Gimlet Media’s Story Was Always Going To End Like This
3:43 PM EDT on June 12, 2023
Gimlet Media is basically dead.
Last week, Spotify announced it was laying off 200 workers and combining Gimlet and Parcast into one original podcast studio within the company. It has been a slow and painful death for Gimlet since Spotify acquired it in 2019 for $200 million. There was Reply All’s messy implosion after the Bon Appetit fiasco, the canceled shows and quiet exits and layoff after layoff as morale deteriorated and remaining staff searched for new jobs.
The sale to Spotify was meant to be a lifeline for Gimlet, which in 2018 was burning through cash and running out of runway. In the StartUp episode announcing the sale, founder Alex Blumberg talks about The Habitat, a sort of documentary-slash-reality show about a simulated mission to Mars, which had stretched on longer during the production process than expected. “In April of 2018, The Habitat launched,” he said. “It became the biggest launch ever in the history of Gimlet. It rocketed to number one and stayed there for almost a month. Millions of people listened to it, but also it didn't come close to making back the money we've spent on it.”
But co-founder Matt Lieber said the quiet part out loud on Peter Kafka’s podcast, when he noted that a Spotify sale would make it possible to “make money back for our investors and provide a healthy return.”
When Blumberg and Lieber founded Gimlet in 2014, Blumberg documented the process on StartUp. The first episode was called “How to Pitch a Billionaire.” It documents Blumberg’s attempt to pitch what was then called the American Podcasting Corporation to the billionaire venture capitalist Chris Sacca. Blumberg stumbles through his pitch and Sacca interrupts him and coaches him, a benevolent mentor in Blumberg’s noble pursuit of VC cash.
It seems the coaching worked. Gimlet raised $1.5 million in its seed round at the end of 2014 and started hiring producers. Over the next five years, it raised a total of $28.5 million. It launched popular shows like Reply All, Heavyweight, The Nod, Mystery Show, and Every Little Thing. It also launched a branded studio—led by Blumberg’s spouse, creative director Nazanin Rafsanjani—that created branded podcasts in the Gimlet style to generate revenue. For a while, everything worked. I can’t overstate what an impact Gimlet made on the podcasting industry, which certainly existed prior to that time, but which looked very different than it does now.
At the time, the world of narrative podcasts largely centered around the public radio system; This American Life (which started at Chicago’s WBEZ), Planet Money (a This American Life spinoff), and Radiolab (New York’s WNYZ) dominated the Apple Podcast (then iTunes) charts. They were podcasts, but they were really radio shows published on the internet. There were also small podcast empires built around personalities: Marc Maron, Dan Savage, Chris Hardwick’s Nerdist network, to name a few. But the “podcast industry” as such was small. There wasn’t a lot of money to be made in it, and there were very few jobs to be had.
Then, within the space of one year, StartUp launched, and Gimlet was founded, and This American Life published the first episode of Serial, which became so popular that it broke Apple’s download records. According to Edison, “weekly audio podcast consumption grew 25 percent year-over-year, from 12 percent in 2013 to 15 percent in 2014.” More people than ever knew the word “podcast,” and they wanted to listen to more, and they wanted to make more.
If Serial got the media industry to pay closer attention to podcasts, StartUp and Gimlet created a new path to follow. Gimlet was of the public radio system, but not part of it; Blumberg himself came from Planet Money and This American Life, and most of the people he hired early on were also trained in public radio. They had the public radio aesthetic—the charmingly nerdy, self-effacing demeanor, the soft-spoken inquisitive affect that sounds so good on the low end of the FM dial. The big difference was that unlike their former colleagues in public media, they were going to make money.
It seemed that suddenly there was money everywhere. Every media company wanted its own version of Serial to bring interest and prestige to their newsrooms. Celebrities wanted podcasts of their own. And companies wanted podcasts they could use to tell their corporate brands’ stories—that was a moneymaker.
Dozens of companies sprung up in the years after 2014, many of which were founded by former public media producers, and it went from being nearly impossible to find an entry-level job in audio to a small kind of gold rush. In 2018, I turned down a contract job at the New York Times for a full-time job at one of these small companies; the podcast company’s salary offer was nearly $20,000 higher than the Times.
As the universe of the podcast industry expanded and expanded, Gimlet became something like its sun. Because it had raised so much money, its every move echoed across the industry in Slacks and Gchats and group texts. Its success pinned the rest of the industry in orbit.
The Spotify acquisition was the hearkening of a new trend: there was gold in them thar podcasting hills. Blumberg and Lieber became millionaires in the move, as did several senior staffers at Gimlet who had accrued equity over their years with the company. This was not the case, crucially, for those workers who had worked at the company for several years but in a contract capacity. They were just screwed.
Back in 2014, Blumberg said on StartUp that of the hundreds of thousands of businesses launched each year, “only three in ten survive out the decade.” A decade for Gimlet would’ve been next year. I wonder what Blumberg would’ve thought if he could’ve seen what Gimlet would become, and if he feels the disappointment and disillusionment the rest of the industry feels.
If Gimlet was meant to last, to become a household name like the other three-letter media companies before it, if it was meant to make narrative podcasts for the foreseeable future, it failed at all of those goals. But Gimlet also succeeded in all the ways it was supposed to. When Blumberg and Lieber pursued VC funding right at the beginning of this story, they wrote that story’s end, too. This is because venture-backed companies have an obligation to chase profit at any cost—even the journalism, even the livelihood of the employees, even the life of the company itself. That story only ever ends one way. As I watch ad revenue for podcasts dry up and hear from friends and colleagues who have lost their jobs, and from even more who hate their jobs but have nowhere to go, I wonder what it means that the sun at the center of our universe was always designed to be a flash in the pan.