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“I’m just one guy with a stupid little plan…I don’t know what the F**k I’m doing.”
Alex Blumberg (recording himself at the early stages of starting his company)
CEO, Gimlet Media

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Gimlet Media Founders Matt Lieber & Alex Blumberg

For a guy who admits he didn’t know what he was doing just three years ago, what Alex Blumberg has pulled of is remarkable. And thankfully he’s an audio producer (with an NPR background) so he recorded his journey to share the path he took to becoming a media mogul in the making.

I first listened to the startup podcast StartUp (season 1) when it was released in 2014. I found it interesting, as Blumberg’s podcast was not just about a business startup—but his business startup company.

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After a long career in public radio crafting shows for This American Life and Planet Money, Blumberg decided to launch out on his own.  Because he was reporting on himself it gave a unique perspective on the bold dreams, doubts, and fears that go along with starting any business.

And while the podcast was interesting in 2014, it’s even more enjoyable in 2017 now that podcasting in general and Gimlet Media specifically has flourished.

Their website says “Gimlet Media is the award-winning narrative podcasting company that aims to help listeners better understand the world and each other.” Informally they’ve been referred to as “The HBO of podcasting,” but they’re still a relatively small (in the global media market) company finding their way.

Gimlet itself now has 8 shows which average seven million downloads per month from listeners in almost to 200 countries:

Every Little Thing

Reply All

Crimetown (currently #27 on the iTunes chart of US Podcasts)

Startup

Science Vs

Homecoming

Heavyweight

Twice Removed

Undone

But back when Blumberg started his yet to be named company in 2014 it was just himself and no shows.  So to listen how the company started is both entertaining and informative as he, and his eventual partner Matt Lieber, talk about the risks and roadblocks they hit along the way to realizing their vision.

In show one Blumberg talks to venture capitalist (VC) Chris Sacca who was an early investor in Twitter, Uber, and Instagram, but admits that he’s not a perfect investor as he missed out on investing with Airbnb and Drop Box when they were startups.

Sacca asks Blumberg what is his unfair advantage. What does he have that others don’t? Blumberg says, “I knew it was an important question. But one I didn’t know how to answer.” Just listening to Sacca ask questions is a lesson in VC lingo.

Tomorrow in Gimlet Media we’ll look at FOMO—Fear of missing out. But that question—”What’s your unfair advantage?”—is a darn good question to ask in many situations.

P.S. Because this blog is also about a sense of place, one of the things I like about podcasting is they can focus on telling stories/reporting from places often off the media radar. Gimlets’s Crimetown is a look a shady politics and organized crime that once ruled Providence, Rhode Island. And S-Town (which debuted at #1 on the iTunes chart back in March) is a podcast that takes place in the rural south, in and around Woodstock, Alabama.

Scott W. Smith

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Radio was supposed to die in 1945, when TV came along. It turns out that radio grew and grew, and it’s a bigger business today than it has ever been. People really like to listen to other people talk; sometimes listening is the only thing you can do. Audio is the only medium you can consume while you’re multitasking. Now that everybody has a smart phone and everybody’s car is going to be connected, it’s a brand new world.”
Podcaster & Gimlet Media CEO Alex Blumberg
Here’s How to Get Rich or Die Podcasting

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From my perch in public radio, working at This American Life and Planet Money, I saw podcasting exploding around me. It went from a tiny niche activity, to a behavior embraced by tens of millions of Americans, and many more millions worldwide. And every year, more listeners adopted the habit. Essentially, on demand behavior — something that had already transformed TV viewing habits — was finally coming to audio.  What this means is profound. No longer are we dependent on listeners catching us when we’re broadcasting on-air. We can program with the assumption that people will be listening and choosing to listen. We can tell serialized quality stories. We can create shows we never could have in the pre on-demand world. In essence, we’re at the dawn of a new golden age in audio. ”
Gimlet Media co-founder Alex Blumberg
Forbes interview with Dan Schawbel
Alex Blumberg: Lessons from his transition from traditional to new media

P.S. Of all the current trends going on in podcasting, one of particular to dramatic writers is Homecoming produced by Gimlet Media. It’s a throwback to radio drama which was a staple of entertainment in a pre-television world in the United States. Before Orson Welles made the classic movie Citizen Kane (1941) he created the radio drama War of the Worlds in 1938. It’s estimated that 32 million people listened to that live broadcast.

