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July 27, 2015, 12:43 p.m.
Business Models

Gimlet wants to become the “HBO of podcasting” — here’s what its founder’s learned trying to get there

Alex Blumberg, CEO and co-founder of Gimlet Media: “People who like public radio like podcasts, but people outside of public radio also like podcasts. So let’s find those people.”

Last summer, radio reporter Alex Blumberg made a decision that, by his own admission, was “crazy.” Blumberg — known for his work with Planet Money, which he co-founded with economics journalist Adam Davidson, This American Life, and for sounding exactly like Ira Glass — left public media and started a podcasting company called Gimlet.

Its first podcast, StartUp, documented the launch of Gimlet itself. Season 1 followed the serialized episode model made popular again by the podcast blockbuster Serial and pulled in listeners through a well refined brand of relatable awkwardness and what seemed to be unprecedented transparency about company finances, work/life balance hardships, and business snafus.

More than a year in, Gimlet has three shows: StartUp (season two, about the founding of a dating company, just ended); Reply All (a “show about the Internet,” but also other things); and Mystery Show (a more scripted, quirky show about solving everyday mysteries). The company has 19 employees and expects 25 by the end of the year as more shows are added to the mix. It’s also staying afloat: According to cofounder Matt Lieber, Gimlet will bring in about $2 million this year and will spend about $2 million, numbers he shared with all StartUp listeners in a bonus podcast at the end of the season.

I spoke with Blumberg, Gimlet’s cofounder and CEO, about his ties to public radio and what’s next for Gimlet. Here’s our conversation, lightly edited.

Shan Wang: What’s the process of developing a new show? Do you think of the concept first? Do you find the host?

Alex Blumberg: There’s no one way to do it. Mystery Show came from the host Starlee Kine. She approached me before I’d even started my company. I’d worked with her at This American Life; I knew how talented she was. I knew it was a great idea, and I knew that to get working she would need support — she would need somebody to pay a salary while she did the full-time job of putting that show together, and she would need producers, and she would need help mixing, and she would need all the support that our company can offer.

Mystery-Logo-GimletMediaOthers, we develop with a conjunction of people. The next show we’re doing is a show with Adam Davidson and Adam McKay. Adam Davidson is a longtime NPR correspondent and also a New York Times columnist — he and I founded Planet Money together — and Adam McKay is a director/producer who directed Anchorman, Step Brothers, Talladega Nights. He also produced the viral video The Landlord. They have a concept for a show called Awesome Boring, which is where they take things that you think are boring, and they actually reveal them to be awesome.

Wang: Is Adam McKay the first Gimlet host who hasn’t come from public radio?

Blumberg: Yes, I guess that’s true. And I think it will be more and more true that our hosts will not come from public radio.

When I started this company, if you were looking for someone to do narrative, audio journalism, nobody really did it except these people from public radio. The idea of this company came out of the demand for the podcasts I was producing inside the public radio system, and that demand was growing. With This American Life, the digital audience kept growing; Planet Money, the digital audience kept growing. Year over year, double-digit growth. We thought they’d probably want other stuff to listen to. We could serve that audience with more, right away, and if we had a company, we could also look for other audiences for this stuff.

People who like public radio like podcasts, but people outside of public radio also like podcasts. So let’s find those people.

That was a necessity — just having the expertise. And then, partly, I felt there were a lot of people inside the public radio system who didn’t have a lot of opportunity to do their own thing. That was one of the things that was exciting as well — finding people who were ready to jump into something new, and giving them that opportunity.

ReplyAll-logo-GimletMediaYou see that with Reply All already. There’s this part they do called “Yes Yes No,” which came out of a production poll that we had: How could we do a roundup of stuff that’s happening around the Internet, that just didn’t feel like a boring roundup of stuff that’s happening on the Internet? And then we hit on this format. It’s really fun to do, people love them, and in the grand scheme of things for that show, they’re easier lifts production-wise. They allow us to do more ambitious stuff on the other end. You can do a Yes-Yes-No and you don’t have to send people out to travel anywhere. That’s the sort of thing I wouldn’t have imagined before. It’s just fun to see people solving problems this way.

