Alex Blumberg on StartUp, Serial, and the Feat of Telling Difficult Stories
2014 was a big year for podcasting, and not just because the This American Life spinoff Serial saw such huge download numbers and so much media attention. Podcasting networks like Radiotopia and Maximum Fun raised money, added new programs, sold out their events in minutes, and experienced cross-platform success. What was once a medium viewed as the refuge for former radio stars and folks with something to say and nowhere to host it, podcasting has rapidly grown into a legitimate business venture.
One of the leaders of this movement has been Alex Blumberg, former TAL producer and co-founder of the hit economic broadcast (and podcast) Planet Money. Over the course of the last year, Alex not only launched his own podcasting network, called Gimlet Media, he also, in true audiophile form, created StartUp, a podcast about the process of starting up a podcasting company (“meta, I know,” says Alex in the show’s intro). Within weeks, StartUp became one of the top podcasts on iTunes, drawing an automatic audience for the shows that would be hosted on Gimlet.
The first of which was Reply All, a WNYC cult favorite and award-winning podcast previously called TL;DR, hosted by Alex Goldman and PJ Vogt. The show drew audiences immediately, which added an extra element of seriousness when Gimlet had its first very-public snag regarding advertising. Naturally, Alex made a podcast episode about it. Entitled “We Made A Mistake,” the episode brought listeners exactly what they had come to respect and appreciate about Alex as a host — his earnest vulnerability as he waded into a new venture.
We wanted to know how the year had been for him personally — after all, he quit his job, he started a company, he made a public mistake, and the medium which he’d choose to invest in had a new rising star. Here’s our Q&A with him.
CL: Gimlet Media is finally off the ground and very public! What do you make of that?
AB: It’s exciting to be finally done with the money-raising and into the show-making. It’s so exciting. We have a great team, eight folks so far, two more on the way. It’s the dream.
What’s the work culture like? Does it feel like how you thought a start up would feel?
The culture is great. Everyone’s committed to making the best shows they can make. We all pitch in to help each other. We’re all committed to making it as good as we can.
Couldn’t be happier. I can’t imagine a better pair to launch with. Not only are they amazing talents, but they have great attitudes. They’re always willing to go the extra step if it makes the episode better.
How has being a business owner changed your personal life?
I sleep worse. Before I was a podcast businessman, when my 2 year-old woke me up at night, I’d get back to sleep. Now, I just lie awake for hours, fretting about the business. That part sort of sucks.
In Episode 9 of StartUp, you admitted to a mistake on Reply All; how has that made you reconsider advertising?
It’s just made it clear that we need good guidelines in place, and we have to clearly communicate with everyone involved.
What’s next in the pipeline after Reply All?
We have an amazing new show we’re launching in early 2015. And then more throughout the year. A lot of great stuff on deck.
Why is Serial such a breakout hit — Is it the format? The story? All of it?
It’s all that, and the incredible skill of Sarah Koenig, Julie Snyder and Dana Chivis. That team, it’s some of the most talented producers in audio journalism. It’s a difficult story to tell, and they’re telling it incredibly well.
Who would you recommend we look out for in the podcasting world new year? What’s next for podcasting in 2015?
I think a lot more innovation and experimentation. Scripted series, daily news, more types of narrative journalism, it’s all coming.
Got your own brilliant idea for a podcast? Check out Alex’s CreativeLive class, Power Your Podcast With Storytelling.
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