On June 5, Spotify announced a “strategic realignment” of its podcast division: “the next phase of our podcast strategy,” explained head of podcasts Sahar Elhabashi, would focus on “delivering even more value for creators (and users!),” via “a continued leveling up of our advertising offerings and the introduction of more business models to help more creators make meaningful money from their work.” In plain English: Spotify hopes to make money from podcast ads and analytics rather than original shows. As part of this realignment, Spotify laid off 2 percent of its workforce, around 200 people, primarily from the podcast division. This follows two previous waves of layoffs: last October, Spotify canceled eleven original shows and laid off dozens of employees, and then another 600 employees in January, many of them also from the podcast division.
In addition to the layoffs, Spotify’s subsidiary studios—Parcast and Gimlet—will be dissolved into Spotify Studios. And so ends the story of Gimlet Media, which began in 2014, when the studio was founded with venture capital funding by former This American Life staffer and Planet Money creator Alex Blumberg. During its almost-decade, Gimlet produced some great podcasts and many decent ones, all of them dividends of the waning era of low interest rates, startups comfortably operating at a loss, and cheap or free stuff for the rest of us. Gimlet had the cash to hire public radio talent away from NPR, WNYC, This American Life, and the national broadcasting corporations of Canada and Australia, as well as popular indie shows like For Colored Nerds. Before and after its 2019 acquisition by Spotify for $230 million, Gimlet channeled tremendous resources into a range of audio projects that sometimes pushed the form in fascinating new directions. What emerged was a raft of interesting shows, entertaining and free to listen to, just as long as you sat through the hosts reading ads that were sometimes kind of funny anyway.
Gimlet is now gone. Maybe in the year 2040, season 31 of Slow Burn will reconstruct the podcast bubble in a blend of 2010s nostalgia and anthropological fascination, as a way of illuminating this moment in media and labor. Until then—and against the backdrop of industry wide layoffs that have hit Vox, Pushkin, WNYC, Amazon Studios, SiriusXM, Disney, and NPR—we’re left asking: What was Gimlet? What was its stylistic contribution to the podcast as an art form? And what does the studio’s demise mean for the future of the industry and the medium?
In 2014, Sarah Koenig reported and hosted a spinoff of This American Life called Serial, which investigated a murder. At the time, Ira Glass’s beloved radio show had been in weekly syndication for almost twenty years, delivering a reliably excellent hour of reportage, essayistic monologues, and occasional short fiction. This American Life had long been a mainstay of terrestrial NPR affiliates nationwide, but Serial was doing something new. Like the term “podcast” (a portmanteau of “iPod” and “broadcast”) the new miniseries’s title referred to medium rather than message: the quirk of this project, Glass explained in prefacing Serial’s first episode, was that the pilot would run on air, but the rest of the show would be released serially on This American Life’s RSS feed.
Serial was a hit, with over 80 million downloads in its first two years, and it ignited popular interest in the form, which had been around for at least a decade but until that point had mostly served NPR as a catalog of shows’ back episodes and segments too short for the hour-long syndication block. But what emerged from the Adnan Syed story was a sudden and astonishing demand for narrative audio.
Enter Alex Blumberg, another Glass trainee. Blumberg was a staffer on This American Life and the cohost of Planet Money, NPR’s podcast-exclusive economics show. In 2014—the year of Serial—Blumberg started his own podcast company, envisioning a business operation that would scale up This American Life–style storytelling with financial resources that pledge-drive-dependent public radio could only dream of. With the help of venture capital funding, his podcast company would be an explicitly for-profit enterprise, like the startups synonymous with massive growth and “disruptive innovation”: Airbnb, Uber, DoorDash. It was already happening for other media companies: Vice had raised $720 million dollars in VC funding, transforming from a humble music blog to a platform operating on five continents, producing a nightly news show and weekly documentary series for HBO, and earning public expressions of envious admiration from the BBC and the New York Times. And across Vice’s subsidiary websites, the company had thousands of employees who were living well. Blumberg believed the rising tide of venture capital could lift all boats. Why not the podcast industry?
