Alex Blumberg of Gimlet Media
Craig Cannon [00:00] – Hey, how’s it going? This is Craig Cannon, and you’re listening to Y Combinator’s podcast. Today’s episode is with Alex Blumberg. Alex is a co-founder of Gimlet Media, and Gimlet makes a bunch of podcasts that you probably heard of, like StartUp and The Pitch and Reply All. Before Gimlet Alex worked on This American Life, and Planet Money. Alright here we go. Maybe the best place to start, which seemingly was the most common question, Ro asked it and a couple of other people on Twitter, how do you source stories?
Alex Blumberg [00:35] – That’s a really good question and it’s one we are working to answer more systematically. Right now, part of it is we’re not sourcing stories we’re sourcing podcasts. On one level, the people who were sourcing stories are the actual teams themselves, so The Nod, one of our podcasts has a whole editorial process around finding stories that they’re going to do, and StartUp has a whole editorial process, and Reply All has a whole editorial process. That’s done team by team, and those teams know what those shows are about, and what their audiences are into, so they have a process by doing that. It’s other normal process of reading widely, talking to people on the phone, going out hearing stories at cocktail parties, whatever it is, finding something in the news that piques your interest in making some phone calls, that’s the way stories are, there’s no magic formula to it, you sort of try to be curious to the world.
Craig Cannon [01:45] – Thinking about sourcing podcasts, are people pitching you?
Alex Blumberg [01:49] – Sourcing podcasts is a very different thing. It’s not the actual plotline. For a while somebody at This American Life was friends with one of the people who started Friends, the TV show Friends, and Alexa was her name, and she was on the show, she did a couple of episodes, and I remember someone was telling me a second-hand story about how she talked about coming up the idea for friends, and she was like starting a TV show, you want it to be just specific enough so that there is something you can remember about it, but also very, very open, and basically you always need a couch, sort of where action can happen. And so I feel that sourcing a podcast is similar to that. It needs to be about something, but the concept can’t be too binding, otherwise you’re not going to be able to find enough stories to keep it going. Sometimes it can be a limited series, and we do a couple of those, and we go back and forth on what the model is for that, and can they be profitable or not. Some of that goes back to economics, but if the basic unit is the regularly occurring weekly or almost weekly podcast, let’s say that’s the basic template of podcasting, those come to us a couple of different ways. sometimes people inside the company have ideas, and will do a sort of piloting process, to try to see if we can make it. We’ll make it and see how it sounds, people pitch us from the outside. Sometimes we will acquire shows that already exist in the world, we have done that and we’ve done it a bunch of different ways.
Craig Cannon [03:38] – Yeah because it’s not all that different from someone interested in doing a startup sizing a market. When someone pitches you an idea are you like, “Hmmmm, intuitively this feels like it has legs,” or do you do any kind of analytical process around picking a show?
Alex Blumberg [03:56] – We don’t do any kind of analytical process around it. Right now, sort of like the main capital that we need to start a show is human capital, we need somebody who has a vision, who has expertise, and can sort of make it happen. We need someone who can sort of like take it and run, so a lot of times what we’re looking for is someone who has a vision. The start-up equivalent is sort of like the founder. That’s even more the case in podcasting if that’s possible. That was one of the mistakes I made earlier on, I had a background in doing this. I worked on This American Life, I have helped start Planet Money with Adam Davidson, I had this experience doing this, and so I sort of, just thought that okay I can sort of help start all these other ones, but I don’t have enough time or bandwidth to be involved in more than one or two, and if the company is growing, I don’t have any bandwidth to do that anyway. We need people like showrunner types, or hosts who can lead the vision. That’s a complicated set of qualities, they need skill, they need a vision, they need leadership ability, it’s tricky, so we are looking for people like that.
Craig Cannon [05:25] – What do you look for in an acquisition? Aside from content, and founder hosts that you believe in, are there particular numbers that you look for when you’re going to make an acquisition?
Alex Blumberg [05:36] – Yeah we’re looking for someone who could be a good fit obviously, we’re looking for somebody who pops. Wendy Zukerman is a good example, that was a show that we acquired, her show is called Science Vs, and that is something she was doing out of Australia. We heard it, so she had a pretty good audience on her own, that she had built more or less independently with just her and her producer Kaitlyn.
Craig Cannon [06:06] – Can you talk about that specifically, roughly what that was?
Alex Blumberg [06:08] – Yes so we heard it, she was just clearly a magnetic host right, she’s so funny, so smart, just so engaging, and the premise seemed really good. We talked to her about what her audience was like, and it was pretty solid, especially given that she’d been doing it all by herself.
