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Oct. 11, 2016, 10:39 a.m.

Hot Pod: Gimlet risks its image as scrappy and transparent by mishandling a show cancellation

Plus: Radiotopia turns to its listeners for support again, a podcast network partners with a book publishing house, and WNYC starts rolling out internships paid at something closer to a reasonable wage.

Welcome to Hot Pod, a newsletter about podcasts. This is issue ninety-one, published October 11, 2016.

Growing Up Gimlet. Okay, there’s a lot baked into this story and I’m still processing, so this isn’t an argument so much as me thinking through this. Let’s get to it.

Podcastland was lit aflame last Thursday when Starlee Kine, the creative force behind the highly popular Gimlet podcast Mystery Show, published a note explaining the show’s extended silence since wrapping up its first season last July. Kine explained that she had been let go “without warning” by Gimlet in April and spent the past few months figuring out a way forward. “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,” she wrote. “The day I returned, Alex told me the show was unsustainable.” (The note was published both on Kine’s personal Medium account and on the Mystery Show Facebook page, which has since been deleted.)

Gimlet published a statement of its own shortly after. The statement was vague, but it confirmed that the company was no longer participating in Mystery Show’s development. “Mystery Show is an ambitious production and Starlee has an uncompromising vision for the show, which is what makes it so great,” the statement read. “However, these factors combined make Mystery Show unsustainable to produce and publish on a consistent basis.” The company noted that it’s still in discussions with Kine on how she may proceed to produce the show independently. In a recording appended to the StartUp episode released later Thursday evening, Gimlet cofounder Alex Blumberg declined to discuss the issue further, maintaining that some things “need to remain private.”

Pretty scandalous stuff for this still-small podcast industry — so much so that it was written up by more general publications like Vulture, Vox, and Wired. And there’s a lot about this announcement that’s publicly unclear: why Kine’s announcement came out last Thursday, what happened in April, what the actual situation is, and so on. Public response to the news has been fairly negative towards Gimlet for the most part, and in the intervening days, two dominant narratives have come to define the story: (1) Kine was shortchanged by Gimlet, and (2) letting go of the show is a strategic misstep for the budding media giant.

That second narrative is, frankly, more interesting to deconstruct here compared to the first, which has significant potential to devolve into analytically unproductive schoolyard gossip. Whatever happened between Kine and the company is theirs to internally litigate; for what it’s worth, I reached out to Kine for comment, but she declined to extend the issue beyond her statement, and while I was able to discuss the situation with several people familiar with the matter, both inside and outside the company, none were willing to speak on the record. So no, I’m not going to be the one who presents the tick-tock here, but if you’re into that, there appear to be a few other publications pursuing the story — based on some inquiries that hit my inbox yesterday — so you might still be in luck.

The more significant question for me is: What does this mean for Gimlet as a business?

I don’t think the company will suffer much — or indeed, at all — from a revenue perspective. Just looking at the structure of the show, it’s highly unlikely that Mystery Show was ever much of a moneymaker for the company. The first season was made up of six episodes that ran sporadically across a two-month period, and even if you account for an exceptionally strong download rate during its initial run, a fairly strong long tail in the succeeding months, and a comparatively high CPM (set before the show actually premiered, I might add), the show’s very short run automatically keeps its overall revenue potential fairly low. As part of a larger portfolio, Mystery Show would likely have been less financially important compared to the company’s other continuously-publishing properties like StartUp, whose seasonal releases are probably balanced against super-premium CPMs justified by a high-value audience segment, and Reply All, which operates on an industrious publishing schedule and was revealed in a recent StartUp episode to have enjoyed consistent audience growth since launching in November 2014.

Mystery Show’s main contribution to Gimlet was the fact it was deeply loved. It drew critical praise, a star-studded following, and tremendous buzz. The show, after all, scored Kine an appearance on Conan, and it accumulated an exceptionally strong, ardent, and loud fanbase.

And that goodwill, I imagine, is understood to provide a halo effect for the rest of the company’s brand. But Gimlet’s core advertising-driven business model, whose financial health depends on consistent and continuous publishing, values all listeners as equal, and given that Gimlet has no current way to further monetize its audience beyond advertising — and no, I don’t consider the company’s membership play to be an effective secondary channel just yet — Mystery Show’s intense fandom doesn’t translate into a real business case in the company. And while the success of the first season may well have sown the conditions for greater revenue potential for its second season (by virtue of a higher earned CPM), the show still has to be produced on time in a way that make sense within the context of the production costs, which continues to grow as more time is spent on its production. As we know now, the project ultimately suffered from high production volatility, which some companies would probably still consider slogging through if they perceived the potential of, at least, a proportional return on the other side of the investment.

