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.
Others, 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.
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.
You 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.
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.
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.
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.
StartUp 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.
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.
@abexlumberg never heard of serial… seen a big S within the past week because of related podcasts but other then that … no. love startup.
— Ken Rossi (@kenrossi) July 23, 2015
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.
Learn more about NPR