Craig Cannon [06:29] – Is that like a 100,000 downloads, is that 10,000 downloads, is that a million downloads?
Alex Blumberg [06:34] – Is not a million. I think if you’ve gotten up to 100,000 independently, you’re doing pretty well.
Craig Cannon [06:43] – You’re big-time.
Alex Blumberg [06:44] – That’s pretty good. If your somewhere in that getting close to that number independently, that’s a pretty good sign. Then it’s just a matter of how much can we help, how much can we expose, how many more people can we expose you to, how much can we help with marketing and stuff. With Wendy it worked really well. We were able to take her audience and multiple it several times over, and surround her with the team to make it possible for her to get more work out at a quality that she was striving for, but just by herself was really, really hard to get to, she didn’t have the luxury of auditioning different experts on a topic and finding the best one, she had to go with the expert that you got, and sometimes they were just as dry as dust, and that shows in the product. If she can cycle through a couple of experts until she finds the one who is more engaging to talk to, that’s a win.
Craig Cannon [07:45] – It’s a huge advantage. Previously, before YC was doing a podcast on my own with my friend, and we were fortunate enough, we knew someone at MailChimp, so they would help out, and that’s great, but it really becomes a grind when you’re doing it on your own, so observing you guys from afar, I was like oh my god this is such a perfect opportunity to start acquiring content, because as a sole creator you have no support behind you.
Alex Blumberg [08:09] – Well and that’s exactly, so our latest acquisition is The Pitch, which I’m sure your listeners are familiar with and that’s a perfect example of that. Josh Muccio started this podcast by himself, him and his wife, working from his house in Florida and he’s exactly, he’s got this drive, he’s got a vision for what he’s trying to do, he’s been tweaking, he’s been learning, he’s learned all he can on his own, he’s learned every single thing that ever been put on Transom, the radio website, and he was just ready, to take it further and go to the next level with the show, it was just it seemed like a very obvious sort of fit.
Craig Cannon [08:56] – What about the new people? What about someone who is just maybe graduating college and wants to work at Gimlet, what are the qualities you look for in them, to be like, “Oh man, you might have a fit here.”?
Alex Blumberg [09:06] – We are looking for, a couple of things. We’re looking for creativity obviously. We’re looking for the ability to get shit done.
Craig Cannon [09:18] – Do you do a trial?
Alex Blumberg [09:20] – We have an application process. A lot of times with a lot of the jobs that we do, we’ll have like a homework assignment that we’ll give people, like a trial. Like edit this interview or, give us, critique this story, something like that, just to get a sense of how they think editorially. Curiosity is really important. Sense of humor and empathy is a big part of what we believe is important. You have to be motivated by a desire to understand, as much as any other desire. Sometimes a lot of people get into this line of work for a variety of reasons. Sometimes they feel passionately about an issue, and they want to bring attention to that issue. All that is true, but we wanted to proceed from curiosity and understanding.
Craig Cannon [10:18] – Are you guys kind of agnostic as to what issue that is? Historically I always thought NPR, and all the NPR diaspora, people working on their own content, had a certain type of generally like left-leaning audience that fit into Brooklyn or wherever. Do you guys care if it’s completely different than that?
Alex Blumberg [10:37] – We don’t. I think honestly this is a sort of a complicated issue now for media companies that I’m trying to grapple with. At NPR we were perceived as being liberal, and probably like the majority of the people working there would call themselves liberal, but we really did strive for objectivity, or at least trying to understand both sides of the issue. I think the listenership wasn’t, it wasn’t like down the middle, but there was something like 30 to 40 percent of the listeners were identified as conservative, and it was a pretty big number, but when people hear it’s a surprising number to them. And certainly the feedback I get, for the first season of StartUp, it seems like evangelical pastors and Brooklyn hipsters and everybody in between, were listening to StartUp, and we’ll still like occasionally, on Reply All they had something, that let listeners understand how one of them felt about Trump. We received a couple of letters like, “I voted for Trump, I love the show, why are you saying that?” So it’s not I don’t think, and honestly I like that, I feel like I understand it’s tricky, there’s a lot of fear and anger, and especially among communities that are not white. I want to give voice to that, and I think we do live in a racist society. There is white supremacy, and that is real, and is not a political statement, it’s a fact, and is based on historical, things that happened, four hundred years of slavery, and the civil war that we never dealt with,
Alex Blumberg [13:01] – and so like that is not political in my mind to say that, but people perceive it politically. One of our shows is a show about the Civil War. I’m shocked by how when I listen to it, by how fresh and unusual it sounds. It sounds fresh and unusual, the most recent episode was called “The Takedown,” and it was a live show that they put on at The Bell house, it was crazy, it featured Nikole Hannah Jones, Who just won a MacArthur grant, Al Letson who is a prominent podcast host, and Christy Coleman, the CEO of the, the CEO of the American Civil War Museum, and the host Chenjerai Kumanyika, and his other host Jack Hit, and it was sort of like, they were talking about the most pervasive myths about the Civil War that they constantly encounter on Twitter. The shocking thing that felt so fresh and new about it, is that four or five of the people on the stage were black. That almost never happens, in conversations about the Civil War, which was about slavery. By the way that’s one of the myths that it wasn’t about slavery, it was about slavery. And so that’s sort of crazy that you have so much conversation about the Civil War, and how often black voices are not represented in that conversation, when black people in America were at the center of the conflict, and the legacy of America results from the Civil War. I know people listen to that, and every once in a while will get a comment, like that feels political to people, and I guess it is, but it just feels like true, it just feels like this is crazy, it’s 2017 and this feels new,
Alex Blumberg [15:22] – that we have four of the five intellectuals on the stage talking about the Civil War are black and that feels new and revelatory. I have a media company now, and there are a lot of voices that don’t get represented in media, and it feels like “Yeah, I want to use that platform to help represent those voices.”
