taking their cues from true crime

The popular new podcast Blood Ties tells the story of siblings Eleonore and Michael Richland, who are left to pick up the pieces after their parents private plane vanishes en route to a family Christmas vacation in the Caribbean. Its the kind of character-driven story that would fit right in with the true-crime miniseries typical on Wondery, the independent podcasting network known for cinematically produced, documentary-style shows like Dirty John, Dr. Death and Over My Dead Body. With similar narrative pacing, hyper-realistic sound effects and a topical story line, the podcast jumped to No. 1 on the Apple Podcasts chart when it launched in December and has remained at the top of it since. But unlike Wonderys best known tales,Blood Ties, which it also produced, isnt true crime. It isnt even true. Its verging on the precipice of being so believable that you question whether it is real or not, says actor Josh Gad, who co-stars alongside Gillian Jacobs as Michael and Eleonore Richland, respectively.
Told over the course of six 20-minute episodes, the story unfolds atop a rich auditory backdrop of crashing waves, chirping birds, clinking ice, hissing voice messages and a dramatic score. Listeners eavesdrop as the Richlands make the shocking discovery that their father, a celebrated doctor-turned-entrepreneur, had been hiding a dark, criminal past.
It is the latest in a growing wave of fictional podcasts featuring top-tier talent and compelling, ripped-from-the-headlines narratives, arriving at a time when podcasting advertising revenues are poised to exceed $1 billion for the first time by 2021, according to a recent report by the Interactive Advertising Bureau and PricewaterhouseCoopers.
Other fictional podcasts include Motherhacker, about a struggling mom who joins an identity-theft ring from Spotifys Gimlet Media (The Wall Street Journal has a content partnership with Gimlet Media); Hunted about a U.S. marshal voiced by Parker Posey, from Endeavor Audio in partnership with Wolf Entertainment; and Cut and Run, a six-part Audible Original series about best friends with an illicit kidney-hawking side hustle, narrated by Meg Ryan. This year, Spotify is doubling down on scripted according to its head of creative development, Liz Gateley, with several new podcasts produced by well-known creators including Paul Feig, Jordan Peele and Kevin Bacon. Wondery will release at least two more scripted podcasts this year, in addition to a just-announced second season of Blood Ties.
The new fictional offerings hark back to the old days of radio plays, which enraptured listeners before the advent of television.
I always thought it would have been so cool to live in a different time and a place where you could do a radio play, where you could do something like what Orson Welles did with The War of the Worlds, the famous 1938 radio adaptation of H.G. Wellss novel that made some listeners wonder if Martians were really invading Earth, says Mr. Gad.
For networks, fictional series are also a great way to develop IP, says Elliot Wolf, senior vice president of digital at Wolf Entertainment. For example, Gimlets 2016 series, Homecoming, about a secret psychiatric facility for veterans, became a cult hit that was adapted into a television show on Amazon, starring Julia Roberts.
But the genre is not without its challenges. Casting famous actors is expensive, as is high-quality sound design that doesnt distract from the story. Since episodes tend to be shorter in scripted series, there are also fewer ad slots, making it harder to generate revenue.
From a creative standpoint, too, its difficult to tell a compelling, credible story using just audio. Although Mr. Gad has voiced characters in animated movies (most notably as Olaf in Frozen) matching the tone of a podcasts sound design can be tough, he says. The story had to be in harmony with what was happening in the background, outside of his characters purview, which meant that his instinct to keep his tone soft and intimate didnt always work. For Ms. Jacobs, who is a fast talker, the key was slowing it all down. I had to keep remembering that the listeners are getting all their information from things they are hearing, she says.
As Wonderys first scripted drama in three years, the company had lower expectations for audience size says founder and CEO Hernan Lopez. With Blood Ties, we may or may not get to millions of listeners per episode, like the network does for its nonfictional series, he says. But we wanted to use it to bring the brand back into the fiction space.
Thats partly because Wonderys early efforts at fictional podcasts, such as 2016s Secrets, Crimes & Audiotape, werent nearly as successful as the networks nonfictional series. But owing to the companys growth over the past few yearsits now the biggest independent podcast publisher in the country, with more than 50 million monthly downloads, according to analytics firm PodtracMr. Lopez felt that the time was right to revisit fiction, this time armed with bigger budgets and lessons learned from other series.
To boost its chances for success, Wondery chose a story that had common elements with its psychological thrillers Dirty John and Dr. Death, both of which were character-driven stories featuring strong families. In Blood Ties, beyond Dr. Peter Richlands troubled pastwith details that are very much in the news right now (no spoilers here)the Michael character was purposely given a similar story line to Christopher Duntsch, the Texas neurosurgeon known as Dr. Death, who was sentenced to life in prison in 2017.
I thought it was a clever idea, exploring these themes that had also been explored in [Wonderys] nonfiction podcasts, so if you were a fan of their other shows youd probably be interested in this too, says Ms. Jacobs.
Blood Ties also used the same sound designer as it used for Dr. Death and Dirty John, to create what Mr. Lopez calls the Wondery Sound, featuring rich, cinematic backgrounds that amp up the drama. As a result, Blood Ties cost more than twice as much to produce than Wonderys previous fictional podcasts, he says.
For Mr. Gad and Ms. Jacobs, starring in a podcast was an interesting change of pace with certain advantages. While a film project can take months to complete, they recorded Blood Ties at a studio in Los Angeles over the course of a single week. I love being on film and all that, but it is also fun to not have a 5:30 a.m. call time to do hair and makeup, says Ms. Jacobs.
What to Listen to Next:
Motherhacker (Gimlet Media)
November 2019
Featuring an top-tier cast that includes Carrie Coon and Alan Cumming, this series centers on a struggling mom who joins an identity theft ring to shore up her finances.
Hunted (Endeavor Audio/Wolf Entertainment)
December 2019
Co-produced by the creators of the Law & Order TV franchise, this series stars 90s indie queen Parker Posey as a U.S. Marshal who leads a manhunt after four criminals escape from a maximum-security prison.
Cut and Run (Audible Original)
January 31, 2020
In this dark comedy, with an ensemble cast featuring Meg Ryan, Rachel Bloom, Ed Begley Jr. and others, two best friendsa male doctor and a female con artistteam up to steal kidneys and sell them.
The Last Degree of Kevin Bacon (Spotify)
February 2020
This meta story chronicles the miserable life of Randy Beslow, a fictitious down-on-his-luck actor who is still bitter about losing the lead role in the film Footloose to Kevin Bacon, and sets out to find his longtime nemesis.
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