Can Former Planet Money Host Build the ‘HBO of Podcasts’?

Meet Alex Blumberg, an earnest nonprofit kind of guy trying to make it in the decidedly for-profit, bare-knuckled tech world.

Alex Blumberg
Gimlet Media co-founders Alex Blumberg (left) and Matthew Lieber (right) in their meeting area of Gimlet’s offices (Photo: Emily Assiran/New York Observer). Emily Assiran/New York Observer

“Are you meeting someone with money? Alex Blumberg’s wife asks him within the first 30 seconds of the first episode of StartUp, his podcast about launching a podcast network. Maybe Mr. Blumberg should rethink his footwear, she suggests. “They’re fine, there’s just a higher chance that he’ll give you money if you aren’t wearing running shoes.”

And so the tone is set for the series. Mr. Blumberg is the hapless public radio host with big dreams, heading out West to find his fortune in Silicon Valley.

“At a certain point, I realized starting this company, this is a story. A story that a business reporter like me would have killed for, with behind-the-scenes access to all these embarrassing details that never get reported,” Mr. Blumberg, a former producer of This American Life and host of NPR’s popular business podcast Planet Money, explained to listeners. “Like, for example, when you’re about to make your first-ever pitch to an investor, how do you dress? Business formal? Tech casual? My wife took issue with my shoes.”

Meet Alex Blumberg, an earnest nonprofit kind of guy trying to make it in the decidedly for-profit, bare-knuckled tech world. He isn’t trying to invent the next Facebook. But his goal is no less grand. “When I was first pitching this idea,” said Mr. Blumberg, wearing the standard New York creative outfit of plaid collar shirt and crewneck sweater (scuffed brown boots replaced the running shoes; it was a cold day), “I said I wanted to be the HBO of podcasting.”

We were sitting in the Downtown Brooklyn offices of Gimlet Media, the company he started last year after leaving NPR. “The brand is united by some kind of commitment to quality,” said Mr. Blumberg, who has the nice-guy looks and fidgety manner that his Ira Glass-inspired voice suggests. “We could do hard news shows or more narrative storytelling, but whatever it is, it will have some sort of attention to editorial quality.”

Mr. Blumberg certainly has good timing.

Sarah Koenig, another This American Life alum, had a smash hit with Serial, the gripping series about a 1999 murder—the first podcast to reach 5 million downloads in a month. The show drew a huge, enthusiastic fanbase and generated–and continues to generate–a flurry of coverage. Slate even launched its own weekly podcast to pick apart each episode.

“Serial permeated the popular cultural consciousness enough that now you don’t have to be like ‘a podcast is like a radio show,’ and that whole song-and-dance,” explained Mr. Blumberg. “It’s made it easier dealing with advertisers. And then, of course, it’s brought in tons of listeners.”

Serial didn’t only popularize the term “podcast,” it got scores of potential listeners to figure out how to download them onto their smartphones. An estimated 46 million Americans have listened to at least one podcast in the past month, according to Edison Research, which has been tracking the podcast audience for the past decade. The burgeoning industry now even has an unofficial newsletter—Hot Pod, launched in November by Nick Quah.

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The sudden surge in interest surprised even an evangelist like Mr. Blumberg, who says StartUp pulls in roughly a million listens a month. “I always thought that podcasts could get audiences in the millions. That’s why we built this business,” he said. “But I didn’t think it would happen in the first couple months.”

Despite the podcast boom, attracting attention for a new show—and many are launching—without a platform or brand, remains a challenge. The landscape is diffuse; shows are accessed through the iTunes store, and broken down into very general categories. There is still no Netflix-like algorithm to promote discovery.

Coming from established shows with built-in audiences, Mr. Blumberg conceived StartUp as a marketing tool, a way to raise brand awareness with a compelling story about starting a company. The appeal of the podcast is a rare level of transparency, a no-holds-barred look at starting a company. In documentary style, Mr. Blumberg turned the recorder around on his wife, his co-founder Matthew Lieber, employees, investors, advertisers and himself. The gambit paid off.

