Cincinnati Kid: Alex Blumberg

The visionary behind Gimlet Media and the voice behind StartUp talks about what makes a good podcast, the legacy of <i>This American Life,</i> and the art of putting personal stories on air.
Alex Blumberg
Alex Blumberg

Photograph by Sasha Maslov

Podcasting has been around for a decade, but the phenomenal popularity of Serial in 2014 captivated millions of listeners and left them hungry for more stories. Reporter, producer, and This American Life alum Alex Blumberg was ready for them with StartUp, a podcast about the creation of Gimlet Media, the podcast company he cofounded with Matt Leiber.

The Queen City seems to have a knack for breeding broadcast pioneers: While Blumberg may not have Powel Crosley Jr.’s 500,000 watts, thanks to our ability to download episodes anytime, anywhere, and to almost any device, his stories have the potential to reach people around the globe. Here at home, Blumberg may be best known for his This American Life piece that detailed the prolific on-the-job pot smoking of his father, Richard, who founded the Cincinnati advertising agency Wolf Blumberg Krody.

Since its creation in 2014, Gimlet has produced a second season of StartUp, added three new shows (Reply All, Mystery Show, and in November, Surprisingly Awesome), and will welcome Science Vs. to the lineup early this year. A third season of StartUp is in the works, though an air date has yet to be decided. The Hyde Park native and Walnut Hills High School grad spoke to us about creating some of the best radio stories you’ll never hear on the radio.

Podcasts seem to be hitting their stride. They represent a new era, yet the ad style and serialization of many podcasts make them seem like throwbacks, too.
Radiolab recently had a piece about the birth of Candid Camera, which used to be a radio show. The host, Allen Funt, had received an angry letter from a listener who said “You’re taking advantage of people, it’s not fair to record them if they don’t know they’re being recorded.” So he went up to her with a hidden camera and confronted her. She’s talking and he’s secretly recording her the whole time—and it was such a riveting moment, I thought, My God, I’m not going to turn this off. This is how we think about it [at Gimlet]. We would never record somebody without their knowledge—but how can we make a moment happen on tape? It felt very contemporary. He was going for the same sting, trying to get somebody talking honestly. He finally reveals that he’s been recording her and he asks if she would be OK with it being broadcast, and eventually she says, “Yes, I would be OK, I do want people to know how I feel.” She sort of flips, and it all happened on tape. And I thought, Oh, it’s the same stuff.

Broadcast personalities can take on powerful roles for listeners. With podcasting, you’re not on the radio, but right in our ears. It seems weirdly intimate. Is that strange—to know you’re literally inside the heads of your listeners?
It’s hard to imagine. You make the thing, put it up, and it goes out. And the way I experience the reception is by seeing stuff on Twitter and Facebook. We have a lot of listeners compared to what we had [starting out], but we still have a small audience compared to Brad Pitt or somebody. So it’s odd, that level of awareness. I was at the Apple store buying a new iPhone and there were like 20 sales people on the floor, and the guy I approached said, “Are you Alex Blumberg of the StartUp podcast?” And I was like, “Yeah.” And he said, “Guys, guys, it’s Alex Blumberg of the StartUp podcast!” And everyone else had blank stares. Nobody had heard of it. I listen to a lot of podcasts too, and I feel that same sense of intimacy. People feel like they know you—and in fact, they do. You could argue that if you listen to all the episodes of StartUp, you know me better than someone I haven’t seen in five years.

The first season of StartUp is about you starting your podcast company, Gimlet Media. So you’ve followed a company that is fulfilling its stated mission, Gimlet, and in season two a company that adjusted its mission, Dating Ring. Would you ever profile a failing company?
That’s something on the table for season three. There are some pretty interesting, spectacular failures. We can’t predict it, so we’ve thought about doing the story all in the past, so we know what the end is. It made sense for me [to produce StartUp as Gimlet was forming] because I was in the middle of it. But it’s sort of a pain in the ass from a production standpoint, not knowing what the end is.