Craig Cannon [15:51] – Right, because I’ve been kind of been wondering how you’re driven, obviously there are podcasts like that one, like Dan Carlin, Hardcore History that are super educational, and where you guys are kind of drawing the line, in terms of this is our mission, we’re educating about certain issues, or it’s just about compelling storytelling, or maybe it’s something else entirely, do you guys have a defined goal as to what your products are and what they do?
Alex Blumberg [16:19] – I mean we take engagement very seriously, so anything that is like, is really informative but it wasn’t very fun to listen to, that’s a lose, you definitely want to be, I don’t want people to feel like they should listen to it, but they don’t want to, we’ll be like the Thomas Piketty of podcasts.
Craig Cannon [16:40] – And now I’ll read Wikipedia.
Alex Blumberg [16:44] – The way I think about it is sort of like, I think there’s three big buckets of why people listen to podcasts. One of them is to just be, one of them is for companionship. They like the hosts and it’s fun to hang out with them, and there’s a whole bunch of podcasts that are like that, Joe Rogan I think is a great example, just people, Howard Stern, like Rush, you feel like they’re your buddy, we’re all talking together and it’s fun to hang out with you and you guys are funny, and even the Slate Gabfest, a lot of those are like, they feel like friends, the hosts, so that one. Second I think they just want to be told a good gripping story, we’ve been telling stories to each other since we came up with the ability to speak, and podcasting is just an extension of that, so I feel you can get Dirty John, a lot of the big stuff, a lot of the S-Town, like the bulk of it is just narrative. And then the third big bucket, is you want to learn something. Podcasting is one of the things you can do while you’re not doing something else. You don’t need to be at a screen. You’re cleaning the house or working out, or driving to work or whatever, and you feel like , “Oh, I’m multitasking now in a way that feels productive, and so I get to learn something.” So learning I think is a big use case for broadcasting. We just try to figure out okay what are we doing, and we try to do all of them, the big ones can bring storytelling, bring companionship, and bring something that you learn, and those feel like, and I feel like Reply All often does that,
Alex Blumberg [18:44] – they definitely have the companionship, and they definitely have the storytelling, a lot of times you’re learning something along the way as well, I think so a lot of our podcasts are trying to do all three, but might focus on one or the other.
Craig Cannon [18:57] – Interesting, so a lot of our listeners are also founders, and are also thinking about spaces as both like interesting, but markets where they could potentially build something, so maybe it does make a little bit of sense to talk about the podcast industry, more specifically than just a content stuff. You guys started three years ago. How has it changed since you started, and where do you see it going giving the current proliferation of audio stuff in your home, AirPods, all that kind of stuff?
Alex Blumberg [19:27] – Right, I mean it’s changed quite a bit. I think it has changed much more quickly than I thought. I mean I was in this for a long time, I remember when we first put out This American Life as a podcast, and I think 5000 people listened to it or something like that. Then I was doing Planet Money for five years before leaving, and it was sort of changing and evolving and growing, but not at the clip, and then we started and Serial came along, and boom everything just sort of, I think a large part because of Serial in large part because of us, I think, and then just sort of timing, like all the ones who were already there sort of start of picking up, and it just became a lot more mainstream awareness, a lot more advertising dollars thrown into it, and a lot more content creators coming on board. That’s great, overall that’s fantastic, I think the ecosystem is growing. It changes things a little bit like in terms of, you got to bring your A game when it comes to content, but also have a much more robust marketing strategy, it becomes a little bit more like a traditional media company. You’ve got a figure out what your marketing plan, who are your partners, and sort of rolling out, that sort of thing. People are paying more attention to it, the platforms are paying a lot more attention to it now, so Spotify, TuneIn and of course Apple, Apple was the dominant just by accident, they created the category. Thank you very much Apple and created this sort of ecosystem, but the ecosystem, even though it was getting larger by our standards,
Alex Blumberg [21:16] – by Apple standard was still a tiny rounding error, and now it’s gone beyond rounding errors status, and so they’re starting to pay attention as well, which is all, so I think now the platforms are starting to compete a little bit, and you see, deals around content happening and that sort of thing, so that’s also really exciting.
