Inside the podcast network that just teamed with Ellen DeGeneres

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Hernan Lopez.
Hernan Lopez. Credit: Alfred Maskeroni/Ad Age

The fourth annual Podcast Upfront kicks off in New York City today, hosted by the Interactive Advertising Bureau. The goal, like the TV upfront, is to bring together content producers and advertisers to highlight new programming -- and to secure advertising commitments for the upcoming year.

Freshly arrived in town for the one-day shindig is Hernan Lopez, the founder and CEO of Los Angeles-based podcast network Wondery, home to premium fare like "Dirty John" and "Business Wars." Wondery's newest show is called "Dr. Death," a true crime saga of a neurosurgeon in Dallas. It was released just this Tuesday and is already topping the iTunes charts.

Lopez is here, he hopes, to make some news: Wondery is announcing a new show with Ellen DeGeneres called "Ellen on the Go," built around highlights from her daytime talkshow, and two new ad products.

He is also here to join us on a slightly-more-meta-than-usual Ad Lib podcast to discuss the landscape as he sees it today.

"When you talk to large ad agencies, the one thing they want to see more of is scale," he says on this, our fiftieth episode of the podcast. "To this day podcasts still reach about one-third of the total U.S. population every month. But many big brands want to see 50 percent, they want to see the magic 100 million weekly listener number. Many brands see podcasts as a nice-to-have medium, but not a must-have medium. But there's a point at which brands say that this is a space where our consumers are and we can't afford not to be on the medium."

Projections from the IAB and PwC say the U.S. market will more than double ad spending on podcasts from 2017 to 2020 to reach $659 million. That's a healthy trajectory. But podcast advertising still represents just a tiny fraction of U.S. radio, at $14 billion, not to mention TV's $70 billion.

Lopez comes equipped with optimism and a few bona fides: He left his post as president and CEO of Fox International Channels in 2016 after 18 years with the company, keen to launch his own venture. He had become hooked on "Serial" and season one of "Startup," and saw parallels between the podcasting space today and the cable ecosystem when he joined it two decades ago.

"I realized as I was listening to podcasts that there was an opportunity in the audio storytelling space. People weren't quite understanding podcasts as an extension of audio story telling. They thought of them as chat shows or an extension of radio shows," he says. "With podcasting, there is a way of getting those long form stories told and listened to and monetized in a way that allows them to get made."

We discuss that revelation and how he thinks the podcasting landscape will evolve in the coming few years.

"I believe we're going to see networks getting to scale and we're going to see some of the larger media companies or tech companies even acquiring those assets and building production in-house," he says. "It's not going to look like the cable ecosystem of the '90s because that system was very limited in how many players there could be. I think there's going to be a much more open space in podcasts than there was in cable or television."

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