People love storytelling. When the podcast industry began in earnest in 2005, it offered the world a new way of enjoying stories.
However, for many years, the podcast industry teetered on the brink of mainstream adoption. It wasn’t until smartphones became ubiquitous that the growth of podcasts truly took off. Now, over 70 million Americans listen to podcasts each month.
Gimlet Media has been at the forefront of this revolution, a true pioneer that recognized the immense potential for the on-demand audio industry. And now, an exciting new future of podcasting is on the horizon, and Gimlet is leading the charge.
Origins of Gimlet Media
Back in August 2014, there were thousands of active podcasts on air, covering a vast range of industries and interests. The nature of podcasting allows almost anyone with a microphone to have their voice heard or take a shot at fame, though relatively few ever achieve it.
However, the inherent beauty of the medium meant hopefuls in makeshift bedroom studios stood as good a chance as experienced radio journalists with high-end productions. It just boiled down to having the right people, and more importantly, the right concept.
It has always been competitive and curious, but the podcast industry had proven itself tricky to navigate. Nobody really understood how to make money from it in the early years.
Alex Blumberg and Matthew Lieber had forged careers in audio entertainment, with Blumberg earning recognition for two successful shows, This American Life and Planet Money. Both of these podcasts began life as radio shows on National Public Radio (NPR), with This American Life spinning out some highly successful podcasts (over 300 million downloads), including Serial, the hugely popular true-crime podcast which even almost led to a retrial of the main character.
While working on Planet Money, Blumberg came up with a concept that would change the game.
With little more than $10,000, Blumberg and Lieber built a studio in a rented space in Brooklyn, and there, they produced their first show, StartUp.
In the first season of the show, Blumberg documents the foundation of the new company he and Lieber had founded. The whole premise was built upon this belief that people love storytelling, and that human stories that show the true vulnerabilities of people will sell.
Initially, the company went by the name American Podcasting Corporation (APC), but it soon underwent a rebrand, which required a name more befitting the company’s perceptive insight.
And so, Gimlet Media was born.
Soon after, more podcast shows were launched, and just like the first, many of them rose quickly, establishing a fervent following.
Off the back of the flagship show’s popularity, Gimlet sought seed funding, which garnered $1.5 million from investment firms. As a testament to the early success, the listeners helped the company raise another $200,000 through crowdfunding.
Not only had investors dug deep, but the people had stepped up as well. This was on-demand audio, and the people wanted to hear more from Gimlet Media.
Making the Podcast Industry More Personable
In a billion-dollar media industry, banking on personability may have seemed like a gamble. For Gimlet Media, however, it was an astute move that was timed to perfection.
Since 2014, our tech-crazed planet has witnessed the digital disruption of many traditional industries, including news, film, and television. Netflix and Amazon are among the catalysts that have shaped a culture that thirsts for on-demand content and instant gratification.
At the core of this is personalization.
It is a crucial aspect of modern marketing.
So, what better way to connect with the masses than by starting an independent podcast company, which delivers real, human stories?
When reviewing the StartUp, The New Yorker explained that while Blumberg sounds smart and capable, he is clearly “bumblingly human like the rest of us.”
And guess what? – Listenersloved it.
After just a couple of years, Gimlet Media attracted a huge audience, akin to a cult-like following. With over 20 highly popular shows, the company explored a diverse range of interests, including artificial intelligence (AI), crime, and women’s culture.
Among the very best podcasts from Gimlet Media are:
- Reply All – A cryptic exploration of the internet’s wildest and weirdest corners.
- The Habitat – A thought-provoking take on the dystopian future we could be heading towards.
- Science Vs. – A fact-checking mission that challenges modern trends and stout opinions.
- The Nod – A celebration of black culture in the U.S.
With one hit show after another, Gimlet soon had a global audience comprising listeners in over 190 countries, accounting for over 12 million monthly downloads.
The only way was up…
The Mystery Unravels
In October 2016, Gimlet found itself getting more attention than it wanted.
One of the company’s podcasts, Mystery Show, had abruptly been canceled, despite significant popularity with listeners – it had even scooped an iTunes award for Best Podcast of the Year. After the first season wrapped in July, fans waiting for news of the return were shocked to discover it wouldn’t be back.
More surprising, however, were the alleged actions of Gimlet’s founders. The show’s creator, Starlee Kine, made a public Facebook post to explain how Gimlet had quietly dropped the show while she was working on season two.
Soon after, Gimlet responded with a vague statement that confirmed the show had been canceled and inferred that they were in ongoing discussions with Kine. When pressed further on another podcast interview, Blumberg refused to go into the matter, asserting that “some things need to remain private.”
While not a knockout blow, the company did face some backlash from fans.
The unceremonious manner in which Kine and her show were dropped caused more than a few murmurs in the podcast industry. Suddenly, the transparent, ethical Gimlet Media found itself cast in an unfavorable light.
