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Posts Tagged ‘Alex Blumberg’

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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“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

Screen Shot 2017-05-22 at 3.36.57 AM

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.

Screen Shot 2017-05-22 at 3.37.56 AM.png

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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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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The moment came at 64 minutes and 11 seconds into episode #300 of Scriptnotes when Chris McQuarrie explained the differences between screenwriting and film directing in just 18 words:

“Screenwriting is pushing a rock up a hill, and directing is running downhill with a rock behind you.”
Writer/ director Chris McQuarrie (The Usual Suspects, Mission Impossible-Rogue Nation)

That’s a great soundbite, and serves as a climax to that episode—perhaps to all 300 programs on the Scriptnotes podcast. Heck, it’s visceral enough to describe the entire 100+ years of cinema.

Sisyphus

Sisyphus=Screenwriting

IJ_rockroll-cropped.gif

Indiana Jones=Directing

I don’t know if there will be another 300 episodes of Scriptnotes where screenwriters and hosts John August and Craig Mazin talk “about screenwriting and things interesting to screenwriters” but it’s been quite a run. Congrats to all involved in making that happen.

Scriptnotes debuted in August of 2011 and was the first podcast I listened to on a regular basis. Fast forward six years and I now listen to podcasts more than I do watching Tv or even movies. (Tomorrow I’ll even start a run of posts on how Alex Blumberg transitioned from NPR/Planet Money to raising $1.5 million to launch the podcast company Gimlet Media. And will look at how it represents a new era for content creators including dramatic writers.)

Here are 10 posts of mine over the years based on quotes pulled from Scriptnotes:

Scriptnotes’ 100th Podcast

Is It a Movie?

How to Get an Agent (Quote from UTA agent Peter Dodd)

I was never good or smart enough to get industry work before I made my first movie—Star Wars:The Last Jedi writer/director

I never saw myself as a sitcom person, but I was waiting tables…—Hit Sitcom Writer

From Houston to Hollywood (Mazin’s interview with John Lee Hancock)

Kramer vs. Kramer vs. Modern Hollywood (quote from Billy Ray)

Film vs. TV Writing (10 Difference)

What’s Changed? (Tip #102)

What’s at Stake? (David Wain)

P.S. The one show I’d like to see Scriptnotes produce is one where they expand on episode 235 showing how the original Game of Thrones pilot was shot and scrapped because it didn’t work. Love to see them explore how the script was reworked and reshot on its way to becoming a hit TV program. (It would be a bonus if Scriptnotes wanted to move into doc filmmaking and make a Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypselike documentary on that topic.)

Scott W. Smith 

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“A successful focus sentence is the most basic, bare-bones version of your narrative arc.”
Jessica Abel
Out on the Wire, Episode 4

A focus sentence is what screenwriters call a logline. The essential elements of your story. In the podcast Out on the Wire, Jessica Abel explains how some narrative & non-fiction radio/podcast producers use the technique “that allows you to slot in elements of the story in order to identify the essential question of the story.”

And she points out that the focus sentence idea came to her from The Transom Story Workshop teacher Rob Rosenthal, who found the concept in the book From Idea to Air: Getting Paid for Your Writing on Public Radio by Tod Maffin.

Jessica explains the focus sentence:

It goes like this:

Someone
does something,
because…
but…

Let’s go over that again.

Someone.
A main character. A protagonist.

Does something.
The protagonist is in motion, in the middle of living his or her life.

Because…
The protagonist has a motivation–inner, or outer–for doing whatever it is that he or she is doing.

But.
There is something that stands in his or her way. Something that makes this action difficult or problematic, and means that the outcome is unknown.

So here’s an example:

Good boy Luke Skywalker is frustrated, living a boring life on a farm on Tatooine. He buys some boring new farm androids, who turn out to have some kind of holo image hidden inside.
Because he’s a sucker for a pretty girl begging for help, he sets out to find “Old Ben Kenobi.”

But the Empire is looking for those same androids, and when Storm Troopers kill his family, it sets him on a path that will determine the fate of the galaxy.

Now on the the  CreativeLive class Power Your Podcast with Storytelling, Alex Blumberg reveals what he calls The Story Formula (another version of a focus sentence:

The formula is:

I’m doing a story about X
And it’s interesting because of Y

It’s hard for for me, it’s hard work for everybody, to try to figure out what is the most compelling way of framing the thing I’m trying to discuss. What is the thing that takes it out of being sort of a stock, tacky way of thinking about something, and turns it around into something that’s fresh and exciting? It’s hard. And it takes a lot of time. And it takes a lot of practice. But I’m living proof that you can cross the chasm.”  
Alex Blumberg
CEO & co-founder of Gimlet Media and producer/host of the podcast StartUp

And just to throw in a third version of a focus sentence Jessica found one more producer, who came up with a more dynamic demand on the story you are trying to tell.

I want to have some reason for that story to exist. I want to be like, It needs to say something back to the entire universe, or say something back to me in my life in some kind of way.

