Does Gimlet Media still count as a startup? The podcast company is up to about 60 employees, more than doubling its staff since the start of the year. It’s launching a half-dozen new shows this fall (Science Vs and Heavyweight are both now out). Heck, the podcast that chronicles the company’s growth, StartUp, is already on Season 4.
But before any of its new shows had begun to roll out, and before advertising money for those shows started to roll in, anxiety for how the company would pay for its growth set in. All that anxiety, as well as a sad update on the whereabouts of the long-awaited Mystery Show, were captured in the first episode of the new season of StartUp.
The bad news: “The audience numbers for the past few months, which had been growing gangbusters before, have plateaued and even kind of fallen for pretty much almost all of our shows,” Jim Grau, Gimlet’s vice president of finance, says on the episode, which depicted that “paranoid moment” for the company this summer where spending was high but the new shows it was spending on hadn’t yet launched.
“You’re catching us at a paranoid moment, because all the fucking shows aren’t growing,” cofounder Matt Lieber added. “Of course, if you extend what happened in the last two months to the next six months, if we continue where we are now, we are F-U-C-K-E-D.”
At the beginning of the year, Gimlet had set a goal of making about $7 million and spending around $9 million; revenue was on track but costs had grown. The biggest wrench in all of this was that for the existing Gimlet shows — Sampler, Surprisingly Awesome, and Startup — audience numbers were “flat or declining,” with only Reply All continuing to gain listeners. (The team subsequently agonized over whether or not to take on a branded podcast for the Department of Defense, or leave a potentially huge sum of money on the table — they ultimately declined.)
Then Science Vs launched, then Heavyweight, both of which “relieved some of these anxieties”: “As of this recording, we have achieved our revenue goal, and we still have several months left in the year,” Blumberg said.
So as not to bury the lede any further: Gimlet also announced in the episode that it has let go of Mystery Show (go to 32:40 to hear Blumberg’s statement on the matter).
“Today, we made the very sad announcement that Gimlet will no longer be producing Mystery Show…It was one of the most amazing podcasts I’ve ever had the privilege of being associated with,” Blumberg said at the end of the Startup episode. “On this podcast, we are transparent about a lot of things. But there are certain things that simply need to remain private. What I can tell you is I am really, really sad, and I wish Starlee all the best.”
The second season of the podcast, hosted by This American Life alum Starlee Kine had been mysteriously on hold, and news of Mystery Show’s whereabouts mysteriously absent.
Kine wrote in an explanation on Facebook:
In April, Gimlet let me go. This came without warning while I was in the midst of working on the second season. I’d been having trouble figuring out the new season — second seasons can be tricky — and so I’d gone away, to work on an episode. I didn’t make as much progress as I had hoped, but the season was starting to take shape. The day I returned, Alex Blumberg told me the show was unsustainable. I was out. I lost my staff, my salary, my benefits, my budget and my email address. Mystery Show is the only show this has happened to at Gimlet.
Since then, I’ve been working every day to figure out a new plan for the show. I have things in the works but nothing I can announce just yet.
Gimlet also issued a short statement on its website:
Mystery Show is an ambitious production and Starlee has an uncompromising vision for the show, which is what makes it so great. However, these factors combined make Mystery Show unsustainable to produce and publish on a consistent basis, and therefore Gimlet will no longer produce new episodes of Mystery Show. We are in discussions with Starlee to reach an agreement where she may produce Mystery Show independently of Gimlet.