Scripted podcasts are seemingly becoming a new norm in the form of entertainment for both new and older generations. Harkening to the golden age of radio shows like Amos and Andy, Grande Ole Opry to Orson Welles' War of the Worlds tantalizing broadcast in 1938 - the medium is an imaginative audible wonderland, and the creative minds at Gen-Z Media are just cracking the surface with their bounty of innovative storytelling. Founded by creatives Ben Strouse, David Kreizman, and Chris Tarry - the trio is on a mission to tell stories that are both entertaining and engaging, that touch on stories about loyalty and friendship.
Most recently, Gen-Z Media released a new scripted podcast, Tomorrow, a spirited reimagination of the stage play Annie, set five years after Annie’s adoption by Oliver Warbucks, and reset in near-future NYC. The cast is led by Tony Award-winning Laura Benanti (Worth, Gossip Girl), Lance Reddick (John Wick, The Wire), and Alan Ruck (Succession, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off). Created and produced by David Kreizman, Ben Strouse, and Chris Tarry at Gen-Z Media. Developed and story by David Kreizman and Ben Strouse. Musical arrangements by Chris Tarry, Shawn Pierce, and David Molloy.
Ben and David took a moment to speak with Script about their creative mission at Gen-Z Media, how David's television writing background has been easily integrated into scripting podcasts, the type of stories they're drawn to tell through their podcasts and an inside look of conceptualizing a podcast to post-production.
This interview has been edited for content and clarity.
Sadie Dean: Tell us about your creative mission behind Gen-Z Media.
Ben Strouse: The idea was family content because that was what was interesting to us, David and Chris Tarry. We came together around the idea, and we're all writers, we're all creators, but we all have different things that we lean into. And the three of us really were able to hit our stride around this idea of creating these big audio story worlds. That was what Gen-Z Media became. First, we started with one show, The Unexplainable Disappearance of Mars Patel. That worked out well for us. And it worked out well because it got an audience of people who were really enthusiastic. And in podcasts, you can tell a lot about listener habits, you can tell how much someone listens to a show, whether they listened fully through, you can even tell where they're located, how sticky a show is, if they listen to one episode, are they likely to listen to the next? I know that streamers have similar data, but this is data that's available to just anybody. It's exciting. And we saw that our shows were very well received in the sense that people listened to them a lot, and often on repeat, in comparison to other podcasts. So, the idea turned into where we are now in the journey, which was with Tomorrow, is our latest show, which is something that we're very proud of.
Sadie: As you should be, that's amazing. And for you, David, with your background as a successful TV writer, in terms of storytelling, do you find similarities between the structure in television and podcast narratives?
David Kreizman: There are definitely a lot of similarities, just from the sake of cliffhangers and being able to tell them in shorter bursts. I wrote a show called Guiding Light, which started on the radio, and I spent a lot of time listening to some of those old shows. And I was there for the 70th anniversary and we did a show that was about the history of what it was like when they were making live radio. So, I had some familiarity with telling stories in audio in that way. There are obviously challenges, the things you take for granted when you're writing for TV, like being able to know where somebody is and who's in a room. You have to find tricks of ways to do it without being overly clunky. There are certain things we accept in an audio drama, but you don't want someone to say, ‘Well, here I am in my bedroom, and I'm holding this in my hand, and here's who's with me.’ [laughs] You're doing sound design, you do it through dialogue as artfully as you can. And every now and then you have to just explain what's going on and have someone talk to themselves in a way, but it's a great challenge. It's really fun to write. And we've worked with a lot of writers now. And people are very nervous when they come in. And usually, we start by saying write the TV show in your head, and then we can kind of go back and take out every time someone nods. [laughs]
Sadie: [laughs] I love that. It’s so interesting to me because this format of radio storytelling has been around now for 100 years and it's coming back full circle. And now you’re able to reimagine classics, from movies, like Annie – there’s a freedom to your imagination. What was the initial seed for you Ben, to reimagine Annie as a podcast?
Ben: Well, the real initial seed was the success we were having with our other shows. I didn't think about Annie at all, but rather it was brought to me frankly as an idea. We had carved out this space for ourselves in family audio, which is unusual.
I'll back up for a second, in the world of podcasts, 95% of podcasts are what people think of when they think of podcast: talk podcast, people sitting around, interviewing people, news, jokes, maybe it's true crime, but it's basically set up as unscripted. You do have some high concept unscripted as well, but most podcasts are the shows that we know. The biggest shows, audio dramas are perhaps 5% of the market, if that. And within the world of podcasts, there's all these categories. It's such a young industry, it's like what music must have been 60 years ago; they have categories to define things so that you can find things. Because search technology, as sophisticated as it is, doesn't have a preference matching system with the volume of podcasts that are out there. I mean, look at what Spotify has done and the other music services, trying to bring you to other songs that are like-minded. That's taken an enormous unbelievable effort, and expense to do what they do. And it's still far from perfect. So, with podcasts, we're not there. And you have these categories, drama, comedy, big categories, we certainly are in the category of audio dramas. And our show Six Minutes has been among the top audio dramas for three years now. But we're also in a category called kids and family. And in the category of kids and family, we occupy a pretty funny place because kids and family are basically shows aimed at kids, like three to eight, elementary age. And some of them are fantastic. But they're aimed at an audience where parents say, ‘I like this for my kid, and I'm going to sit them down in front of it so they can listen to it. And maybe I'll listen to it with them. But maybe it’s not for me.’ And then you also have in the kids and family category, parenting podcasts where adults talk to adults about how to be a better parent. We are also in that category but we're big adventure stories - fiction. I mean, we're not there yet in success but it's Harry Potter and Percy Jackson, and in TV it's it shows like Buffy or Lost. And in movies, it's Stand by Me, Iron Giant, ET or Back to the Future. Those big story worlds are fun adventures – and so it's tricky sometimes to find what we do by category. And it's a challenge.