Gimlet was seen as the people’s podcast. The independent, scrappy startup that we could all relate to on some level.
Behind everything, was it really just another cold, ruthless corporation?
The HBO of Audio
With the unfortunate business of Mystery Show behind them, Blumberg and Lieber continued to seek ways of growing their company.
In 2017, the company raised another $20 million from investors, including a prominent growth equity firm, Stripes Group, and well-known advertising behemoth, WPP. Lieber soon proclaimed that Gimlet Media aspired to be “the HBO of audio”, reinforcing their intent to dominate the podcast industry.
By January 2018, the company soon proved this comment was more than bluster, as they hired Jenny Wall as chief marketing officer. Aside from spearheading growth at Hulu and Netflix, Wall was known for her instrumental work at – you guessed it – HBO.
Indeed, it was there that her career began in 1995, and Wall is credited with helping to create the platform’s legendary tagline – “It’s not TV. It’s HBO.”
Having heralded a prosperous new era of TV programming, now she was at Gimlet just as the growth of podcasts was really exploding. Ad revenue in the podcast industry had almost trebled from $69M to $220M between 2015 and 2017.
Gimlet Media had already ventured into visual productions, with Blumberg having his life portrayed in a television show, Alex Inc. Although it lasted just one season, Gimlet greenlighted a TV version of the popular scripted-fiction podcast Homecoming, showing their ambition to venture beyond audio.
With Wall leading the marketing efforts, and massive investment at its back, Gimlet Media began 2018 as a juggernaut leading the world into the golden age of the podcast industry.
GimletFest takes the Podcast Industry Mainstream
If there were any doubts about Gimlet Media’s role in the growth of podcasts, they were dispelled in June 2018. Over two days in Brooklyn, the once-humble startup cemented its position as the undisputed heavyweight king in the podcast industry with GimletFest.
The festival brought together many of the top podcast hosts for a range of presentations, performances, and panel discussions. By promising to offer “the best of Gimlet Media brought to life”, the company quickly sold-out the $200 passes as hordes of people jumped at the chance to meet the podcasters.
It was undeniable now – Podcasting had finally gone mainstream.
What’s more – The podcast industry saw Gimlet Media as a major driving force behind the growth of podcasts around the world.
It was only a matter of time before the right people spotted it.
Spot the Future of Podcasting
In 2008, the Swedish company Spotify disrupted the music industry when it launched its streaming music service, effectively digging a grave for iPods and CDs.
Unlike the illegal download sites it had usurped, Spotify cared about the music artists. With the backing of the music industry, the company rapidly became the de facto way in which the world discovers new music.
In recent years, Spotify had been vocal about its intentions to expand into podcasting, and in early 2019, rumors began to circulate that Spotify was set to purchase Gimlet Media.
The prospect was a mouthwatering one, which would give Spotify a major boost in their quest to crack the podcast industry. While the move made sense, some lamented the notion that the ultimate indie success in the podcast industry was about to sell out.
Soon enough, the rumors were confirmed, with TechCrunch reporting that Spotify paid about $200M for Gimlet Media.
Within hours of the sale, Blumberg and Lieber were guests on an episode of Recode Media with Peter Kafka. The co-founders explained that they had considered the incredible success of their hit shows, and thought about continuing as an independent company. However, in the end, the offer from one of the most influential powerhouses in the music industry proved too good to resist.
They were enthralled by the idea of joining a huge global platform that not only had massive financial muscle but also wielded vast resources in data, discovery, and technology, all of which were invested entirely in audio.
Lieber claims, “For us, that felt like a better path where we could realize our ambitions and our goals. And also, make money back for our investors and provide a healthy return.”
So, what does this mean for the podcast industry? Did Gimlet actually sell out or is this just the beginning of something more spectacular for the future of podcasting?
The Growth of Podcasts Has Only Begun
As technology has advanced, the world has fallen in love with mobile devices, apps, and personalized content. Spotify shot to success because it understood how people want to consume content. It has embraced AI to create personalized playlists, and as the world embraces increasingly sophisticated tech, the possibilities for podcasting become very exciting.
Now, the dominant force in music streaming has teamed up with the people’s champion of the podcast industry. It has taken a long time for the world to figure out how podcasts could be monetized. When Spotify threw down $200 million, the stakes were raised.
Before long, new players will join, and we will surely see similar partnerships emerge as the battle for the podcast industry kicks off. With that, the scrappy, anyone-can-have-a-crack days of podcasting will very possibly come to an end.
The growth of podcasts has finally brought major forces with money to the table. This is a sad reality in some ways, but like many stories, the dusk always comes before the dawn.
A new chapter awaits the podcast industry and Gimlet Media.
And now, the world is listening.