“Originally, I thought it was just going to be a way to hook people into the idea of the company and build up some kind of audience as I was starting this company from scratch,” he said. “But I didn’t realize how emotionally complicated this story was and how much of an impact it would have on me, and how emotionally resonant it would be with people listening.”

It was so resonant that two days after an episode aired looking for listeners to invest, Mr. Blumberg recorded a follow-up message: They were now fully funded (he ultimately raised $1.5 million, mostly from VCs).

Alex Blumberg/Gimlet
Alex Blumberg and the staff in the Gimlet office (Photo: Emily Assiran/New York Observer).

Over the course of 14 episodes, Mr. Blumberg went from work-shopping his pitch to coping with the realities of being the boss. There is an Office-like quality to the show, except Mr. Blumberg serves as both the main character and interviewer.

“Clearly, [Mr. Blumberg’s] much smarter than he lets on. It gets at the best thing about podcasts, which is being able to really get in someone’s business,” Mr. Quah said. “That’s what makes it special. He’s your conduit to the tech world.”

He regularly records his wife, answering his questions about the toll the business is taking on their family and their finances. “You just don’t really have a very realistic conception of money,” she says at one point. Other episodes deal with the company’s struggle to come up with a name (they settled on Gimlet Media after an earlier pick, the Esperanto word for ear, Orelo, was deemed too dorky).

Another episode explores the workplace environment and the heightened stress that the employees, who have been pulling a succession of all-nighters, are under. The most notable moment comes when Mr. Blumberg realizes that when he thought he was assuring his staff that they wouldn’t need his editorial skills as much eventually, what they heard was that the stress level was not going to change. After hearing their reactions and his own, Mr. Blumberg reevaluates his management style, and institutes small but effective changes such as weekly meetings.

“Once it was up and running, we were like, ‘Oh, of course there is a really big community of people who are really interested in this topic and the way we are covering this topic,’ ” Mr. Blumberg said.

Gimlet media’s launch may have been fortuitously timed to take advantage of the podcast boom, but StartUp can also attribute much of its popularity to a surge in interest in the tech boom.

Billion-dollar valuations for previously unknown apps, such as messaging service WhatsApp, dominate the news. Phrases like “user experience” and “minimal viable product” have spread from Northern California to the larger culture. StartUp gives a window into that world, explaining the actual process of funding with the naiveté of a humanities major. It’s Silicon Valley for the public radio listener.

Early on in the first episode, the listener hears Mr. Blumberg, hesitantly stumbling over his pitch to Chris Sacca, a tech investor with an uncanny track record who Inc. compared to a young Warren Buffett, outside an unglamorous sushi restaurant in L.A.

Mr. Blumberg is just like us, or the us we would like to be: Smart and skilled enough to inspire a rich investor to help us figure out how to pitch our company, awkward and seemingly authentic in a way that’s at once endearing and identifiable.

Explaining the differences between himself and Mr. Sacca, Mr. Blumberg points out that before he was a public radio producer, he was a teacher. Before that, he was a social worker. “All this to say that Chris Sacca and I run in different circles,” he says, in case the social context of the narrative was somehow lost.

At one point in the season, Mr. Blumberg realizes that he’s as confounding to the big money investors as they are to him.

“You don’t have that blood-thirsty ambition,” Mr. Sacca tells Mr. Blumberg. “Sometimes when I talk to you I get signals that yes, you are on your way to grow and build what could be a massive media company. And other times, I get the sense you really just want to make art and have this break even.”

Mr. Blumberg assures Mr. Sacca that if he did just want to break even, he would have stayed in public radio. But he concedes that it speaks to a larger question: Whether he has “the soul of an entrepreneur or an artist.”

“A lot of founders are driven to change the world and make a mark in a very particular way. And that’s awesome. But that’s clearly not what’s going on with me,” Mr. Blumberg told me. “To me, the question is what is the thing that’s driving you. And the thing that’s driving me is that I just love making this stuff. And miraculously for me, there’s a big audience and it’s growing.”