Wang: There are so many different podcasts and even entire podcast networks now. So what makes Gimlet different?

Blumberg: From the get-go, the idea was that we are trying to be the HBO of podcasting. When you think about what makes an HBO show, it’s that you can depend on that whatever they’re doing — if it’s a crime drama, a vampire sex comedy, if it’s a fantasy production — that it will have some level of quality and attention to detail.

That’s what we’re trying to do. We take more time, we spend more money, and we try to hone and craft more than 95 percent of the podcasts out there. I’m definitely in the sort of This American Life, Planet Money, Radiolab tradition of fussing over details a lot.

Now, that doesn’t mean that every single show that we do will be that way. But we’re trying to do something new and something different with each show that we launch. I think everybody’s trying to do that, but we’re also throwing money at it, which is probably a little bit of a difference.

I think podcasting still has an association with something that two dudes make in their basement. There’s a Wayne’s World connotation to it. But I think of them as shows: sleek, produced, where you have people who are good at it doing it. I haven’t cracked the code by any stretch of the imagination, but that’s what we’re going for.

Wang: You recently announced that Gimlet was going to start paying memberships, allowing early access to shows as well as show t-shirts. How did you arrive at that model?

Blumberg: This is something that we’d always wanted to do, and this was our very, very initial stab at it. We always wanted to have some measure of support, some revenue, from the people we’re making the shows for. If you think about the public radio model, I’ve developed quite a fondness for the idea of it just in terms of it as a business model: that you can grow a pretty big audience just because it’s free, and ads pay for a big chunk of it, but then there is this percentage of the audience that wants to be involved on a sort of deeper level and are happy to pay for that, provided that you get the right mix of rewards for them.

What I didn’t like about public radio is the execution a lot of the time. I didn’t like taking up time on the pledge drive, this “we need your support to keep the lights on,” because, well, we don’t need your support to keep the lights on. I mean, we might, but right now we don’t. Ad rates are high right now, audiences are big, and we can support what we’re doing purely through advertising. That was something I never expected. I don’t want to put things behind a paywall. That seems bad for growth and bad for the audience. So if there’s a way to make this work, that’s exciting. It’s a tricky nuanced sort of pitch that I’m not sure I got right. We’ll see.

I do think there’s one other model we haven’t considered yet that we will want to do on some of our shows. It’s something like what we did at Planet Money with the t-shirt: We had this t-shirt we sold, but we weren’t just selling the t-shirt, we were selling part of this long-term story we were doing about the making of that t-shirt. I think there’s a way of integrating some sort of product with some story that you’re telling on the podcast. I think we also want to try doing some version of that going forward. And then I think maybe we will produce just certain one-off pieces of content? I don’t know. We’re going to continue to look at ways of having the audience be in some way included in the revenue stream.

Wang: What do you think about Ira Glass taking 100 percent ownership of This American Life? Some people had gotten snippy about a quote of his that circulated before that — that “public radio is ready for capitalism.” It seems similar in spirit to what you’ve done.

Blumberg: I think it’s a great idea, and I think it makes a lot of sense for a lot of reasons. I mean, right — I did the same thing myself.

I think there’s a fear, which I totally get, that the content, the program, will get corrupted by big money coming in and changing the things you love, or that you’re going to be less likely to do hard-hitting journalism about the company that’s paying the bills or something. I understand where that comes from. If you, you know, were listening to a podcast that was sponsored by Ford and it was all about how great Ford cars were, take it with a grain of salt. I mean, if all our podcasts were like, ‘Man, MailChimp is the greatest,’ I would take that with a grain of salt if I were a listener. So I get it.

But I think that the people who are doing this, we all come from journalistic backgrounds and values. I think the organizational structure of the outfit that’s doing the journalism doesn’t really matter, that somebody’s always paying your bills. If you’re in public radio, foundations are paying your bills a lot, and corporations, and the people. And if you’re a private company, corporations are paying your bills, and people. I understand that people are worried that the profit motive will distort the product somehow. I mean, certainly, you see that with some cable shows that start out with high-minded ideals and quality programming that quickly devolve.