Blumberg’s other innovation was to create a narrative podcast about his podcast startup, which was both proof of concept and an incredible marketing tool, generating its own Serial-esque wave of enthusiasm: the first episode of StartUp, Gimlet’s first official product, aired on September 5, 2014, and by February the show had around a million listens per month. In candid interviews with his wife, his cofounder, his investors, and his employees, as well as hoarse voice-memo confessions about his high levels of stress, Blumberg told the story of a bumbling but dogged public-radio man risking it all in pursuit of creating “the HBO of podcasts.” Blumberg shared scenes of astonishing abjection, using his ruthlessly documented failures to create a texture of total transparency that belied the deranged optimism of most startup narratives. In episode one, Blumberg pitches Chris Sacca, a venture capitalist and early investor in Twitter, Uber, Instagram, and Kickstarter. Blumberg’s sweaty palms are practically audible in his tight-throated, stumbling delivery.
BLUMBERG: In the world of audio, right now, most people consume . . . The, the kind of audio journalism that I do, most of, most people consume it over the radio. Those people are leaving the radio in droves, and they’re migrating to digital. They’re migrating to digital listening. The, uh, number of smartphone handsets are going through the roof, the . . . audio dashboard is becoming digital. iTunes Radio is becoming digital, podcasting is all gonna be on your dashboard. Um. And there’s this whole world of . . . so, there’s all these people going there, and I want to start a company that will create the content for all these people to listen to, who are moving into the digital future/present.
BLUMBERG (NARRATION): “Digital future/present?” Who says that? If I’m honest, I sound like a douchebag. Dropping all this jargon. Instead of saying “Listening to the radio,” saying “Consuming audio.” Also, notice how the more nervous I become, the higher my voice gets.
SACCA: So you’re uniquely positioned to do it because you’re better at it than anybody?
BLUMBERG: [Long pause, then squeaky voice] Yeah. I am.
Sacca makes him shorten the pitch, coaches him on wording, and finally delivers Blumberg’s own pitch back to him, fully refined: “There’s a hunger for this kind of shit,” Sacca says. “There’s just a bunch of jerk-off podcasts. Nothin’s out there. Advertisers are dying for it. Users are dying for it.” What’s more, “Nobody else can make this shit. I know how to make it better than anybody else in the world.”
Sacca passes for now, but invites Blumberg to rework the pitch and try again later, leaving Blumberg with a question: “What’s your exit?” Meaning, essentially, “What large company will buy your company in three to five years, so investors like me can get our money back at ten to a hundred times the amount we put in?” Blumberg says the question made him uncomfortable. “I don’t know if I want anyone to buy me,” he admits.
Subsequent episodes of StartUp documented how Blumberg chose the name “Gimlet,” obtained his first round of funding, and launched Gimlet’s first non-StartUp show: Reply All, hosted by Alex Goldman and PJ Vogt. Goldman and Vogt had been producers at WNYC’s On the Media, where they made a podcast-extra show called TLDR that did short pieces about the internet. I was sad when TLDR suddenly and mysteriously announced its finale, and delighted when Vogt and Goldman resurfaced as Reply All: they’d been acquired. The new Gimlet show immediately demonstrated the power of venture capital applied to the podcast medium. First, Goldman and Vogt moved to a biweekly format, and soon enough their stories became longer and increasingly expensive-sounding: Goldman flew to Delhi for “Long Distance,” a two-part series in which he endeavored to meet a tech support scammer IRL, and producer Sruthi Pinnamaneni ventured into true crime territory with the four-part series “On the Inside.” TLDR approached the internet as a news beat, but Reply All treated it as a prism, exploring the ways in which the internet was in the process of altering our collective personhood.