Craig Cannon [21:41] – Because distribution is so difficult still, I mean it’s been hard, but now it’s both hard to discover and competitive. What do you guys do when you have a brand new show and you’re like, “We need to start this out with…” I don’t know, whatever your benchmark is for a good amount of listeners in the beginning, how do you make that happen?
Alex Blumberg [22:01] – Yeah that’s changed a little bit, it used to be, that we didn’t have to do as much, I think the landscape has gotten more crowded. Politics has become a much bigger storyline, and you’ve got shows coming out Pod Save America an The Daily that have brought a lot of new people into podcasting, but it’s like they’re focused on sort of like the craziest story that’s happening right now, which is sort of like the presidency, and so that’s been interesting. But what we do, we have a nice network now of listeners. We have millions of unique listeners now that we can put new shows in front of. That works. We also need to start finding other audiences, so we have millions of unique listeners, but then there’s like lots of other people who would listen but don’t know about podcasting or don’t know, and those people are like, there’s like this continual drift. The category is growing for sure, but that just takes more work. You’ve got to give shows time basically, part of is you’ve got to get the editorial cranking. Almost every show we ever launched has been a little editorial wobbly at the beginning as it gets it’s feet, is just a crazy, they’re startuups, they’re their own little startups. They come out, they get solid, they start producing work at a consistent quality, then they get written about, maybe they become guests on other shows, maybe they start doing partnerships with other publications, just sort of getting their name out into the world, they do a joint production with a larger podcast out there, there’s all sorts of strategies,
Alex Blumberg [24:09] – the best place to find podcast listeners is on other podcasts, that’s still true. We haven’t figured out a great way of migrating people from the realm of Facebook and Twitter into the realm of listening, it’s tricky.
Craig Cannon [24:25] – But we do YouTube for that exact reason, and it’s been super effective.
Alex Blumberg [24:29] – How does that work, tell me about how it works?
Craig Cannon [24:31] – Yeah totally. The podcast I did previously, we were always struggling with your same issue, how do people find it, how do people find the episode from two years ago. Itsucks, it’s still bad, there are lots of things you can do around transcription, which is somewhat helpful, but if you Google anything, look where the video shows up in the ranking, it’s super-high. The actual way it works is we record video when we do the podcast, I edit the video, which is then exported to the podcast, and then I title that “Interview With Alex Blumberg of Gimlet” media, and then I cut up the video into like five more videos that have very specific titles, for instance, “How To Make A Podcast, How To Market Your Podcast, How Gimlet Works,” and those numbers will dwarf the actual interview listen numbers, our podcast numbers are still really high, but you don’t have retention data, so I don’t actually know, because they’re just subscribers, so you have tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of subscribers, but how engaged they? Basically what we try and do is use YouTube as marketing for the podcast, and just own those subscriber channels, it’s been pretty good so far, especially when you get a big name person, with the little names, it’s still not the same, but it’s been super effective.
Alex Blumberg [25:55] – How many more views do you have on the YouTube segments than you do listens on the podcast?
Craig Cannon [26:01] – Our podcasts do 10 to 100,000 downloads per episode, and then the YouTube views will, depending on the person, will be about the same, which is amazing, because I don’t think they are the same people. I think a lot of people are finding the podcast through that, because those often get shared, whereas the podcasts don’t get shared in the same way.
Alex Blumberg [26:26] – Podcast sharing, it’s hard to share podcasts.
Craig Cannon [26:29] – It’s so difficult.