But just because you’re a for-profit company doesn’t mean that your ideals have changed, or that what you care about has changed. It just means that you’re a little bit more in control of the money that comes in to support your business. Now that I’m in business, I see that people who are in business make all sorts of decisions every single day not to do things that would make them money because it’s not part of the philosophy of the company.

Wang: You just went through something like that with sponsored ads — whether or not hosts should personally be endorsing the products directly in the ad. And you finally decided no.

Blumberg: I think about that all the time. I imagine if we really wanted to, we could say, if you pay us more, we’ll say anything. We could probably do that. And that seems like a really bad…we would never do that.

Wang: Is there anything you and your team think the podcasting world is missing, in terms of show content and otherwise, that might now be percolating at Gimlet?

Blumberg: I think that right now, there are lots and lots of comedy podcasts and there are lots and lots of interview podcasts, and there are more and more storytelling podcasts. But there are lots of other subject areas to talk about.

StartUp-logo-GimletMediaStartUp is in many ways a reality radio show. And I say that not in a Jersey Shore way, with producers drumming up fights between essentially professional actors who are playing real people, but more in the sort of the way it originally began — closer to documentary, with a little bit more feeling. I think that’s a really nice sweet spot for podcasts.

I think audio is better at empathy than TV, and so I can imagine a whole slate of shows that are essentially reality shows that are set in different locations but that explore different issues in a way that’s a lot more sensitive and nuanced than you can be on TV — but that also have humor and drama and all the great things reality shows can have.

Wang: What do you see as the major differences between podcasts and radio? Would you ever go back to public radio after having worked exclusively on digital audio?

Blumberg: Public radio is still servicing primarily the radio audience. Because of that, they can’t focus exclusively on digital and what those demands are. I think the podcast audience is very different from the radio audience. We don’t see a lot of overlap, actually. And the podcast audience has different expectations about how they listen, when they listen, and what they want to listen to. They have different expectations about how a host sounds, how long stories are. That’s the main difference.

What would send me heading back to public radio? I don’t know at this point. Short of a complete collapse in demand for digital audio, which would come out of nowhere, I don’t know. It seems like podcast audiences are growing and public radio audiences are shrinking. Short of a complete reversal of those trends, I’m happy to be where we are.

Wang: What do Gimlet’s listenership numbers look like?

Blumberg: We have somewhere over a million unique listeners — a million and and a half, something like that — across all the Gimlet shows.

Wang: Is there a number you’re aiming to hit in the next year or so?

Blumberg: I had a number, but we surpassed that pretty quickly. I was very, very worried about audience growth, and I had pretty conservative expectations. We’ve grown through those expectations. Now I just want to make sure that we continue to build on that audience and continue to make compelling content that will keep people coming back. Ultimately many millions. I mean, what’s NPR’s audience? 28 million, 30 million? [26.2 million in 2014.] It’d be great, I don’t know when that can happen, but we want to keep on adding the millions. I mean, Serial has shown what’s possible. I didn’t think there would be a podcast with however many million downloads per episode. I didn’t think that would happen as quickly as that’s happened. We now know that’s possible.

Wang: What are your audience demographics?

Blumberg: We know a little bit about them. We know they’re younger, we know they’re generally more educated than probably most media consumers. I thought there would be a bigger overlap between my public radio past and my current digital entrepreneur present. But there are so many people — I hear from them every day, literally every day.

I did this callout in season one of StartUp, asking: If you’re listening to this podcast but haven’t heard of Serial, tweet at me. That was like five months ago now, and I still, every day, get a couple of tweets from people saying, ‘I’ve never heard of Serial!’ It’s been hundreds since I’d tweeted that. I just got one today.

That has been shocking. I just did not think…I thought we were much more overlapping than we are. That’s cool. That’s great.

Photo courtesy Alex Blumberg.

POSTED     July 27, 2015, 12:43 p.m.
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