Reply All also took the podcast medium in new directions, pushing StartUp’s reflexivity even further, and giving their episodes strange shapes and a similarly arresting immediacy. Vogt’s episode “Shine On You Crazy Goldman” begins as an investigation into trip-sitting websites, but becomes an account of Vogt secretly microdosing at work, culminating in an inadvertent macrodose while on a drive with his friend Drew:
VOGT: The trees look beautiful. This is not a hallucination, but they look like they’re on fire.
VOGT (NARRATION): Another reason, possibly, that I had wanted to keep microdosing is that I’d just come off a rough week. I’d broken up with somebody I loved, and it hurt. It felt like I was just one step ahead of this herd of stampeding feelings that I really, really did not want to catch me. And the microdose had seemed like maybe it would help me outrun those feelings.
But then my brain did something weird. We were stuck in traffic on I-95, and I saw all the cars. And I thought about how many people there were in the world. And I felt tiny, like just a speck. And I realized that if I was so tiny, and the world was so vast, then the part of me that was hurting—that was even tinier. Even if that hurt felt very large to me, it was nothing. I tried to say this to Drew.
VOGT: The thing that I feel that I had not felt before right now is, like, the world feels really, really, really big. And actually really connected. And it feels good to know that I am small.
It was Vogt’s signature move, this entanglement of story and reporter that made doctrinaire journalistic disinterest feel rigid and restrictive. It wasn’t self-disclosure for its own sake, but a genuinely experimental approach: the most exciting examples of the Gimlet podcast involved a productive tension between the infinite refinement possible in the studio and the entropy and risk introduced by the world.
One expression of all that VC cash was the simplest and most valuable thing money can provide for an artist: time to find your voice, which Vogt and Goldman did together. The hosts’ personae grew increasingly defined and distinct. Vogt had the quickness of a comedian, but also the earnest solicitude of a therapist. Goldman’s thing was a curmudgeonly comic disgust, as though the only proper response to the Lovecraftian grotesquerie of Trump-era internet discourse was to admit that you’d gazed for too long into the abyss and thereby welcomed the abyss into your soul. We learned that Goldman liked synthesizers and horror movies, had extensive experience with psychedelics, had two kids, had somehow worked about a million low-wage jobs, and had a history of clinical depression, which he addressed candidly when it was germane. His and Vogt’s friendly ribbing, with its increasing catalog of inside jokes, made it feel like the two were genuine friends. It’s possible that this dynamic more than anything else was responsible for the show becoming a massive hit, with the largest listener base of Gimlet’s portfolio.
It quickly became self-evident that Blumberg was not, as Chris Sacca put it, the only one who could make this shit. High-quality, commercially successful podcasts were proliferating rapidly—not only low-touch chat shows about politics, culture, and sports, but resource-intensive narrative podcasts that had ambitions to keep the company of literary texts, such as This American Life’s limited series S-Town, a “nonfiction novel” about a freaky genius in Alabama, and Slate’s Slow Burn, which moved between quotation and free indirect narration to recreate the Nixon and Clinton impeachments from the perspectives of people who lived through them. There were also dozens if not hundreds of true crime podcasts, which tended to take a quantity-over-quality approach to the form, but nevertheless constituted what the critic Nicholas Quah has called “the bloody, beating heart of podcasting” in terms of raw listener numbers.
Money was flowing into the industry, though revenue models varied. In 2016, the network Wondery began soliciting VC funding for an ad-based revenue model much like Gimlet’s, but in 2019, another VC-funded startup, Luminary, announced a slate of forty new shows that would be paywalled rather than ad-supported. As of 2019, Vulture gave the industry-wide figures of 660,000 shows (many of them admittedly low-budget) and sixty-two million listeners. For the most successful shows, advertising rates were “well over $50,000 for a single host-read ad.”
