Alex Blumberg on StartUp podcast, Gimlet Media and the future of podcasting

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Alex Blumberg is a man who needs little introduction... At least not much of one within public radio and podcast circles. He's produced stories for This American Life for years and co-founded the award-winning Planet Money. Lately, Blumberg has been climbing the iTunes charts with StartUp, a new podcast chronicling his efforts to build Gimlet Media.

StartUp not only tells Gimlet's story, but it's also the company's first show. Blumberg hopes to build Gimlet into self-sustaining and profitable network of podcasts and it would seem that he and co-founder Matthew Lieber are off to a good start — they've recently received six-figure investments from a few of the biggest names in tech (Chris Sacca and Marco Arment to name two) and have been praised for StartUp's advertising innovations. They're even open to having listeners invest in the company, as explained in episode seven. In the following interview (which has been been edited for length and clarity), Blumberg talks about the future of podcasting and the challenges of creating both content and technology.

Gimlet Media co-founders Alex Blumberg and Matt Lieber

Gimlet is both a content company and technology company, are you comfortable balancing the two?

[Alex]It's an ongoing tension. What are we? Are we a media company or are we a tech company? You know it's something that we're constantly going back and forth on. I think it's something that every startup faces. There's a bunch of paths for us, and where does the focus go? It's a big focus, it's a big question.

Every path we go down has opportunity costs attached to it. Every hour we spend making tech where we could be making content is a decision, and every hour we spend making content where we could be making tech is a decision. So that's sort of what we're wrestling with — there's a need for everything. You know what I mean? So what's our strength? What do we need?

Some of what we're trying to do on the content side would be easier with better tech. It would be easier to engage the audience and deal with some of the revenue stuff. It would be easier to build out a premium subscription for our listeners if there was a better tech solution — but, you know, is it worth it to build out the tech just to get that? Could we get it another way? So those are all the things we're wrestling with.

Discovering and sharing podcasts are a bit hard. So far, these distribution challenges haven't been a hindrance to developing a big audience for StartUp.

Well, I think big is relative. What's big for me is not what's big for some people in the investing space who are used to thinking in the tens or hundreds of millions of listeners or users or viewers, you know?

Could they eventually become problematic?

So it's easier to share a YouTube video than it is to share a podcast, right? YouTube videos can get a billion hits! No podcast has done that. So in that sense, yes, we've managed to grow a pretty big audience, but if it was easier to share, if there was easier discoverability, would that audience be even bigger? Probably.

But discovery is always hard. It's always hard to get discovered no matter how good the platform is. Most videos on YouTube do not have a billion hits, even though it's easier to discover and share. So just because it's easier to discover and share that doesn't mean those videos are going to be shared. So, I think people can put a little too much stock in it. You always need the other stuff. You always need people to take an interest, you always need people talking about you, you always need to stand out in some way. All that stuff is more important in terms of people discovering what you're doing.

How important is a browser-based, Web experience for Gimlet Media shows? As opposed to delivery to phones and apps through, say, podcast directories — does the Web browser have a role in a show's distribution?

No. I think the channel is an audio channel, and right now the audio channel is the phone and soon it will also be the car dashboard. That seems way more important than browser-based. Some people stream through the website - and that's great and you always want to be on every platform you can be on, but the behavior is far more driven by people who download audio to their phones or stream it on their phones. That is by far the dominant way of listening right now.

Could Overcast (an iOS podcast player) become a bigger part of your strategy, now that you are working with its inventor, Marco Arment?

I think one of the reasons that we were super excited to have Marco Arment on board was not just his $50,000, but absolutely his programming expertise and the fact that he's one of the biggest players in the space right now and has one of the best apps out there and he's always trying to make it better. So no question.

So, you're not the only one looking to create a new ecosystem for high-quality podcasts on the web. There's PRX, PRI, WNYC, and Infinite Guest just to name a few. What have you seen from your competitors that's impressed you?

Well, all those people you've named have podcasts that dominate the iTunes top 10. PRX distributes The Moth, WNYC has Radiolab, NPR has I don't know what it is, 5 of the top 10 or something? So that is impressive. And then the PRX Radiotopia folks were very forward thinking pursuing sort of a network effect and vigorously cross-promoting using interesting podcasts within the network to promote other podcasts within the network and having the whole pie grow as a result. I think that's a very smart strategy and I think it's a way of leveraging across the network.

The one thing that we're doing differently — and I'm sure we're not going to do it differently for long — but for right now the one reason we wanted to raise the money was we want to hire people and have them be full-time producing shows for our network.

There's a little bit of a chicken and the egg problem. The economics really work if you get to the top. All the shows at the top are regular and produced ... there's a theory of production. There's thought that's put into it on a daily basis. It's somebody's job to think, "How are we going to make this audio?" and to execute that. And for that, you need to pay people, you know? To make it their full-time job they need to be able to live. So that's what our raise is for, so that we can actually pay the humans to make the programming that other humans will enjoy. That's the one way we're differentiating ourselves right now. We're hiring people, making a team and having them produce consistent programming.

The history of the podcast is directly linked to a product that seems to be making its exit — Apple's iPod. How dependent is Gimlet's strategy on iTunes and will it play a big part moving forward? What is the ideal distribution platform?

Well, first of all, on the word "podcast," nobody says, "YouTube is a misnomer because we don't use a cathode-ray tubes anymore!" Like right, we know, we know. It's not a tube, it's flat screen, it's plasma. So I'm not too hung up on the word "podcast" — it might go away, it might stay. I actually tend to believe that the word that is here to stay. I feel like it's just a word now, and what's going to happen is it's going to be elevated to mean more than it used to mean.

But in terms of the ecosystem where that product is discovered and downloaded and consumed, iTunes is definitely still dominant. From a producer's standpoint it's great — you just put it up and it's simple and there it is. You can reach everybody on the planet basically and it's pretty easy.

But it's also bad because you don't get any data. You don't know how people are consuming it, you don't know where people are consuming it, you have no idea whether they're listening. They downloaded it, but did they listen to it? If they stopped listening, where did they stop? All these things are nice to know as a producer. It's sort of a dumb technology — it's essentially still an MP3 and it would be nice to build some stuff into that. But, like I said, we're always wrestling with the idea of do we want to move our product to a more app-based ecosystem? That's something that we're going to continue to wrestle with, and, you know, I wish I knew what Apple was thinking.

I'm sure a lot of people do!

It would make my life a lot easier.

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