Sadie: The idea of starting children at a young age to be immersed in this form of storytelling, rather than sitting in front of a TV, and that's what they're being raised on. I think that gives them again, like going back to that world of being open to your imagination and the playfulness within it, I think is amazing.
David: And we love it. The first time that kids listen, they literally don't know where to look. [laughs] It's such a new medium for them. And so, we hear this from teachers all the time, because a lot of classrooms are listening to our shows, that kids are really confused. Like, they're waiting for something to come on the screen, and it doesn't come and a couple of minutes in, suddenly it kicks in and they realize, ‘Oh, I'm using my imagination.’ Once kids are turned on to it, they really love it - that's exciting.
Sadie: Going back to Tomorrow, is there a writer’s room?
Ben: David oversees the writing and the writer’s rooms. We do have writer’s rooms for all of our shows. Sometimes the writer’s room is three people and sometimes the writer’s room is six people.
David: Yeah, there are four of us altogether, two writing story and two writing scripts. Tomorrow, there were three of us kind of as the story team, and then we have another scriptwriter as well. It wasn't a full-time writer’s room; we'd get together and outline a block of scripts of shows, and then send it on to our scriptwriter. And we keep changing it along the way, one of the great things about audio. And this is also a show that we're recording as we go in blocks. So, we have the story structure, and we're still working on the scripts. But there are changes that we can make all along the way, without going back for giant reshoots.
Sadie: I assume all this is being done remotely?
David: Yeah, up until two years ago, we would record all of our shows by bringing everyone in the studio together. When we made Six Minutes, we’d go into a studio in Brooklyn once a month, and the whole cast would be there. And it was really fun and exciting. They'd be in their isolation booth, but they could play off of each other. And we've had to shift over the last couple of years. There's benefits to it. The benefit is we can work with anyone anywhere, which is great, because we have people all over the country and even outside the country for this show. But yeah, for the most part, people are recording on their own.
Ben: It's great to be flexible. We do miss everyone getting together and having pizza on break. But, you know, it does open up possibilities. For anyone who hasn't already listened to Tomorrow, it's a reimagining of Annie and it's a show which releases over the entire year, it's going to be somewhere around 60 episodes in the first season. And it's a big story adventure, which resets Annie five years after Annie was adopted by Oliver Warbucks and sets it in a postmodern New York City. So, it's based on the iconic IP, but that's just sort of the starting point.
Sadie: What is the typical turnaround for an episode from getting the script done to recording and post-production, to the initial release?
David: It varies by show. Tomorrow, we are recording them in blocks; we're recording the kids in blocks of six episodes at a time, the adults we're doing in blocks of twelve. And generally, we have in between the recording and when it launches, about a month and a half to two months, something like that, to edit it. Writing the story took a good four or five months to really crack the story. I mean, we were thinking about it for a year and a half.
Ben: And we tried on all kinds of versions. It's a particularly stubborn story. Because at the end of the stage play, it's a beautiful love story. And everything's wrapped up nicely. It's not the first time people have tried to solve this problem. But at the end, everything's perfect and people feel good, and the characters feel right, and everything's balanced. And so, it's cheap to come in and just create a local problem that has nothing to do with anything and pretend it didn't happen before. So to find a new universe, which feels true to the spirit of the original and what is Annie about; it's about hope, it's about finding family, it's about the things that you asked before about how we came to Annie. I mean, it came to us because we were already writing about those themes in shows like Six Minutes and our natureverse series, which is a series of shows about teenagers who come into these superpowers like Mother Nature and the Grim Reaper, shows like Treasure Island 2020, which was a reimagining of the classic with new characters and such. But my point is merely that we're very interested in stories that touch similar themes: loyalty and friendship. What do you do in difficult circumstances? As a teen or tween? Or a parent? And Annie seemed like a perfect fit.
Sadie: Where do you hope to see the future of scripted podcasting?
David: I think everything that we make, we have that discussion of what could this be afterward, whether it's books, movies, TV - that's important. Our first priority is always making a great audio show. And I think our greatest hope is that this medium becomes a big thing for kids. I think a real small percentage of kids know about podcasts and listen to them in this way. Which is exciting for us, because there is this big market that we haven't reached yet. We know it's out there. And we see how much kids do love it when they get into it. But it really is, at this point, not something that is a part of most kids’ lives. So that's where we hope this goes - but with all of our shows, it's exciting, we've had some shows, starting to be developed as TV shows, and we hope that happens for Tomorrow as well.
Ben: And some shows that have been developed for television, like The Big Fib, which is on Disney+. Another interesting thing about our shows, which was sort of unexpected, is that some of them notably Six Minutes have been adopted by middle-grade educators around the world, not just the country. It's fascinating. There are thousands and thousands of classrooms that have started listening to our shows and they use it for critical thinking and ELA curriculum. And it took us by surprise. We decided each of us - Chris, David, and me - at least once a week virtually visit classrooms usually around North America, but occasionally outside of the continent to just to listen, to meet kids in class and teachers who are in the middle of our shows or are just finishing up and answer their questions, which are usually about story, just like what you're asking. It's fascinating.
You can listen to Tomorrow free every Monday or you can listen to episodes one week early on Amazon Music. For early and ad-free listening, subscribe to Wondery Plus in Apple Podcasts or the Wondery app.