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“This is certainly the fastest that a podcast has accrued that big of an audience, no matter how you cut it.”
Nick Quah on S-Town

I’m not sure a screenwriter has hit the network TV talkshow circuit since 2007/08 when Juno brought Diablo Cody fame. But S-Town podcast producer Brian Reed was interviewed on Jimmy Kimmel earlier this month. One more indication of rapid changing times in the digital world.

Who would have bet a year ago that a podcast set in Woodstock, Alabama would capture the nations attention? If William Faulkner were still alive he might take that bet (if he’d had a few drinks). Flannery O’Connor might have even taken that bet sober. Because those two writers knew that dark Southern Gothic tales can be powerful.

For at least a season the torch of mythical Southern storytelling belongs to Reed, a Jewish New Yorker. And along the way he’s helped make sundials cool again. And the results could cause the rising generation of content creators to rethink what they’re creating.

As I type this S-Town currently sits atop the iTunes charts of podcasts in the United States. It’s lived there (or around there) since its release in April. The New York Times called it a blockbuster after 16 million episodes were downloaded in its first week.

Reed will tell you he didn’t have dreams of wild success with this podcast, but it’s not like he got lucky either. He’s part of This American Life where he came up learning from Ira Glass, and the S-Town producer was the co-creator of Serial which was the jolt that the podcasting world needed in 2014 to say, “There’s a new sheriff in town.”

Recently I was asked what media consumption podcasting has replaced—I said all of it. Which was a little bit of an exaggeration, but it’s true to say that listening to podcasts all pretty much totally replaced listening to CDs and the radio, the TV doesn’t go on for days in a row at my house, and this three-day weekend I couldn’t even find one movie I was interested in investing time and money into. But podcasts—I’d say I’m at around 10 hours a week consuming.

That’s why I think Chris Giliberti’s Forbes article  Reasons 6 Why Podcasting Is The Future Of Storytelling is worth your read.  But here’s his shorthand list:

  1. Investment is increasing
  2. Content is improving
  3. Talent base is growing
  4. Distribution is expanding
  5. The connected car is here
  6. Virtual Reality is on the way

Everyone knows what a brutal business the film industry can be. Just yesterday I heard report that film schools are graduating more people each year than work in the entire film industry. meaning that everyone working in the industry would have to quit their jobs for the new graduated to find work in the film business. I doubt that’s totally true, but it’s tough racket.

I think that podcasting will become a way for storytellers of all sorts to get traction in the film and Tv world. If you can tell a compelling story and build and audience via podcasts you can not only earn a living, but I believe there’s a better chance to find film/tv success than just hanging out at Starbucks trying to finish that script your working on.

And when Jimmy Kimmel calls, please send me a thank you note.

Scott W. Smith

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As of May 2017, podcasting now takes up more media consumption in my life than reading newspapers/online articles, watching TV or watching movies.

With the proliferation of smartphones and cars that now allow downloading of podcasts some are calling this the golden age of audio. In 1938, as Laura Hillenbrand pointed out in her book Seabiscuit, 40 million people listened to the horse race between Seabiscuit and War Admiral. This was during the depression when television was in its infancy, and radios were cheap and ubiquitous.

Even with the added competition of cable TV and the internet over the years radio has been a survivor. Podcasting and podcasting app aggregators like Stitcher now lead many to believe that the digital demand makes podcasting a growth platform.

But the future of podcasting is still a big question mark. On June 17, 2015 The New York Times ran an article titled Podcasting Blossoms, but in Slow Motion. The writer, Farhad Manjoo, asked, “Is podcasting in the middle of a long boom or a short bubble?” A 2015 Edison Research report showed that podcast listeners went up 2% from the pervious year and now reach an estimated 46 million people.

Manjoo also made this observation, “Gimlet is betting that high production values will win the future of podcasting. Gimlet’s shows also suggest that podcasting can foster new kinds of programming that might never have taken off in traditional radio.”

I’ve long appreciated the storytelling ability of radio greats Garrison Keillor (Prairie Home Companion) and Ira Glass (This American Life), and in 2014 with both the success of Serial podcast and the launch of Gimlet Media it sure looks like podcasting is more than a fad. And a place for storytellers to find an audience.

Time will tell if it’s back to the future. It was almost 100 years ago when radio dramas in places like Schenectady, New York and Cincinnati, Ohio began airing full stage plays with actors and original one-act plays written for a radio audience.

Scott W. Smith 

 

 

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STARTING A COMPANY VS. RUNNING A COMPANY

Once his podcast company Gimlet Media was up and running CEO Alex Blumberg realized there was a difference between starting a company and running a company. It’s almost like finishing a marathon and the next day starting an ironman race. Much endurance and stamina is needed.

Running a startup business is not a 9-5 job. The wild success of the Serial podcast developed by Blumberg’s former employer This American Life brought new respect to podcasting and raised the production bar.

Gimlet Media started with two podcasts (StartUp and Reply All) and it became clear listening to season one of the StartUp podcast that all employees were pushing themselves to exhaustion. PJ Vogt, one of the hosts of Reply All, said seriously “I don’t need to have a personal life this year.” His co-host Alex Goldman added, “We cannot keep the pace of going the way we’re going.”

Investors were pushing for growth. More shows, more advertising revenue. More advertising revenue, the more the company was worth. Remember “moderate growth is enemy.” Mistakes are also the enemy of any startup. Part of their small team of people included some who were young and inexperienced. “Mistakes want to get made,” Blumberg said reflecting on an early blunder.

Within the first year of its launch Gimlet Media had viewership 10 times what was projected. They were pioneering native advertising where the advertising looks and feels like the non-advertising content that surrounds it.