Alex Blumberg photographed in Gimlet's Manhattan office on November 11, 2015
Alex Blumberg photographed in Gimlet’s Manhattan office on November 11, 2015

Photograph by Sasha Maslov

Dating Ring is a dating app company run by Lauren Kay and Emma Tessler. Listening to it, there were times I was frustrated to hear that they had argued…but didn’t record it! Why not? You’ve been very transparent about documenting Gimlet. Was it challenging to produce a series about someone else’s company?
There are certain things that you just can’t talk about. If we had a personnel issue, where we had to let somebody go, or if someone quit in frustration, it would be hard to imagine putting that on StartUp. It seems weird and mean, and how would you do that? Dating Ring was amazingly forthcoming. They were so open and transparent, and talked about things you never hear founders talk about. Some of my favorite episodes were hearing them discuss the actual business of running a dating company: dealing with people’s biases, the rating system, client demand for pictures. I couldn’t believe they pulled the curtain back that much. It was so refreshing to hear. But they couldn’t record everything. It was a little frustrating, but I knew that would be part of it.

Gimlet is producing a new show, Surprisingly Awesome, with Planet Money co-creator Adam Davidson and screenwriter Adam McKay. How do you decide what makes a good podcast?
There are a bunch of reasons people listen to podcasts and they sort of fall into three buckets. They’re a great source for edification. There are a lot of podcasts that present information in a fun, clever, or interesting way, like the TED Radio Hour, Hardcore History, and Stuff You Should Know. Listeners also want to be told a good story, so you hear a lot of narrative podcasts like The Moth and Limetown. And third, people want companionship, where you feel like a friend and you’re listening in on a fun conversation. The sweet spot is providing all three. With Surprisingly Awesome, we’re aiming at a podcast where you can learn interesting stuff—but the two Adams, they’re really fun to hang out with, so it will have the companionship element. But it won’t be as narrative-focused as some of the other ones we do.

What are some of your favorite podcasts that you don’t produce?
Oh, I like all the hits. Radiolab; I just heard Hidden Brain’s third episode [about poker champion Annie Duke and the power of stereotypes], which was great. There are a couple of weirder ones I’ve been listening too of late: Limetown is great, Another Round, For Colored Nerds, 99% Invisible—I like a lot of the Radiotopia stuff. I like the Combat Jack Show. He was an entertainment attorney for a lot of big-name rap artists, and now he hosts this podcast where he interviews rappers, and other people as well. He’s just a really good interviewer and his guests talk really openly.

A number of notable public radio voices have defected to podcasting: You, as well as Gimlet’s Reply All hosts Alex Goldman and PJ Vogt, came from WNYC; Andrea Seabrook and Mike Pesca have left public radio and moved to podcasting; and now you can join Gimlet as a paying member. Are fund drives in your future? Will Gimlet become the NPR of podcasting?
There’s something nice about the public radio model. When it works, it works well. I hate the pledge drive. It’s hours and days and weeks of begging for money and that seems horrible. We sort of stumbled onto an advertising model that is working way better than we thought. We were making StartUp and all of a sudden I realized I had to do ads. They’re ads, but we decided we’re going to have a little moment. MailChimp, for example, didn’t want to hear the ads before they went on the air. Squarespace is kind of the same way—it’s “whatever you guys want to do, do it.” We’ve been coming up with [the ads] and we want to continue doing that. I think it would be very disruptive to have a third party put up an ad, say, on Mystery Show. That would feel so jarring. The first year was pretty crazed and ad hoc, just sort of paddling as fast as you can. I think it will become a lot more about: What is our process? When we get the big brands, like Ford, there are several layers of approval. You have to run it by them.

Sarah Koenig’s 2014 show, Serial, where she re-examines a 1999 Baltimore murder case, became the most popular podcast of all time so far. I’ve read estimates of 40 million downloads. What effect has its success had on Gimlet and podcasting?
It’s had a huge effect on us. It brought in a lot of listeners. A lot of people finished Serial and thought: What else is there? It’s also been good for us in that it made us legitimate. It sort of put podcasting on the map in the minds of advertisers. We were also a new thing that was starting around the time of Serial, so when all the inevitable trend pieces get written, they’re looking around and we’re sitting right there. Even though our audience is like a tenth the size of Serial’s, all of a sudden we’re a part of the story, in a nice way, and without Serial there wouldn’t have been as many nice stories.