Time will tell if podcasting renews interest in radio dramas, but Homecoming (psychological thriller) did attract the talent of Catherine Keener, Oscar Isaac, and David Schwimmer.

It’s not hard to imagine screenwriters and actors around the world recording scripts that while don’t get produced as feature films, can find an audience in the podcasting world. Perhaps someone is already doing that on their way to becoming Orson Welles 2.0.

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“I’m a take your grandpa’s style, I’m a take your grandpa’s style.”
Macklemore & Ryan Lewis/Thrift Shop

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I look this photo on Tuesday and it appears the club is doing some renovating

I don’t know if writer Jack Kerouac ever visited the St. Petersburg Shuffleboard Club when he lived at 5169 10th Ave. N. in St. Petersburg. But in the last year of his life he lived less than five miles away. (Two of the places Kerouac visited while living in St. Petersburg in ’68-’69 are still open for business; Haslam’s Bookstore and the Flamingo Bar.)

But if Kerouac were alive today he’d be 95, I think the co-founder of beat generation would smile as Hipsters take over St. Petersburg, where they bike, have a drink or two, and occasionally play shuffleboard.

I began reading about the resurgence of the quintessential elderly game of shuffleboard shortly after the economy sputtered in 2008 and young people were looking for cheap entertainment. It was a perfect fit for hipsters who like riding single speed bikes, buying actual records, drinking Pabst Blue Ribbon, and sometimes wearing long beards or handlebar moustaches popular 100 years ago.

And it was just a matter of time before St. Petersburg inspired a new trend. A few years ago after a trip to the St. Petersburg Shuffleboard Club, New Yorkers Jonathan Schnapp and Ashley Albert raised the money to open The Royal Palms Shuffleboard Court in Brooklyn.

“Snow fell at a punishing slant across the darkened warehouses along Union Street in Gowanus, Brooklyn. It couldn’t be further from the sunny retirement communities of Florida, but inside one former factory, the spirit of St. Petersburg lived on…Brooklyn and shuffleboard may not seem like an obvious fit, but they do share similarities. Shuffleboard is a sport with a low athletic buy-in and offers plenty of time to drink between turns.
Joshua David Steins/New York Times in 2014

Back to the future…

P.S. For years the Friends of Jack kerouac House have been trying to buy the house that Kerouac lived in while in St. Petersburg. I saw where the house was sold in January, but I don’t know if the friends group purchased it or not.

Scott W. Smith

 

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Note: I’ve been on a run of posts about St. Petersburg , Florida and since today they’re having a Jack Kerouac Celebration at The Dali Museum—not far from where he lived and drank in his later years, and where the On the Road writer died in 1969— I thought this was a fitting time to repost an article I wrote and photos I took back in 2009 reflecting on Kerouac’s time in Orlando:

“Someone handed me Mexico City Blues [written by Jack Kerouac] in St. Paul in 1959 and it blew my mind. It was the first poetry that spoke my own language.”
Bob Dylan

“If you’re working with words, it’s got to be poetry. I grew up with Kerouac. If he hadn’t wrote On The Road, the Doors would have never existed. (Jim) Morrison read On The Road down in Florida, and I read it in Chicago. That sense of freedom, spirituality, and intellectuality in On The Road — that’s what I wanted in my own work.”
Ray Manzarek, The Doors’ Keyboard player

Though I’ve spent a good deal of my life living in Florida it wasn’t until yesterday that I visited the house Jack Kerouac lived in for a short time back in 1957-58. I was on the tail-end of a week-long stay in the Orlando area before I flew back to Iowa.

Though Kerouac died in St. Petersburg, Florida in 1969 (on top of living in the Orlando area a couple times) most people don’t associate Kerouac with Florida. Probably because he didn’t write about it much—it’s only mentioned in a few letters. He’s more known for being born in Massachusetts, his brief college experience in New York City and, of course, his time on the road. (Heck, he wrote more about Iowa than Florida.)

