Bringing the Biopic to Podcasts

President Barack Obama and Jenn White, Photo by Colin McNulty/WBEZ
President Barack Obama and Jenn White, Photo by Colin McNulty/WBEZ

Our best tips and tricks for making a compelling biography series.

The biopic has long been a popular (and awards-baiting) subject in film, bringing new life to heroes, antiheroes, and pretty much any kind of compelling cultural figure. And while it’s a relatively new genre in the audio space, it’s becoming increasingly clear that we are entering the era of the biopod. With offerings from legacy radio organizations (WNYC’s Dolly Parton's America) to culture-focused deep dives (Slate’s Slow Burn) to comedic takes (The Dollop with Dave Anthony and Gareth Reynolds), the rise of biographical podcasts shows no sign of slowing down.

Consolidating a life into a narrative series can be a daunting task—but the best audio teams in the business make it look effortless. We sat down with some of those creators to discuss all the ins and outs of creating a captivating biographical podcast.

Find the right subject

When putting together a biographical podcast, the first step is both the simplest and the most critical: selecting the captivating figure that your series will explore. For the team behind Gimlet’s Mogul, a show about hip-hop’s most iconic moments, the subject of their first season came from a pitch by the man who would become the host: the late Reggie Ossé, also known as Combat Jack. The Gimlet team was interested in working with Ossé based on his podcasting chops: “He was [also] the host of this wonderful podcast called the Combat Jack Show, and Reggie carved out this niche as the sort of Terry Gross of hip-hop,” explains Mogul’s senior producer Matt Nelson. “The show was really groundbreaking and powerful, and this sort of safe space where somebody who truly understood hip-hop culture could talk to artists and have them unfurl their lives over the course of a couple of hours. Reggie was essentially doing these sort of mini-biographies.”

At the beginning of the collaboration with Gimlet, Ossé pitched a series of ideas, some biographical, some not. “One of the ideas that they pitched was the story of this ill fated hip-hop executive, Chris Lighty, and that became the first season,” Nelson says.

For WBEZ’s Making series, the choice of subject started with a piece of hometown news: After 25 years and the winding down of her juggernaut daytime talk show, Oprah Winfrey’s Harpo studios were closing down in Chicago. The news story offered up not just a lead character to the WBEZ team, but also a framing for the series. “We wanted to zoom in on Oprah’s emerging years, starting with her iconic TV talk show’s scrappy roots in Chicago to its rise to national daytime dominance, just as her studio was leaving the city,” says Keith Dawson, managing director of content development for WBEZ.

The team then chose another prominent Chicago figure—President Barack Obama—for their second season, before exploring the early life of Beyoncé in their recently released third season. “For Season 3 we went beyond Chicago because there is no one more iconic in modern culture than Beyoncé,” Dawson says. “In all three seasons of Making, we’ve focused on the most iconic figures of our time and told the story of the early years that shaped who they are today.”

Immerse yourself

After determining the subject of your biography series, the next step for creating a compelling series is digging into research—not just of your subject, but of their surroundings. For Mogul’s Matt Nelson, working on the first season about Chris Lighty meant learning everything he could about New York in the ‘70s. “I needed to know everything I could about the Bronx. I'm watching every documentary I can that sort of details that time period of New York," Nelson says. "Because I need to understand the main character, but I also needed to understand the world.”

With that basis of knowledge as a guide, you can then start to plot out the arc of the series. “When we feel like we have an understanding of the story, then you basically sit down and kind of write out what this thing would look like in an ideal world [where] you had access to everyone you needed access to,” Nelson says. “Then you go out and you start reporting and you start interviewing people.”

Nelson describes that interview process as working in concentric circles, starting with journalists and people on the edges of the story, gradually working in toward the subject. “So, [for] the principal character, you arrive at them when you’ve done your research and you’ve also spoken to people, and you really understand the contours of the story,” he says.

When all the interviews are completed, it’s likely they won’t perfectly match your original outline. But that can be a good thing, giving you the chance to use your newly acquired expertise and newly gathered the material to edit your initial scope. “We’ll sort of go back and then rediscover what the story really is,” Nelson explains. “And then from there we'll start to build episodes and write scripts and throw in the sound design and make the thing that you will eventually hear.”

Choose the best tape—old and new

An essential component of that sound design in biography series is the tape—both the tape you’ve acquired in your interviews, but also the huge opportunity to use archival materials. “Archive material is an essential part of creating a biographical podcast in order to truly bring real insight and dimension to the subject you’re exploring,” Dawson says.

Archival tape can be especially important when it “provides special access or exclusive insight into a time period that isn’t otherwise well-documented,” he continues. “With Making Beyoncé, we were granted access to the Knowles’ family archives of home-video recordings that helped us not only document Beyoncé’s formative years, but to give a window into what she was like before she became a global icon in culture and music.”

Mogul’s Nelson agrees that archival tape is essential for building out the world of the story and helping the listener to orient themselves in the time and place, highlighting news clippings as a particularly useful source. But just as important is focusing on good tape that comes up in your own interviews. “In many cases, we're just looking for a good story about the person. And on top of that good story, we're looking for a reflection or some sense of what the story tells us about the person that we're profiling,” he says.

In the first season of Mogul, Lighty’s sister tells a story about a group of kids beating him up and stealing his beloved leather bomber jacket. “It was this feeling of humiliation and loss of power. But after that, he resolved that he would never get punked again,” Nelson says. “So it was a sort of small story that out of context doesn't mean a whole lot, but in our story it kind of became the inciting incident. For me, it felt like this is the moment when Peter Parker is bitten by the radioactive spider, and this is where this guy kind of discovers who he is and how he wants to live his life.”

—Katie Ferguson