Alex Blumberg [26:30] – It’s very, very, you can’t just shoot it at work. And part of the problem I think, so to me this is one of the paradoxes, one of the many paradoxes of building a media business based on audio. The great thing about audio is that it does exist in this separate realm. When you most of the time, if I’m at my desk or I’m on my screen or I’m looking at something, I’m using my eyes to say read an article, that article is competing for my eye’s attention with a gazillion other things. It’s competing with Facebook and Twitter and movies and every single name of the planet who is launching their prestige television series, and everything out there is competing for my eyes. Then you’ve got audio which is over here. You’re not going to necessarily listen to audio while you’re streaming, while you’re on your phone looking through Twitter or whatever. You’re going to listen to audio while you are mowing the lawn, while you can’t be doing those other things, so it’s separate in a nice way. You’re driving to work or whatever, you can’t be looking at a screen, so all audio is competing with is other audio or music, basically. So that’s great for us, it feels like much more, we don’t have nearly the menace, if I was launching a digital media company right now trying to write articles or video whatever, that landscape is so crowded. So it’s good, the bad part of that is, in this world when you’re driving to work, you not just going to be like, “Oh, that’s funny, I’m going to put it on my Facebook feed.” There’s not the mechanism even to share if you wanted to, it’s consumed in a different way,
Alex Blumberg [28:11] – so it’s harder to even figure out. You get lost in it, and the distractiveness of eye based media, is its advantage when it comes to sharing, because you’re always checking something out, you’re always doing two things at once, so it’s easy to just be watching something and then pop it over into your Facebook feed and share it instantaneously.
Craig Cannon [28:32] – And the sharing doesn’t capture the magic. It’s like if you were to tell me a joke and then I were to write one line down, and then share it, usually that’s only used against you. You see comedians complaining about this all the time, it’s like that was out of context, and similarly with podcasts you have this great conversation and one part is particularly funny only if you know the background.
Alex Blumberg [28:53] – Yeah and if you had all the build up to it and everything like that, the moment by itself won’t work unless you’ve had all the, yeah I mean that’s the problem with narrative. On the one hand is our advantage, it allows us to build this business, you’re sort of pioneers in this space. On the other hand, how do we get people into the space, how do we get other people are already in the space to know about us, that’s still a challenge that we are trying to figure out.
Craig Cannon [29:17] – Where do you guys fall now, because in season one of StartUp, you were talking a lot about technology, maybe building technology, how has your thinking changed in the past couple of years around that?
Alex Blumberg [29:29] – Early on we made the decision to focus on our strengths, and if you look around here we’ve got eighty-some people here, the vast majority of those people are editorial based. They’re making podcasts, either random podcasts for a Gimlet Creative, or editorial podcasts for Gimlet Media. Up until like, up until about a month ago we didn’t have one technology person on the team.
Craig Cannon [29:57] – Really?
Alex Blumberg [29:57] – Yeah So we were very old school. At this point we have recently hired somebody a Head of Product and we recently, and I think that will definitely be a larger part of what we do. How exactly we use technology is still TBD. It seems less likely that if we were ever going to build our own platform that seems less and less likely, just because the Spotifys and the TuneIns and the Apples are definitely, for a while they weren’t really paying attention, now they’re definitely paying attention and so it just seems like that’s, to take that space now just seems like it’s a big long shot and we’re not at all set up to even try to do that right.
Craig Cannon [30:54] – Well especially if its you. Because individual podcast hosts are incentivized for downloads so they actually don’t want to be captured by platforms. And so if I’m a host, “I’m like, I don’t care where I put it.” This is not obvious to people who download podcasts from iTunes but it doesn’t work the same way as a song. It’s an RSS feed and so it just, you can point it at anything and have it go out there. And I think the only people right now are just doing maybe paid apps so I think Marc Maron still does this right, he has the Maron App so you get the 50 most recent episodes and then you can get the old ones. Maybe that’s good for individual creators but for you guys I don’t know.
Alex Blumberg [31:31] – No, we would want to be, and I think there is, we would like to go direct to listeners somehow just because that’s you know, we want to deepen our relationship with the listener and I think there might be other revenue options associated with a more direct connection with the listener. But how exactly do we do that, what’s the mechanism? It will involve technology, how technology will affect it we’re still not sure.
Craig Cannon [32:05] – One question that came from Twitter, I want to get their name right, is @SwingVentures asked “Are you concerned about how the podcast landscape may change when more analytics become available? For example, Chartbeat’s impact on journalism.”
Alex Blumberg [32:21] – I mean, I’m concerned about everything.
Craig Cannon [32:24] – Probably a lot of stuff.
