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Brooklyn Podcast Company Gimlet Media Wants to Become HBO of Audio

Back in mid-2014, Alex Blumberg and Matt Lieber — like countless entrepreneurs before them — had absolutely no idea if their new podcasting venture would thrive or fall smack on its face.

So they decided their first show would document the uncertainties of launching their Brooklyn-based company, Gimlet Media. The result: “StartUp,” which included a failed funding pitch to famed venture capitalist Chris Sacca. “It was terrifying to put this stuff out there,” Blumberg recalls.

The duo had a gut instinct podcasting was on the cusp of breaking out. Blumberg, a 15-year public-radio veteran, had worked as a producer for “This American Life” and co-founder and producer of NPR’s “Planet Money,” one of the earliest digital-first shows released as a podcast. He hooked up with Lieber, also a former NPR producer. The Gimlet crew launched “StartUp” about a month before the first season of podcast phenom “Serial.”

“We realized there was a new medium being born in front of our eyes,” Lieber says. (Or, one might say, ears.)

“StartUp” gained a following of several hundred thousand fans, and today Gimlet produces 13 shows, including “StartUp,” which chronicles an array of founders’ stories. The podcast lineup garners around 12 million episode downloads per month from an estimated 3 million unique listeners.

Hollywood has tuned in to Gimlet’s highbrow slate of content too. The original season of “StartUp” is being adapted by ABC into a sitcom starring Zach Braff. Called “Alex, Inc.,” it’s scheduled to debut in 2017. (Sacca — who ended up investing in Gimlet — will play himself in the TV show.) Gimlet also landed a two-season order from Amazon Studios for “Homecoming,” directed by “Mr. Robot” creator Sam Esmail and starring Julia Roberts in her first TV series, based on the scripted podcast of the same name. The show is about staffers at a secret government agency — some of whom are desperate to rejoin civilian life.

In addition, an early-2017 episode of tech-oriented “Reply All” (Gimlet’s most popular show), which exposed a doctor who scammed his way to fame, is in development at Annapurna Pictures as a feature film. It’s being directed by Richard Linklater and stars Robert Downey Jr. “We now have a pipeline from Brooklyn to L.A.,” Lieber says.

The fast-growing firm has raked in $27 million in funding to date. “We want to build the HBO of audio,” Lieber says.

“We realized there was a new medium being born in front of our eyes.”
Matt Lieber

That’s not an entirely accurate analogy. Gimlet’s productions are ad-supported, and it doesn’t plan to move to a paid-subscription model. But Lieber does want Gimlet to establish must-hear original franchises for a discerning — and affluent — audience. About 69% of Gimlet’s listeners are 25-40, younger than in radio, and they have higher average incomes and are more educated (82% have a four-year college degree or more).

One thing’s for sure: New York has become a hotbed of podcasting. Competition for audio engineers and podcast-related talent is cutthroat, says Serial Prods. president Julie Snyder. “It’s hard to poach people,” she says. “Now, it’s about training.”

In a report this summer, the Mayor’s Office of Media and Entertainment found that employment at the city’s top podcast networks increased 33% from 2015 to a workforce of about 600 in early 2017. For the industry overall, podcast ad revenue is set to see healthy double-digit gains, from an estimated $167 million in 2016 to nearly $250 million in 2017 and $395 million by 2020, according to research firm Bridge Ratings.

Sure, that’s small potatoes compared with TV, film and online video. But to Gimlet’s co-founders, the business is just heating up. “There are whole genres that haven’t been explored yet,” says Lieber, citing romantic comedy, police procedural and young adult. Lieber oversees sales and business development, while Blumberg manages the creative side of the house (his partner joshingly refers to him as “the Steven Spielberg of podcasting”).

The start-up, with 84 full-time employees, is bursting at the seams in its current open-floor-plan offices in the hip Gowanus neighborhood. There are plans to move into a 27,000-square-foot floor of the renovated Pioneer Building in downtown Brooklyn in the summer of 2018. Also on tap for 2018: Gimlet Fest, a multi-day event set for spring that will feature live performances from the company’s popular podcast hosts.

To Blumberg and Lieber, it all feels like they’re at a key tipping point. “Nobody says, ‘Do you watch video?’” says Blumberg. “We’re now getting out of the stage of people asking, ‘Do you listen to podcasts?’”

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