The “podcast bubble,” as it’s now being called, was a period of extraordinary productivity for Gimlet in particular, which produced forty-five different shows during its nine years of activity, including limited series like The Habitat; weekly chat shows like The Cut on Tuesdays; recurring documentary series like Crimetown; kids’ shows like Story Pirates and Chompers; scripted dramas like Homecoming and Sandra that starred big-name actors like Oscar Isaac and Kristen Wiig; and branded podcasts for companies including eBay, Tinder, and Gatorade. And with all those shows came a sudden abundance of podcast-related jobs. It took lots of people to make this shit, it turned out, and even those who weren’t hired in-house could make good money with extraneous production work such as transcriptions or tape syncs (remote interview recording jobs), most often solicited via the “Public Radio NYC” Google Group. Even limited series—like Pineapple Street Studios’ Persona: The French Deception, an eight-part investigative documentary about a French-Israeli scam artist—saw producers getting paid to take a bullet-train trip from Paris to Bordeaux to interview an heir to the Lafite wine dynasty (one of the scam artist’s marks), where they received a tasting tour of his personal cellar. You could call this sequence, which appears in the published series, local color or playful reflexivity, but in retrospect it’s the sound of money. And for listeners, it was a vicarious taste of the labor conditions made possible by the well-compensated and well-organized industry that had emerged from Gimlet’s overcoat.
Inside Gimlet itself, the feverish atmosphere of growth was palpable, and not always good for the people who worked there. As Gimlet grew, a divide between “Full Timers and Contractors” began taking shape—often along distinct racial lines. Employees of color felt the consequences of a system built to prioritize growth at all costs. Former Gimlet producer JT Green, who is Black, summed it up in a 2021 essay: “we were brought in the door with this promise of a meritocracy, and . . . it was slowly revealing itself as exploitation. An increase of a valuation price built on our backs.” The project Green worked on, The Nod—a show about “the stories of Black life that don’t get told anywhere else”—garnered critical attention and praise, but the studio refused to extend Green’s contract because listener numbers weren’t competitive with other Gimlet shows. It was becoming clearer that the studio was reproducing the same inequalities and labor conditions of the companies whose funding models, and willingness to “move fast and break things,” it had borrowed.
Rumors of a sale to Spotify began circulating in the Gimlet office in 2019, alongside the early organizing work that would result in Gimlet’s union: a meticulous tracking of contractor rates alongside demographics and levels of experience. The union went public around the time of the sale, and one of their first campaigns was for contractors to receive hiring offers, plus a “small payout to acknowledge their efforts towards the company’s sale.” Contractors who had previously been shut out of stock options received checks and celebrated accordingly.
After the sale, Blumberg returned to StartUp for a three-part finale about “what it’s really like to sell a business.” These episodes are reminiscent of Succession’s frantic no-contact grappling for power, particularly when Spotify’s head of acquisitions insists that Blumberg and cofounder Matt Lieber cancel their Thanksgiving plans and fly to Stockholm for a meeting with Spotify co-founder and CEO Daniel Ek. Ek asks the Gimlet boys what they’d do if he gave them a billion dollars; the Gimlet boys aren’t prepared, and hazard a few moonshots like hiring Michelle Obama or Radiolab’s Jad Abumrad, the two genders of audio storytelling. Finally they demur, admitting that they honestly aren’t prepared to grow that quickly.
It was a test, Ek explains. Their answer had vouchsafed their purity of heart. Ek reassures Blumberg he’s always considered Gimlet “a leader in the space,” and repeats the line about Gimlet being “the HBO of podcasts.” All of it is consonant with Spotify’s repeated assurances that quality matters, and that they’ll just let Gimlet do their thing.
Now that Spotify has begun smelting down Gimlet for its compositional elements, those StartUp episodes make for strange listening. In the finale, Blumberg does worry about whether Spotify’s overtures of hands-off management were simply part of the courtship ritual. But in StartUp’s closing scene, a big party at Spotify’s office, he tells his employees that this is almost certainly the best exit possible. His wife, Nazanin Rafsanjani, photographs the moment, and Blumberg reflects on the experience of looking at pictures of Gimlet’s very first office, which stirred in him “a retrospective impulse to protect all those people in those pictures,” to warn them how risky the years ahead would be.