Alex Blumberg [32:26] – And that is one of them. I don’t, you know, it’s. Everything, there’s a good side and a bad side right. So right now there’s a lot of advertisers who would be interested in advertising in podcasting who are sitting on the sidelines because they just can’t provide the same kind of analytics that you can in other forms of visual media so they’re just like “Well until we know what we’re getting with our money, we’re not going to spend here.” And so analytics will absolutely help the overall advertising landscape which more advertisers being interested in the space should theoretically help us. More demand for the inventory should mean a higher price for the inventory, even if we discover that there’s certain, listen-through rates are different than what we expected or whatever. I don’t think we’re going to be that surprised, we have access to some of that information already through some of these other platforms. Some of the other platforms let you see what the decay rates are, that sort of thing, so we can see, analytics are getting better, a lot better. We sort of know and then for a lot of the advertisers, especially the direct response advertisers like the Squarespaces and the Caspers and people like that where it’s sort of like, it is very, it’s not like oh, this murky proposition where we’re going to advertise here and hopefully people feel better about it. So it’s a very much–
Craig Cannon [34:02] – People sign up for Squarspace.
Alex Blumberg [34:03] – It’s a formula. They know, here’s how much we spend, here’s how many customers we get, here’s the lifetime value of those customers, it is worth it for us to advertise at these rates or not. And so that’s also a pretty good market test. People are advertising at the rates that we’re charging and they continue to sign up and so that means that it’s working.
Craig Cannon [34:26] – Do you have strong opinions on what type of content will be doing well in the future? The landscape has seemed to have shifted a little bit, I mean it’s probably just broadening so there’s room for everything. Are you seeing trends and certain types of content whether it’s a subject matter, length, type of host, style of host, that’s just coming out of nowhere and really dominating?
Alex Blumberg [34:53] – Yeah, I mean well clearly. Crime and true crime, people love crime. Yeah, and I think that was Serial inadvertently cracked that open and it’s just been nonstop ever since. So after Serial, and that was like, I don’t think that was, I know obviously that I’m very close with other people who’ve worked on the Serial team and that was a story that they were interested in personally but they’re not interested in true crime as a genre. It was largely accidental I think. Ever since Serial there’s been tons and tons of true crime and they’ve all done very well.
Alex Blumberg [35:38] – It’s seemingly across the spectrum of produced, non-produced, there’s some that are talk shows just discussing what they find online, there are some that are following a single case through all its twists and turns and there’s some in the middle, and they all do pretty well. We launched a crime-related show Crimetown which is about crime and politics and the interplay between the two, and that did really well for us I think. It’s a lot of mobsters and gangsters, it’s interesting.
Craig Cannon [36:13] – What about stuff like Lore? I saw that they have a, I think it’s an Amazon show now? Is that transition to video interesting to you guys?
Alex Blumberg [36:24] – Oh yeah, absolutely, we’re doing that.
Craig Cannon [36:26] – There are a couple of questions about it.
Alex Blumberg [36:28] – We have a bunch of projects in the works sort of translating stuff that first appeared in audio into video. Most notably I guess is the ABC sitcom Alex, Inc. which is going to come out I guess this winter which is based on Season One of StartUp, sort of like the Alex character as played by Zach Braff. There’s our fiction podcasts, our first fiction podcast Homecoming is going to be made into, we got a two season deal with Amazon that’s going to launch some time in 2018. And that’s exciting, that’s starring Julia Roberts in the lead role so–
Craig Cannon [37:15] – Life is weird. What about the stuff you had to kill or you just decided to kill along the way? How are you making those choices?
Alex Blumberg [37:25] – It all comes down to sustainability. And that can mean a couple of different things. Sometimes the concept is just too complicated to pull off at the frequency we need to pull it off. And it’s hard. I come from this background of when we were first pitching this I was talking about how we were going to be distinguished. Several years ago I was pitching investors, how are we going to distinguish our material from podcasts out there and I was just sort of like, “Oh ours is going to be produced and we’re going to hire teams and we take this very seriously, the craft of it,” and one of our investors I remember saying, he was like, “So it sounds like you’re just saying you’re going to do what everybody else does but just it’s going to be a lot more expensive to produce.” And I was like, “Yeah I sort of am saying that.” And the hope is, which has been somewhat born out by the facts, largely born out by the facts, is that when you take the attention to detail you crack through to a different realm of audience than something that isn’t as highly produced. Now there was lots of caveats. Number one being, you can have a talk show, Joe Rogan is the perfect example, where it does monster numbers, it has monster engagement, and it doesn’t take months to produce each episode.
Craig Cannon [38:53] – No.
Alex Blumberg [38:55] – And it’s great you know what I mean. And it’s great, there’s great live, a lot of the great things that are showing up in our episodes are showing up in his podcast as well. And there’s some people who are just great live, that’s sort of lightning in the bottle. Those people are, that is much harder–
Craig Cannon [39:17] – I have so much respect for that. Doing this video stuff is an absolute education in holding conversations with people because before when I did just an audio podcast, editing is magic and all of a sudden everyone’s smarter and funnier and it’s just really zippy. And now I’ve really had to learn about how to control the energy in a room when you’re having a conversation brcause we edit this but not nearly as much as we used to with the audio. It’s been really wild.