Yeah, so maybe my sentence would be,

This happened ____, then this _____, then this____, and then you wouldn’t [BEEP] believe it but _______ . And the reason that is interesting to every single person walking on the face of the earth is _________.
Soren Wheeler
Senior Producer of Radiolab

So there have three different options to test your story ideas. Find what works for you.

P.S. And I guess this would be a good time to toss in one of the 22 #storybasics I’ve picked up in my time at Pixar by Emma Coats:
#4: Once upon a time there was ___. Every day, ___. One day ___. Because of that, ___. Because of that, ___. Until finally ___.

From the post A Really Simple Writing Rule (via Trey Parker) the South Park gang does this:
 What should happen between every beat that you’ve written down, is either the word ‘therefore’ or ‘but’. So you come up with an idea and write ‘and this happens…and then this happens…’ no, no, no. It should be ‘this happens and therefore, this happens’. ‘But, this happens, therefore, this happens….’”

Related posts:
The Perfect Logline
Screenwriting the Pixar Way (part 2) 
‘The Inside Pitch’ “A logline is a super tiny pitch. A TV guide presentation of your story. Two or three sentences….It’s important to know what the thoughline of your story is…if I don’t hear a throughline, I don’t think you have a dramatic story.”—Christopher Lockhart

Scott W. Smith

 

 

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“Just because it’s a worthy cause doesn’t make it interesting.”
Audio journalist Alex Blumberg

Alex Blumberg is a rock star. At least a rock star in finding authentic emotions.

Between Thursday and Sunday night I caught chunks of Blumberg’s live (and then rebroadcast) CreativeLive seminar Power Your Podcast with Storytelling and was enthralled with what he pulled off with the help of his class.

Don’t get caught up in the podcast part of his title if that’s not your thing, but focus on the storytelling aspect. While Blumberg’s background includes producing for NPR’s This American Life and most recently the podcast StartUp, his ability to talk storytelling was not only informative but moving.

In my last post, I covered some of the nuts and blots I took away from the sections of the talks I heard. Today I’ll fill in a little bit why I think it was one of the top creative seminars I’ve ever seen. (It was no surprise when I later found out that it is the same material that Blumberg presents when he teaches at Columbia University.)

While my last post mentioned the pre-interview process Blumberg did (with San Francisco-based artist Ann Rea), over the weekend I caught the full interview 90 minute he did with Rea and it was 100% engaging.

If you can, buy the $99 class just to salute Blumberg’s and Rea’s gamble and boldness. (A heck of a lot cheaper than taking it at Columbia.) I’ll try here to synopsize what made it special. Though this was meant to be a NPR-like radio program, I swear you could at least write a Lifetime movie script as you listen to Rea’s life story unfold.

What made it such a powerful tag team effort was the framework of questions that Blumberg asked and Rea’s honest answers. You could say the structure broke down into four acts. (I’m flying from my notes so some of the actual details may be a little off.)

1) The desire for Rea to paint at a young age, and the early support she got from her artistic talent. She won a scholarship to art school where she was an Industrial Design major. After graduating she moved to Dayton, Ohio and expectations for an artistic career fell away with the reality that student loans needed paid. (Downbeat)

2) But while in Dayton she met a man who would change her life. She met him the day she moved into her apartment and thought, “He’s my neighbor? Nice.” They got married and eventually dreamed about a life beyond the Midwest and agreed on trying the California dream. He landed a job in San Francisco and they took their goldfish and drove west. Life was full of positive expectations. (Upbeat)

3) The San Fran dream faded when his job was actually in Sacramento and they eventually settled in the suburb of Elk Grove where she spent years working various cubicle jobs with no satisfaction or artistic expression. Financial and marital problems followed until she decided for her own physical safety it was time to leave her marriage. She’d be starting over as their savings were depleted. (Double Downbeat)

4)  She started to paint again and as she talked about that process it reminded me of that line in Jerry Maguire where he’s writing his mission statement and says, “Suddenly, I was my father’s son again.” Rea wrote a business plan because she didn’t want to just paint—she wanted to make a living painting. In her first year as a full time painter she made more than she’d ever made before, and continues to grow her business. And now she helps others turn their artistic efforts into profit. (Double Upbeat)

What you don’t get from my overview is the authentic emotions that were tapped into—in real time over the course of the interview. The laughter and joy of their trip west, the pain of finding out her husband was a closet alcoholic, and the tears of rediscovering her artistic talents—of finding new life.

As a bonus at the end of the second day of the workshop, Blumberg played some edited clips from the interview thereby completing the whole creative process of showing pre-production, production, and post-production.

There were many valuable takeaways for any storyteller. Perhaps none more valuable than asking a question and shutting up. Just letting the person you’re interviewing give raw and honest answers as they tell their story. That’s how you capture the magic—how you find authentic emotions.

You can listen to the edited interview here.

And you can follow Blumberg on Twitter @alexblumberg.

P.S. I promise you I don’t make a penny from talking about CreativeLive (or Lynda.com or KelbyOne training) but it turns out Ann Rea has a class on CreativeLive called Make Money Making Art. I have not seen that, but based on her interview with Blumberg it’s worth at least checking out.

Scott W. Smith

 

 

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