But this got Gimlet Media caught it what Blumberg called “the wrong side of native advertising” when the mother of a 9-year-old they interviewed thought her son was being interviewed for This American Life instead of an advertising spot for Squarespace. A Tweetstorm ensued with comments aimed at Gimlet, “When we blur the lines between marketing and journalism to the point of where people are misinformed that’s just lying.”

Gimlet has a presence on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn, and prides itself on transparency. So they owned their mistake and gave a public apology, and it led to a clarification of their native advertising policy which you can find on their website. No one said starting a company with a small group of people was going to be easy. (To see native advertising done correctly see the Open for Business work Gimlet’s creative team did for ebay.)

Related posts:
Power Your Podcasts with Storytelling (Part 1)
Power Your Podcasts with Storytelling (Part 2)

Scott W. Smith

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When Alex Blumberg was trying to raise money for his startup podcast company he eventually understood the importance of his pedigree—his professional background. Blumberg realized that his “unfair advantage” was spending 15 years in public radio working alongside radio producer extraordinaire Ira Glass producing quality radio programs. Simply put— knows how to put together quality stories. His Planet Money Makes a T-shirt special series raised $600,000 from viewers and the documentary won an Emmy, signaling to investors that Blumberg not only had creative talent, but had an entrepreneurial side as well.

He partnered with Matt Lieber who brought a business backbone to the company. It was important to investors that while Blumberg had spent a career in public radio that he wasn’t against making money. He and Lieber honed their business plan and pitch over time and started to get FOMO (fear of missing out) and raised over a million dollars. They reached out to listeners in season one of their podcast StartUp for the remaining $200,000 needed for the initial goal of hitting $1.5 million dollars.

The company launched in 2014 and by 2015 their ad revenue was over $2 million dollars. In August of 2016, Max Willens of Digiday reported Gimlet Media had a “A $6 million round of funding raised late last year, from a group of investors led by Graham Holdings, fueled that expansion (the infusion valued Gimlet at $30 million).”

So out of the gate Gimlet Media is seeing solid ad revenue, continues to bring in investment dollars, and is building a relatively “small but meaningful” group of listeners. (That’s small verses traditional media giants, but Gimlet says their podcasts are “downloaded seven million times per month by listeners from nearly 190 countries worldwide.”)  And some of that fan base is willing to subscribe to a $5 per month membership where they in return gain early access to programs (and a Gimlet t-shirt if the pay for the entire year up front).

Yet, Gimlet Media is still not running a profit. It takes a lot of people to run a company. What started with just Blumberg and Lieber quickly became four people in the first few months, and then was up to 16 people by its second year, is now a team of over 60 people. (For what it’s worth, the Brooklyn-based Gimlet Media team appears from their website to be approximately 66% female.)

And that team has helped produce four programs that last month were in the top 100 podcasts in the U.S. according to iTunes.

Scott W. Smith

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Note: This is part two of a look at how radio producer/podcaster Alex Blumberg raised money to start Gimlet Media in 2014. Most of the material in these posts came from listening to the first season of Gimlet Media’s podcast StartUp.

In the episode How Not to Pitch a Billionaire, venture capitalist Chris Sacca tells Alex Blumberg that he’s missing FOMO—Fear of missing out. “Once you have FOMO on your side,” said Sacca, ” you no longer have to ask people for money.”  There comes a point when you are seeking funds where you’re gaining attention from inventors who don’t want to miss out on something that appears to be a big moneymaker. Sometimes at this point investors seek you out rather than you going door knocking.  It’s very clear that when Gimlet started out it lacked FOMO.

The problem was that podcasting had been around since 2004 and no longer felt like the new kid on the block when Blumberg went around pitching his company that he originally called the American Podcasting Corporation. And there didn’t seem to be a public organization that was bringing in major dollars through podcasting.

Sacca explained to Blumberg and Lieber, “It’s difficult to see this as a venture scale business based on what you guys have said. For me to think of this as a venture scale $100 million plus opportunity I would want to see that acquisition model proven out a little bit. Like cost this much to produce a show, X-percent of shows are hits, it’s this much value to listeners, these are the ways to acquire listeners and blended acquisition cost is X, and more or less I know what that looks like and here’s how we scale it in order for me to want to participate.”

Basically what Sacca was saying that he wasn’t interesting in creating a lifestyle business that provided a few people jobs to produce quality shows and perhaps brought him a little return on his investment. Venture capitalists like him want a path to potential earnings that just don’t double their money, but that 10X their investments. Moderate growth in his circle is seen as the enemy.  They want exponential growth. And ideally they like to see that return in 3 or 4 years, not 10 years down the road. And the most likely way for that to happen is for a Disney or a Yahoo! to buy Gimlet Media.

While Blumberg admits that he doesn’t have the drive of Uber founder Travis Kalanick, he’s not quite content with just seeking a lifestyle company. Otherwise he wouldn’t have left a secure producer position at NPR with salary and benefits to set out on his own. A direction full of the unknown. (But I do sense that if Blumberg did sell his company to Disney or Yahoo! in five or ten years that he’d be content to take his millions and create one quality podcast in his basement with a small team of people.)

But in 2014 as he recorded the StartUp podcast, it’s also clear that he had a little fire in his belly to swing for the fences. And fortunately he discovers that not all investors are looking for huge returns. There are other investors in the sea.  Investors that just get on board with your vision, or because podcasting seems like fun in a way that most investments are aren’t. And one investor tells Blumberg that he’ll invest based on his NPR pedigree.

We’ll look at that pedigree in tomorrow’s post.

Scott W. Smith

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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 off 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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