Laura Beil was skeptical when Wondery called her two years ago. The sensationalistic podcast hitmaker behind Dirty John needed a host for its new series about Christopher Duntsch, the infamous Dallas neurosurgeon accused of maiming his patients. Beil, a veteran Dallas Morning News medical reporter, hadn’t listened to a true crime podcast in full, let alone reported one. She’d certainly never heard of Wondery. “I said, ‘I’m a print journalist,'” she tells ELLE.com. “Why are you calling me?” With some hesitation, she agreed to do it. Today, she’s grateful she did.
Since airing last September, Dr. Death has been downloaded more than 50 million times and ordered as a television series. On the heels of its massive success, Wondery greenlit a second Beil-led podcast, Bad Batch, now available on Apple Podcasts and Spotify. In the six-part investigative series, she takes listeners through the crazy, complicated world of stem cell medical treatment. Like Dr. Death, there’s a narrative arc (corrupt system, suspicious CEO, unsuspecting victims); unlike Dr. Death, she says, it serves a real purpose. “The chances of you coming across a horrible neurosurgeon are pretty slim,” she says, “but the chances of you or someone you love wanting to spend a bunch of money on stem cells because you’re promised a miracle cure? That’s much higher. This has a greater chance of having an impact on listeners.”
Bad Batch has already garnered 3 million listeners since it debuted three weeks ago, and is now the fourth most popular show on Apple podcasts, ahead of rival My Favorite Murder.
On the phone, Beil and I discuss her transition to audio from print journalism, the future of true crime content in a frenetic digital age, and her secret sauce to producing a hit podcast.
You were hesitant when Wondery asked you to do Dr. Death. Now it’s one of the biggest podcasts of all time.
Apparently a Dirty John listener had emailed Wondery saying, “Hey, have you heard of Christopher Duntsch?” They wanted a journalist who had knowledge of the healthcare system in Dallas, where Duntsch practiced, to look into him, and that’s a pretty short list. When they called, I hadn’t even heard of Wondery. But I decided to take a chance on it.
How different is reporting a series for a podcast compared to reporting at a print media brand?
Journalism is journalism. There are some things I had to get used to, of course. For example, in print journalism, if you need something else, you can go back and get it from a source. You’ll email or you’ll text somebody to follow up as you find out you need more details. With audio, you just have one shot. It’s a lot harder to go back and reinterview someone. You have to make the one interview really count, and that means asking the same question over and over again in a different way, to get details that draw people out. It’s something that I’m still learning how to do, frankly.
What surprised you most about recording a podcast?
The feedback about my voice has been all over the place. I didn’t get so much with Dr. Death, but for Bad Batch I am. Listeners will say, “Oh, the narrator’s too dramatic.” And then someone else will say, “Oh, the narrator’s too robotic.” It’s all conflicting. My favorite bit of feedback was from a listener who said they preferred the host of Dr. Death to Bad Batch.
A recent Edison Research study found that more than a quarter of Americans listen to podcasts at least once a month, many of them true crime. What makes a story stand out in such a saturated genre?
I don’t see true crime being dethroned anytime soon. It will always dominate, because people love it. That said, Bad Batch doesn’t necessarily fit in the true crime box. There wasn’t really a crime, and nobody died. What you need, just like in a print piece, is a good central narrative to hang your story off. The stem cell story is complicated, because you can’t just say it’s all a big con job. There’s legitimate stem cell research going on. The business is growing so much and most of the information about it is coming from people trying to sell it. There’s a lot to explore and explain.
How do you see the future of podcasting, as it relates to journalism as storytelling?
In this business, so much is contracting, like newspapers, so it’s nice to see one aspect of journalism that’s expanding. To see more demand for audio journalism is heartening. It’s reviving a lot of the long-form storytelling that’s been cut in other places. Dr. Death had 50 million downloads. The same story was told in print on ProPublica, which is a hugely popular website, and yet the response from our audio was so much greater. A lot of things that we’re told people want nowadays—shorter stories that are more clickable and scannable—well, you can’t do that with a podcast. I can’t explain it, but people can’t get enough of podcasts.
Do you miss working in print?
I do enjoy doing the audio stuff, but I have to say, in my heart of hearts, I’m still a print writer. If I had to give up one or the other, I’d give up the audio.
Any plans for another podcast?
[Laughs] With two number one podcasts out in a row, Wondery is like, “Do you have anything else?” After Dr. Death, I had so many emails from people saying, “Here’s another horrible doctor to look into.” It was depressing. I don’t want to do another bad doctor story, I want to do something completely different. I want it to be the right story. It’ll be something medical of course.