The Kerouac Project began when reporter Bob Kealing wrote about discovering the house in 1997. Marty and Jan Cummins happened to own a bookstore not far from the Kerouac house and contacted Kealing about working on preserving the house. Plans were set in motion, but as it is with most visions money was an issue. But after Jeffrey Cole read about the project in USA Today he provided the necessary funding to purchase the property.

Other people and groups would come together to restore the home and launch The Kerouac Project, which includes a writers in residence program. When I drove by the house yesterday to take a few pictures of the outside of the home the current writer in residence, Alicia Holmes, was sitting in the front porch and asked if I’d like to see inside the house. Of course I did.

The house is located at 1418 Clouser in the College Park area just outside downtown Orlando. Though technically he lived in the small porch apartment in the back of the house with his mother. Inside there is a 10×10 room where the 35-year-old little known writer Kerouac (at that time) slept and actually wrote  The Dharma Bums in one of those classic 11 days continual writing sessions he was known for. Though he had written On the Road at this time it had not yet caused the sensation that would eventually catapulted him into fame as writer.

In case you never make it to Orlando here’s a tour I found online.

According to Bob Kealing’ book Kerouac in Florida, back in the early 60s Kerouac bought two lots in the Sanlando Springs area of the Orlando suburb Altamonte Springs with the hopes of starting a “communal retreat.” Those plans never materialized, but if you’ve ever driven from Daytona Beach to Orlando on Interstate 4, you’ve traveled the land once known as “Jack’s Patch,” which is now part of the west bound lane of I-4 just before you reach the 434 exit. Somehow a fitting end for a writer whose best known work was On the Road.

“The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn, like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes ‘Awww!'”
Jack Kerouac
On the Road

P.S. Kerouac died in St. Petersburg and you can read about his final years there in this article.

Scott W. Smith

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“Sometimes bad things happen…”
Simba in The Lion King

Anyone who thinks nature is peaceful doesn’t spend too much time in nature. It can be brutal. Spend a little time around beaches, lakes, and woods and you’ll see the fight for survival up close. Today I captured a video clip of something I’d never seen in my life—a hawk carrying a squirrel. The iPhone video happens so fast you can’t really tell what’s happening, so I grabbed a few frames to show the drama unfold. (Spoiler: Yes, squirrels were harmed in this video—but I was just a witness to cycle of life in nature.)

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Scott W. Smith

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“In my mind and in my car, we can’t rewind we’ve gone to far.”
The Buggles/Who Killed the Radio Star

I thought it would be fun to revisit a post I wrote way back on November 15, 2009 called Cocaine Cowboys & the Future of Film. I wrote it the day after I watched my first Netflix movie online.

Before that most DVDs were mailed to you, or you went to a video store. I remember after viewing that film thinking, how long until Blockbuster video stores are out of business? According to Wikipedia, in 2010 Blockbuster had 4,000 videos stores in the U.S. and 2,500 international stores.  That year Blockbuster went through a world of change. They filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy production in September of 2010 with $900 of debt.

After that Blockbusters began closing stores and I think there are a few stores scattered around the world. There still is a Blockbuster website with a link of some kind of deal they have with dish.

But its retail store days of being a regular part of American pop culture are long gone. Like record stores before them, just a reminder of how the times keep changing.

Cocaine Cowboys & the Future of Film
(blog post from 11/15/2009)

Yesterday was an important day personally. I got a glimpse into the future. And, yes, it did involve illegal drugs.

I watched the documentary Cocaine Cowboys on immediate viewing online through Netflix. The movie has been out for few years but I had never seen it before. Having attended the University of Miami in 1981-1982 the topic alone was of great interest to me. It was impossible to live in Dade County in the 80s and not be acutely aware of the drug trade and the murders that followed in its wake.

In 1981 there were 621 murders in Dade County. (A record that still stands there.)  I distinctly remember the news at that time where each murder seemed more bizarre than the next.  One official on the documentary called Miami at that time, “the most dangerous place in the world.”  (In reality, I think Medellin, Colombia, as in the Medellin drug cartel, in the 80s  technically had the highest rate of murder per capita in the world.)