But Mystery Show, as an investment, never really had a shot of generating a strong enough revenue return given its structure, which raises the further question: Why take the risk in the first place? And why continue supporting the show until April — bearing the costs of keeping Kine on payroll, even as the company began to feel that it may not meet its production timeline (which must be enforced due to advertiser commitments)?

The most plausible reason, in my mind, is that the company, well, believed in the art. If we believe this to be the case, then what we have is a company that made an artistic choice that initially paid off but eventually backfired. Which may look naive now, given the circumstances, and perhaps a little irresponsible, given its larger reality as a venture-backed media company that’s accountable for revenue and audience growth, but I’d personally defend it in the overall scheme of things, because I’d much rather media companies — venture-backed and otherwise — take risks occasionally in the service of art (or the public, as in the case of journalistic operations). What I find much less defensible is the way the company deeply mishandled communications in the aftermath of last Thursday’s events, which is a mistake that potentially compromised its core brand dynamics and value.

No two ways about this: Gimlet should have done a better job getting in front of this story and managing the fallout that this incident has brought upon its relationship with its audience. At this writing, the company still has not adequately addressed the concerns that linger on the minds of a good chunk of its audience and fans or even make them anything beyond being blocked out. By skipping that step, the company has drawn into question one of its biggest appeals to its community: a sense of radical, authentic transparency.

There’s a very strong possibility that the company is fully aware of all this and decided to endure that tradeoff anyway. I really have no idea whether this is the case, but if so, it makes the entire situation ever more interesting — and tragic — and it is here, I’d say, that I’m most intrigued about what actually happened behind the scenes. (Though I’m not that intrigued.)

Nevertheless, last Thursday illustrated this breakdown to its fullest extent: Kine’s post dropped hours before Gimlet was set to publish its latest season of its flagship show StartUp. The brilliance of that podcast, which earned Gimlet its initial acclaim when it debuted in late 2014, was premised on a spirit of confessional authenticity, which really shined when it kept the focus on itself. As a listener, you felt like you were friends with these people; you felt like you were glimpsing at the truth; you felt like you were involved in their lives. Gimlet’s blanket unwillingness to attend to this very visible fallout rendered last Thursday’s episode hollow, and perhaps irrevocably undermined the polite suspension of belief that has long distracted you from the actual truth: that even as pieces of nonfiction, these people are still characters on a show, and as much as it feels like you know them, you never truly will.

Perhaps more crucially, this incident also highlighted a fundamental tension within Gimlet as a company that it has never properly resolved: the company actively cultivates a feeling of goodwill associated with being small, scrappy, and independent — a carryover, one would imagine, from its public radio DNA — while at the same time enjoying the advantages of being an empire-building, venture-backed, for-profit business. The company has, in a lot of ways, never really had to publicly confront the burdens, traps, and responsibilities that come with being big and venture-backed, and now it’s doing just that.

Mystery Show’s conscious uncoupling with Gimlet probably won’t matter much in the larger scale of how podcasting plays out in the years to come. But it does mark a public loss of innocence for Gimlet. The company now shuffles out of adolescence, grappling not just with growing pains, but with all the changes those pains bring to its identity. It can no longer be what it once was, and must now fully reckon with whatever it is it wants to be.

Meanwhile, the rest of us in the industry will have to digest how, I guess, we’re all kinda sorta growing up too. *shudders*

The Sarah Awards, part deux. Ann Heppermann, head honcho of the Sarah Lawrence College International Audio Fiction Awards that saw its inaugural prize ceremony take place back in April, informs me that preparations for the second ceremony are currently underway and, more importantly, that its website has been redesigned. Among its improvements and additions, the site now also sports reviews of and essays about audio dramas, which is a piece of news that, I suppose, should count as good timing after my whole warble-garble last week about podcast criticism requiring the development of whole new business models.

It looks like the model Heppermann is using for her commissions essentially amounts to patronage. According to her re-welcome note on the Sarah Awards website, those critical essays and reviews are funded by a “generous contribution” from Panoply — which would probably provoke some sort of conflict of interest concern if the reviews were meant to play a kind of consumer-guide role, except that it doesn’t seem like it. The Sarahs, above all, assumes an advocacy role in the podcast ecosystem — something closer in spirit to a trade lobbying or consumer awareness group, perhaps — which is an interpretation that compels me to further wonder what, exactly, is the business of criticism in the first place.

Anyhoo, the next Sarah Awards ceremony is set to take place on March 28, 2017. Submissions for the awards will open sometime this fall, so keep your eye on the website. Until then, occupy yourself with the site’s Very, Very, Short, Short Stories Contest, which is now taking entries.