In one StartUp episode, New York Times business writer Joe Nocera called out a speaking style common among This American Life alums. He called it the “faux pause,” but it’s a specific hesitation.
With God as my witness, I had no idea what he was talking about. I swear to God.

Really? My husband gets you and Ira Glass mixed up, and he can’t be the only one.
I know that I sound like Ira. Other people have told me. I guess it’s true, even though I don’t hear it. I’ve adopted Ira’s cadence, like many of us who’ve worked at the show have. It’s not intentional. Ira taught me everything I know about how to tell a radio story, including how to talk on the radio.

So when you come home to visit, are you a straight to Graeter’s person or straight to Skyline person?
Skyline. Definitely. I was just back visiting a couple of weeks ago and I saw [Smale Park] downtown with the playground and thought, Man, I have to bring my kids here. With little kids—they’re 5 and 3—it’s hard to get anywhere and a lot of the time my parents are coming here. We get to Cincinnati every Thanksgiving and usually one other time. I miss being in a river town.

New York is a river town…
There’s something about the Midwest. It has changed a lot, but not compared to New York, where there are skyscrapers that weren’t there a year ago. It just feels insane. [Cincinnati] feels more placid. It’s a very green, verdant place. I think the people are, genuinely, a little more edgy and weirder and smarter than they get credit for. I’m going to pick a fight with Chicago, but I lived in Chicago, which is a much bigger city, but it’s easier to find people I can connect with in Cincinnati than I did in Chicago.

In 2004 you did a story about Jerry Springer for This American Life, and I was amazed that someone so progressive could be so popular here. What does it say about Cincinnatians that they were so willing to forgive him the check and the prostitute and maybe even his TV show?
I think there’s something about a town that grows up based on trade. It makes you more cosmopolitan. I think Barcelona, Istanbul, New York, and New Orleans, and all these places that have grown up facilitating different cultures trading goods—it makes you more open-minded about the world and less clannish and less provincial. I think there’s a little of that in Cincinnati. It’s a river town and there were things coming up and down the river and so it was a weird Midwestern version of that phenomenon.

The 2014 This American Life story about your dad being high at work all the time was such a personal piece, and Cincinnati can feel like a very small town. What kind of feedback did you get?
I didn’t get a ton of Cincinnati feedback; my dad did.

Did he regret doing the interview?
No, he didn’t. I think it was uncomfortable for him, hearing it. I played it for him before it went out, so he knew everything that was going to be in it, so he wasn’t caught by surprise. But I think he was surprised. He told me later that he didn’t realize it had had as much of an effect as it had on me. The kind of havoc substance abuse can wreak on a family was not wrought on our family, we were basically fine. But it’s a little naïve to think that it didn’t leave any impression. I think he had managed to convince himself that he’d gotten it under control quickly and it wasn’t a big deal. But a lot of people came forward and told him how brave it was of him to do that, and they appreciated his honesty. And I think it was really brave of him and I did appreciate his honesty.

He founded a very successful ad agency, but sold his stake and left the business, later losing a lot of money on some bad business investments. Did you think about any of that as you left the security of your public radio job to go out on your own?
What are you suggesting? [Laughing] I did think about that. My father and I share a tendency toward willful optimism about the outcome of something. We’re not the kind of people who plan for the worst. The people who plan for the worst aren’t necessarily the types who quit their jobs to start businesses. But then a lot of times it doesn’t turn out the way we wanted and we’re unprepared. That has occurred to me. He started a very successful business and I’ve been asking him about that lately. He started the business when I was a little kid and it took off in the ’80s and then he left. He cashed out because I don’t think he liked doing it and so he left and that is where the money losing began. He was a very successful businessperson in Cincinnati. I didn’t think of him as an entrepreneur but he was absolutely an entrepreneur. That’s been interesting to realize, Hey, we’re both kind of doing the same thing.

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