There here were few things more addictive this summer than listening, with alternate delight and wonder, to Starlee Kine’s Mystery Show podcast. In each episode, Kine goes off in pursuit of the answer to some odd question, like, “How tall is Jake Gyllenhaal?” or, “What is the origin of this cool-but-weird belt buckle?” Whatever the assignment, Kine doggedly pursues the truth, taking the listener through a daisy chain of Hollywood assistants to chef’s conferences in Arizona, along with her.
I confess: I was hooked from the start. But after the first few episodes aired, it became harder to get my fix. The episodes came intermittently. The last one, about the origins of a Welcome Back Kotter lunch box, was posted on July 30. Before that there hadn’t been an episode since June 18.
So when I interviewed Alex Blumberg, the co-founder of Gimlet Media, the new podcast network that produces Kine’s show, I couldn’t help myself. I had to know. “When’s Mystery Show coming back?!” I asked him.
“Sometime next year,” he said. “I don’t want to promise anything more than that. It is a very interesting beast to produce.” It turns out that the show’s premise – solving mysteries – necessarily makes production a little ad hoc.
“Mysteries take a long time to solve. First you have to get to the solution. And then, and then …” He paused. “The other thing is that the solutions have to be interesting.”
This turns out to be a fitting metaphor for what Blumberg is seeking to do with Gimlet Media. He’s trying to do high quality work, the network has promised to be the “HBO of podcasts” but the fact is, high quality work takes a lot of work – and experimentation.
Since founding the company last year, Blumberg and his partner Matt Lieber have had a slew of success. Mystery Show hit #1 on iTunes, and the network’s two other shows, Reply All and Startup, have respectable followings. But for Blumberg, running the business is a learning process. A process they’re learning while they’re previously launched shows are racking up five million downloads a month.
“Every show that we’ve launched has been way harder, required much more time and energy and thought than I thought it would,” Blumberg said.
He described the cost-per-minute of well-produced radio as potentially “astronomical”. Though he also said he thought the risk was worth it: “you give yourself a chance to build a bigger audience that way.”
The company has seen some significant revenue come in over the past year. They are coy about sharing precise numbers. At various times over the last year, in interviews and in episodes of their podcast Startup, the company has mentioned figures like $1.5m in overall investment; up to $700,000 in projected ad sales for Reply All in particular over the next year; and $900,000 just sitting in a bank, waiting to be spent.
Blumberg is quick, throughout our conversation, to express doubts about the financial success his company has seen so far and tamp down expectations. He thinks the company has been “cut a lot of slack”. They have raised something like $2m but more is coming. And Blumberg, who seems to be a bit anxious by nature, often emphasizes that it could stop at any moment.
It’s tempting to read those protestations as sly bits of theatre. It’s not that one doubts Blumberg’s sincerity, his manner is friendly but not robotically so. He swears occasionally (“Holy shit”, “Talking out of my ass”) but not so much that it become alienating, and even has a kind of charming nervousness attached to his “ums” and false starts. But in some ways he is the engineer of his own charm; his manner is also the product of a life spent producing audio journalism.
For the 15 years before he founded Gimlet, Blumberg was an NPR stalwart. He was a longtime producer and host on This American Life. (“I learned everything I know from Ira Glass,” Blumberg said. “This joke that I have from Ira [is that] I sound exactly like him.”) He does.
Then, an episode he produced in 2008 called The Giant Pool of Money, which basically laid out the subprime mortgage crisis in terms anyone could understand, went viral. After that he moved on to found Planet Money, which took the This American Life approach to radio theatre and applied it to financial topics. So he has had a lot of practice in the art of careful self-editing and presentation – he tells me that when they did The Giant Pool of Money, the episode went through something like 47 drafts to get through before it aired.
While Blumberg says Gimlet is still “trying to figure things out” creatively, its shows so far feel very deliberate, the products of careful thought and editing. At their best they have a kind of friendly cleverness, where the intelligence is clear but not alienating. Possibly the best way to describe the shows as a group is that they have a “meta” aesthetic. Of non is this more true than the first podcast the network launched, for example, called StartUp. And the episodes directly chronicled the launch of – you guessed it – Gimlet Media.
This straightforward writing of its own mythology as a business is startlingly effective, not just as narrative art but as marketing strategy. (Blumberg has told other interviewers Startup was, consciously, a marketing tool.) By dramatizing the process, Startup has given listeners a reason to be invested in Blumberg’s success from the start.
And there are a lot of listeners, as it happens: episodes of Startup routinely make the high end of the podcast charts. Many of its listeners have joined the “membership network” Gimlet has set up for itself. While they wouldn’t disclose precise numbers, Blumberg told me that these memberships – for $60 a year, you get a T-shirt and access to some podcast pilots and other extras on the Gimlet website – have provided a significant revenue stream for the company.
That StartUp’s listeners would be loyal enough to cherish a T-shirt is not surprising. Podcasts are, after all, having something of a cultural moment. And, as Blumberg points out, heavily produced podcasts like This American Life, or Serial, which take a lot of time to develop, are actually leading the market. People have an appetite for stories that are well-constructed and carefully told.
I ask Blumberg if he ever worries that the growing popularity of podcasts, and whether the intervention of private enterprises like his threaten the existence of public radio. “Are you kidding?” he asked. “Public radio has dominated this market. Had they sort of been organized more effectively they could have locked it up right away.”
“They have too many advantages. They have immense, immense platforms through which to launch new podcasts,” he pointed out, singling out Invisibilia as a successful show launched under the NPR brand. “They were already the market leader in what people actually wanted to listen to.”
He is prepared to take credit for some shifts in the industry, along with This American Life. “I’m glad that we’re shaking it up. I’m glad that people who were not making much money are now making more money because of that,” he said.
The issue of “making more money” is an interesting one in audio. Usually, the announcers read the ads themselves, as happens on any other podcast. But the ads on Gimlet shows are slightly more “produced” than most. One recent ad, for example, saw Blumberg himself interview an actual user of Squarespace, a frequent podcast advertiser, rather than just reading a scripted segment.
“Users want better ads, advertisers want ads that users like,” Blumberg said. “As long as we can stay within that venn diagram circle where both people are satisfied, that’s great.”
Blumberg seems to have an old-fashioned attitude towards his listeners. “The reason our ads are effective is that people trust us.” The challenge for him is “keeping the deal straight in our heads and the heads of our listeners [so] that we can say: ‘I’m not saying anything that I don’t believe here, but we all know I’m saying something on behalf of an advertiser.’”
Already he, and Gimlet, are getting pretty skilled at threading the needle. The latest episode of StartUp, for example, chronicled the debate about Nazanin Rafsanjani, Blumberg’s wife, joining the company. The episode was largely about the costs and consequences of such an arrangement for the Blumberg family, but there was more to it. Rafsanjani ended up in the role of creative director, where she’ll be in charge of writing the ads. She explicitly likens her role to that of Don Draper on Mad Men.
And so, the episode of Gimlet achieved two purposes: potential advertisers know that Rafsanjani is their point person. And the listener, intruiged, hopes to hear a pitch session not unlike one of Draper’s fantasias.
“We’re doing an episode on that, actually,” Blumberg said.