Of course, that earnest public radio persona is potentially profitable. Maybe Mr. Blumberg’s self-effacing, thoughtful depictions of his own anxiety and his nerdy passion for quality audio is his “unfair advantage,” a VC term flung around frequently by Mr. Sacca. After all, public radio background inspires the confidence of listener and advertiser alike.

“Alex Blumberg,” Mr. Quah said, is “really benefiting from the implied, subtle trust that people have in public radio hosts.”

This has been underscored in the past year, which has seen enough public radio veterans defect to podcasting companies to prompt talk of an exodus.

Last week, Chris Bannon, WNYC’s vice president for content development and production, announced he was leaving the station to head up content development at Midroll Media, a competing podcasting platform. Reply All, Gimlet’s second show, which collects obscure stories about Internet culture, is hosted and produced by PJ Vogt and Alex Goldman, both former staffers at WNYC’s On the Media (several other Gimlet staffers are also WNYC veterans).

That podcasting companies (and podcasting departments at media companies like BuzzFeed) are poaching audio talent shouldn’t come as a shock, but it does emphasize the rise of podcasting companies as a competitive alternative. Earlier this week, Slate, which was early to the podcast game, announced Panoply, its own podcast network.

Alex Blumberg at work in the Gimlet office. (Photo by Emily Assiran/New York Observer)
Alex Blumberg at work in the Gimlet office. (Photo by Emily Assiran/New York Observer) (Photo: Emily Assiran for Observer)

Producers and hosts are attracted to the creative freedom. Podcasts don’t have to be a specific length. Unlike nonprofit public radio, many podcasts have advertising, and the hosts of the shows often incorporate sponsor messages into the show as native advertising. During StartUp, the advertising became a part of the show, delineated by musical cues. Mr. Blumberg interviewed the companies and their customers, effectively making the ads into miniature segments.

“Most people listen to podcasts with headphones, so you are actually in the person’s ear,” said Ryan Stansky of Squarespace, a website design company that started advertising on podcasts five years ago and currently can be heard during an average of 100 podcasts a month, including StartUp. “It’s a very intimate space that people consume podcasts in, so they end up feeling very close to the host. And ultimately, to our brand. If we can get the host really excited about Squarespace and get them using Squarespace, then it all comes through.”

In many ways, podcasts are an advertisers’ dream. During the Serial mania, MailChimp’s ads, where children sound out and mispronounce the company’s name (“MailKimp?”) became a meme, a particularly impressive feat for an email distribution company.

Listeners like and trust hosts. If radio typically played as ambient background noise, podcasts play whenever you want and wherever you are. Before I had met Mr. Blumberg, he had already accompanied me to the gym and the grocery shop. When I got a phone call, it was his voice that was interrupted mid-sentence. Listening requires sustained attention. Unlike text or video, it can’t be mindlessly opened in a tab at the office. And it’s hard to fast-forward through the ad while listening. There is no banner blindness (at least, not yet). The audience may be smaller, but it’s attentive.

But whether an attentive audio audience is enticing enough to create the HBO of podcast companies remains to be seen.

Reply All, Gimlet’s second show, which premiered in late November, is attracting an enthusiastic audience by finding obscure stories about Internet culture. Gimlet plans to unveil more new shows in the coming months.

For the second season of StartUp, which comes out in April, Gimlet wanted to focus on a different company facing different challenges. Although Gimlet isn’t releasing the name, it quickly became public on Twitter. Dating Ring, the next subject, came out of Y Combinator, a prestigious startup incubator, and is one year old. The founders are women in their 20s and the startup is in the online dating space, not the podcast industry.

Not surprisingly, Mr. Blumberg is looking forward to no longer being on both sides of the microphone, subject and host, all while starting the company.

“It’s so exciting not to have to have the actual drama and tension of the podcast be the drama and tension in my life,” Mr. Blumberg said. “Every single horrible day for me, I was like, ‘Well, at least it will make a good podcast.’”

Can Former Planet Money Host Build the ‘HBO of Podcasts’?