I personally didn’t see any of the crime (I was safely editing my first 8mm film in my Mahoney-Pearson dorm room) though it was hard miss all the Ferraris & Porsches kicking around Cocount Grove.  And it didn’t take much for a film professor to show us A Clockwork Orange and connect it to Miami. Stanley Kubrick’s futuristic look at a chaotic culture full of brutal violence and murder without remorse was a daily realty in Miami.

But as fascinating as that era was it’s not what caused my mini glimpse into the future. It was simply because I could watch the movie immediately online. Legally. While I have watched LOST online before this was the first movie I have ever watched online.

It was an epiphany of sorts. I had a flashback to standing in line to see the movie ET, 15 years of renting VHS tapes (and paying all those Blockbuster late fees & rewind fees), to marveling how Netflix revolutionized things by having DVDs delivered to your home. Supply & demand and distribution channels seem to be changing quicker than ever.

Now I’m a mid-level tech savvy guy and try to somewhat keep up with where things are heading. I edit every day on Final Cut Pro. I Twitter, blog, and use Facebook yet I just learned yesterday that the push this Christmas will be TVs that are interconnected to the web. This will make your TV more like a computer, stereo, photo gallery and movie theater all in one.  There you’ll link to You Tube, Twitter, Facebook and the like.

Just as people are dropping their land phone lines you have to wonder what internet connected TV will do to regular cable TV. If all you do is push a button and watch the movie of your choice, what will it do to DVD sales that have been in decline for a while? There’s talk of streaming videos the same day they open in theaters.

The battle is on. And some would say its getting bloody. On production as well as distribution.

Anne Thompson wrote a post on indieWIRE called Toronto Wrap: Indie Bloodbathwere she said this year’s Toronto Film Festival marked the end of the old independent market.

There were few sales made at the festival leading producer Jonathan Dana to say, “It’s a massacre.”

Thompson explains, “Fox Searchlight, Overture, Summit, Focus Features, Lionsgate, Sony Picture Classics and Miramax all wanted to buy in Toronto. While they may buy later, at fest’s end, they walked away empty handed.”

It’s one thing for independents to raise the money to get a film made and to get it into the key festivals (Telluride, Venice, Tornoto & New York) but what happens to those films if they don’t get a distribution deal?

Thompson explains, “Most of the 145 films on sale at Toronto will wind up streamed, downloaded, and viewed on a small TV or computer or mobile screen.”

At the end of Cocaine Cowboys one of the ex-girlfriends of one of the drug runners asks, “What I want to know is what happened to all that money?” That’s what filmmakers are wondering these days.

Actually, Cocaine Cowboys may be a good template for the small and micro-budget films made outside L.A. It was produced by rakontur in Miami, premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2006, got picked up by Magnolia Films and had a limited theater release ($150,000 domestic), then a cable run, good DVD sales, and eventually streamed onto my computer last night. Don’t know if anybody made any money along the way but I have read rumors that  HBO television is developing a dramatic series based on the players in the doc.

Hollywood in 2009 is not a more dangerous place than Miami in 1981, it just feels that way. I imagine the film industry is going to follow the path that Miami took after the city was declared DOA. It emerged as a thriving city and a land of new opportunity to those who embraced the change.

Update 4/25/17:  Cocaine Cowboys director Billy Corben (a University of Miami grad) of Rakontur has a new film coming out this year (or next) called Cocaine Cowboys: Los Muchachos.  He also is active and interesting on Twitter @BillyCorban.

And just yesterday, the Orlando Sentinel reported that former Cocaine Cowboy Gustavo Falcon was arrested in Central Florida where he’d been living the last five years under an assumed name. He evaded authorities for over 25 years. He’s now in a Federal Detention Center in Miami and I’m sure Corban and he’s team would love to interview him. But regardless, the new press helps keep Cocaine Cowboys in the news. And as Bill Murray says in Scrooged, “You can’t buy this kind of publicity!”

Related Posts:
Postcard #24 (Coral Gables) Billy Corben also directed The U doc
La La Liberty City
Postcard #25 (Miami Beach)
Miami vs. Florida 

Scott W. Smith

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