Radiotopia Fundraiser No. 2. I’m being told that the podcast collective is kicking off its second annual fundraiser this morning. Recall that this whole direct-listener-support thing is fundamental to the collective’s hypothesis. Check out their website for more information.

Quick and Dirty origins. D.C.-based reporter and friend-of-the-newsletter Simon Owens published a great profile of the Quick and the Dirty Tips podcast network, an on-demand audio operation that first came to life ten years ago when Mignon Fogarty launched its flagship show, Grammar Girl, in June 2006.

The network is really interesting for a number of reasons: It has a distinct focus on educational programming that’s baked into a broad adoption of the advice format. It’s an example of a diversified, multi-platform business built around audio as an anchor of sorts. And it has a unique partnership with Macmillan Publishers — one that sees the former play a talent incubation/marketing role for the latter, and the latter play a business development role for the former. The network reportedly generates about 2 million downloads per month with 18 shows in its portfolio, according to the profile.

A couple of thoughts:

  • Might be just me, but I see a really strong parallel between Quick and Dirty Tips and the Atlanta-based HowStuffWorks network (which I profiled last month, by the way). Both are networks that were born relatively early on in the podcast format’s history, and both pursued growth and self-sustainability through the late 2000s. That the two networks ended up adopting a multi-platform strategy as a way to diversify their revenue bases and further build out their brands is probably not coincidental. But what does appear coincidental to me is a common focus on educational programming between the two networks. I’m still trying to wrap my head around what this tells us about the relationship between form and content, but I think there’s a broader story here about “sexy growth” (for lack of better term, my deepest apologies) and not-so sexy growth.”
  • If there’s a huge lesson to draw from Quick and Dirty Tips as a case study, I think it’s this: Your list of potential allies is always bigger than you think it is, especially if you look in non-obvious places. So, if you’re an independent operator starting your show or a network — or indeed, if you run a smaller public radio station somewhere — it’s worth considering partnerships with companies beyond the audio vertical.

Anyway, check out Owens’ writeup, and do subscribe to his Tinyletter if you’re into media analysis stuff, which I’m pretty sure you are.

Lore is successfully heading to television. Amazon has picked up the podcast, whose development was first announced back in April, with a mid-2017 debut schedule, according to Deadline. Other podcast-to-television projects still on my personal watchlist: Limetown, StartUp, and My Brother, My Brother, and Me.

Meanwhile, in Brooklyn. Chris Morrow, head of the Loud Speakers Network (which is the home of, among other fine shows, The Read and Tax Season), writes in to tell me that they’re launching a new show this week: InsecuriTea, a show that recaps the Issa Rae HBO show “Insecurity.” The recap podcast is a co-production with HBO.

Morrow continues: “[This] comes on the heels of some additional branded content: Rich Friend, a fashion and music show with Avion Tequila featuring The New Yorker’s Matthew Trammell and GQ’s Style Guy Mark Anthony Green, and Colorful Lives, featuring career advice for African-American women sponsored by State Farm featuring Lip Service’s Angela Yee, Friend Zone’s Fran and Tatiana King from Fan Bros.”

Bites:

  • WNYC begins rolling out internships that now pay $11.50/hour as opposed its previous $12/day rate. This comes after a successful petition campaign from a group called Fair Trade Radio that took place in April. (WNYC Careers)
  • “…a core user expectation [of podcasts] is one of interoperability, where as a listener I know that I can listen to my favorite shows in whichever podcast app I choose, whether that’s the latest paid app or the Podcasts app pre-installed on my iPhone. And right now, the best way to enable that is to follow the rules and publish RSS.” RadioPublic’s chief architect makes the case for RSS, along with some helpful code. (Medium)
  • On the kids’ podcast front: NPR is playing around with an experimental podcast for kids and is looking for feedback. And upstart Blobfish Radio launched a “serialized mystery podcast for kids” called The Unexplainable Disappearance of Mars Patel.
  • Remember that tech podcast Bloomberg’s Michael Shane was talking about when I profiled the company’s audio strategy recently? It’s out now. (Bloomberg)
  • Mashable has a profile up on “Jason Flom’s Wrongful Conviction,” a show that comes out of the budding Revolver network. (Mashable)
  • “As accuracy of speech recognition goes from 95% to 99%, all of us…will go from barely using it to using it all the time.” The Economist snapshots the market opportunity in “smart speakers” or audio-first computing. (The Economist)
  • This is a fascinating read: “Podcasting from Prison.” (California Sunday Magazine)

This version of Hot Pod has been adapted for Nieman Lab, where it appears each Tuesday. You can subscribe to the full newsletter here. You can also support Hot Pod by becoming a member, which gets you more news, deeper analysis, and exclusive interviews; more information on the website.

POSTED     Oct. 11, 2016, 10:39 a.m.
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