Alex Blumberg [39:45] – So anyway, so we were making these more expensive, but then sometimes, and a lot of times you can have this amazing concept and it’s thrilling and everybody, it becomes the thing that people discuss and people want to hear it. But if it can’t be sustainable, if it can’t come out a certain number of times a year then there’s no way to make it, any money. Sometimes it’s sort of like, is the team passionate about the thing that they’re doing and if not it doesn’t make sense to continue. It’s better to find something that the host is passionate about rather than try to match the host with some sort of material that you think could work. And that was a lesson we learned early on. I think with Sampler for example was a show, it was a podcast about podcasts and the host was Brittany Luse who we’d heard hosting another show For Colored Nerds and she’s great, she’s got this great energy on the mic and so we were just like “Hey Brittany, come and host this thing.” And she was like, “Yeah, that’s great.” And it was fine, it was a pretty good podcast and she did a really good job and we liked it but it wasn’t her passion and it was doing fine but it wasn’t doing gang busters and so we were like let’s just have you host a show that you care deeply about and let’s see if we can do that. And so we sort of shut that down, restarted, we hired her other co-host Eric Eddings and we launched the Nod which is a celebration of black culture. Their tagline is “Blackness’ biggest fans.” And that show is like, and the energy of that show and the feeling of it
Alex Blumberg [41:32] – is just really exciting so they just feel it and it’s got a lot of energy.
Craig Cannon [41:39] – That’s so critical. People underestimate how important it is to just come in really strong and have that vibe because most podcast listeners pick their favorite shows, in my experience, because they engage with this person like you were saying before, that first category. There’s that Joe Rogan type person where folks just bond with them and when that’s done poorly it puts people off. More often than not when I talk about, “Hey we do a podcast with YC, we interview people that are interested in tech or kind of in that space.” They’re like “Oh, is it just a bunch of dudes talking around mics like goofing on each other?” So that’s put a dent in the podcast world, it seems like it’s slowed it down quite a bit because more often than not that’s how people were introduced to it.
Alex Blumberg [42:24] – Yeah, that’s how people think. That’s what people think a podcast is is just a bunch of people pontificating around mics to each other and cracking jokes or whatever. There’s a lot of podcasts that have very devoted fan bases that loved that and if you love the subject matter that the people are wisecracking about then you’re down for that, that’s great, and you make a habit of listening to that podcast and those grow and do well. It’s just to cut through, to get beyond the small group of people that are going to be interested in whatever it is you’re talking about just already, you need to bring some production to it to grow the audience beyond that.
Craig Cannon [43:09] – If I wanted to start a podcast today and I was a solo person not affiliated with a big company, not within a podcast network, what would you recommend I do to educate myself before I get started?
Alex Blumberg [43:24] – Well there’s a lot of online resources.
Craig Cannon [43:27] – You did a course.
Alex Blumberg [43:28] – I did a course on CreativeLive which was pretty much everything I know about making audio combined into two days of listening and watching. Which I think it’s definitely still available, you have to buy it but sometimes they run specials, I’d say it’s definitely worth it. There’s a bunch of free resources on transom.org which is run by this great guy Jay Allison who’s a long time public radio mensch. Basically he’s great and he was, early on in my career he was really helpful and he runs this invaluable thing called Transom where he just gets everybody from across, mostly public radio but a lot of the best, most exciting people inside the public radio world so that strain of the podcasting universe. They lay out these manifestos where they talk about their tricks. They also have field guide recorder reviews and it’s just invaluable stuff like that. There’s a guy, Pat Flynn, who does, I think it’s called the Passive Income Podcast.
Craig Cannon [44:40] – I’ve listened to that one.
Alex Blumberg [44:41] – Yeah, and he has a couple of YouTube tutorials I think that are just here’s how you set up your system to do it. He’s focused much more on the daily here’s how you do something.
Craig Cannon [44:54] – The technical aspect?
Alex Blumberg [44:55] – Yeah, but they’re good solid tutorials. And then I think just doing it. To me the big thing is to find a friend who you trust and who’s easily bored. Just do it, get better at, just build stuff. Whatever you want to do, whoever your hero is, copy them and understand that you’re going to be so much worse than whoever your hero is.
Craig Cannon [45:34] – And you’re always going to be different.
Alex Blumberg [45:36] – And you’re going to be different.
Craig Cannon [45:37] – You think you’re copying them but you’re not.
Alex Blumberg [45:38] – But that’s okay, you’ll get to the difference later. Just try to be as close as you can in the beginning and I think that’s Ira Glass gives this advice, who’s my mentor which is sort of like, you have to start with a vision of what you want to be and then you copy that and then eventually you’ll find your way to your own voice through copying. But if you’re just starting out, “I’m an original, I’m going to do it my way.” It’s really hard. I think there are people who can do that and maybe you will be the T.S. Eliot of podcasting and publish your masterpiece at 21 and that’s fine, but I don’t think that happens that often. Much more often I think you just try to copy somebody who you admire, you suck at it, and along the way you learn some things.
Craig Cannon [46:19] – You learn a lot because you talk to someone and so many things go unsaid because either they’re assumed or it’s just style and it’s innate. Were there any things that, kind of non-obvious interviewing strategies that you picked up whether it’s here or at NPR?
Alex Blumberg [46:36] – Yeah so a big part is, what people will respond to when you’re interviewing somebody. If you’re doing the kind of podcasts that we do mostly, the fundamental building block of that kind of podcast is the interview and the fundamental building block of a good interview is two things. One, you want people to tell you stories like, “There was this one thing that happened to me this one day, I was at home, I went outside, blah blah blah.” You want a story, it has a beginning, it has a middle, it has a punchline. That’s building block number one. If you have people who are telling you stories that’s great. The other fundamental building block is emotion. Emotional honesty where people are talking in a real way about something. And some people are just good at that in general, they talk, they’re emotionally present when they talk, and those people are generally better interviews. But then some people are more guarded, most people are more guarded but occasionally you’ll get to a moment of genuine emotional honesty. And I’m not talking about it has to be sad, sometimes it could be happy, sometimes it could be laughter, sometimes it could be confusion, whatever, but something real, that’s the other building block of an interview. And so I always say that a good interview is like a good therapy session. We’re just trying to get people to put their feelings into words and so a lot of times if you’re talking about something that has any kind of emotional stakes to it, there’s a moment where you’re going to hear something in somebody’s voice
Alex Blumberg [48:14] – and you’re going to want to press further and you’re going to want to try to get to, there’s a funny feeling in the thing that they said. And you’re going to want to try to explore that funny feeling and that’s where the gold is so training yourself to be aware of that and getting people to talk about it without prying and without being confrontational, but just getting them to open up about it and feel comfortable opening up. The best thing you can do in an interview is listen. That’s the number one thing. Be yourself, understanding that you as the interviewer are part of the drama. A great question with a great answer is riveting, nobody will turn it off if you ask a great question. A big turning point in my career was this show I did for This American Life. Me and Adam Davidson did it together, it was called “The Giant Pool of Money.” It was about the mortgage crisis, it was an hour long explainer, it came out in 2008, sort of like what’s going on with the housing bubble and all that stuff that’s happening. It was this big long thing we reported out for months and months and months. It started with this question where this guy had, we were talking to this guy at a foreclosure event where he was talking about this massive loan that the bank had given him and he was saying at the time he didn’t have a full-time job, he had three not very steady part-time jobs, he was making a combined income of maybe $45,000 a year and he got a half million dollar loan from the bank without any paperwork. Basically they didn’t ask him any questions
Alex Blumberg [49:52] – and he was telling us about how weird it was and so he’s talking about “Yeah, they didn’t ask me any questions. There was paperwork and stuff like that but nobody asked how much money I made, how much money I had in the bank, anything like that, what my job was.” And I asked him, I was like, “Would you have loaned you the money?” And the minute you hear me ask that question nobody is going to turn off the radio right? Everyone wants to hear the answer. And so he was like “No, I wouldn’t have loaned me the money. Nobody I know would’ve loaned me the money. I have guys that are criminals who wouldn’t have loaned me that money and they would break your kneecaps.” I remember, it was just sort of like, and it was this great answer and it was perfectly set up. The whole question which is why did the banks loan people the money when they themselves wouldn’t have loaned them the money right. What’s going on? So, but that drama of the question and the answer is something that’s very real and if I had screwed up the question, if I had just been nervous about it or if I hadn’t asked it right or whatever. If I hadn’t been present and taking my job seriously and just asking the questions, it wouldn’t have worked. That’s a thing to also keep in mind is you in audio more than anything, you are part of the show and so just remember that.
Craig Cannon [51:16] – That’s a very great place to wrap it up.
Alex Blumberg [51:18] – Yeah, awesome.
Craig Cannon [51:18] – Thanks man.
Alex Blumberg [51:19] – Alright, thank you.
Craig Cannon [51:21] – Alright, thanks for listening. As always, you can check out the transcript and the video at blog.ycombinator.com and if you have some time please leave us a rating and review wherever you find your podcast. See you next time.