“A few years from now,” he wonders, “what would I feel, looking at the photos Nazanin was taking tonight? I knew I wouldn’t feel the same fear for the livelihoods of the people in these pictures. We now worked in a real office with 401ks and stock options. We were no longer a small scrappy band of podcast true believers, out to convince the world. We now had a big global company that believed in us.”
In January 2020, eleven months after the Spotify acquisition, Green left Gimlet along with many other employees of color (“We jokingly referred to it as the Blexodus”) but notes a lingering tendency in herself that she refers to as Gimlet PTSD. “If Gimlet PTSD made its way into the DSM-5,” she writes, “you would see its criteria in many people of color that left the company: unconscious curtailing to white colleagues, and silently holding your tongue in fear of retribution.”
This dynamic exploded into public view in February of 2021, when Reply All began publishing “The Test Kitchen,” its miniseries about systemic racism at Bon Appetit, where employees of color were regularly passed over for promotions or prominent stories in favor of white employees. It was the same dynamic Green and many other Black employees had experienced at Gimlet, now narrated in the style of . . . Gimlet. Eric Eddings of The Nod summed it up in an extended Twitter thread shortly after the show’s second episode aired: “I had been avoiding listening [to Reply All’s ‘Test Kitchen’],” Eddings wrote, “but once I did I felt gaslit. The truth is RA and specifically PJ [Vogt] and Sruthi [Pinnamaneni] contributed to a near identical toxic dynamic at Gimlet.”
Reply All was “an island at Gimlet,” with resources and influence commensurate with its massive listenership, and because of the hosts’ close relationships with management, other workers were wary of including them in organizing efforts. As a result, Reply All’s staff learned about the union drive quite late. “They were pissed,” Eddings writes. The Reply All team “used their weight as a cudgel,” rallying others against the union and sending “harassing messages,” including a message from Vogt to Eddings, saying that “he was slacking with Sruthi and that she had ‘called me a piece of shit and asked him to tell me.’”
The union drive succeeded, and Goldman ultimately joined the bargaining committee. Vogt, too, expressed support for the union after leaving Gimlet. But the offense that motivated Eddings to speak up was, in fact, the “Test Kitchen” series itself, which felt like “an effort to rehabilitate themselves in the eyes of colleagues at Spotify and the ones who have left.” In the second chapter of “The Test Kitchen”—and the last that Reply All released, after the backlash began—Pinnamaneni reflects on Gimlet’s union drive, admitting that she had been wrong to stand in the way, and was “still processing the anger that I feel toward myself.”
In Eddings’s view, the most egregious gesture of bad faith was Pinnamaneni’s (and Vogt’s, since he served as series editor) attempt to marshal that distinctive podcast reflexivity in her defense. The medium’s aesthetic qualities make it a site where the truth can be articulated, as a way of tracing one’s errant path from innocent or malicious ignorance to a present state of enlightened self-awareness. This is the gesture of many reported podcasts, particularly those “quest” episodes that let the listener in on the reporting process, and it is the reason those host-read advertisements are so pricey: there is a powerful effect of trust that is formed between speaker and listener. But the fallout after “The Test Kitchen” suggested there were now places where self-awareness simply couldn’t go, where even the most candid and verbally profuse accounts of one’s motivations couldn’t undo the real harm experienced by real people; and there were silences, aporia, negative spaces between words, that had taken on a damning new presence.
All of this was also, in a way, an indictment of Gimlet’s business model. Because growth and raw listener numbers had translated directly into power and influence, there were clearly incentives for employees of successful shows to feel they could do no wrong. “Revisiting early episodes of StartUp,” Green reflects in her memoir, “these predatory practices were built in the early days of the company’s funding. It was by design, the rush of day trading cloaked in the Everlane threads of public radio. The perfect Trojan horse.”
Vogt and Pinnamaneni left Reply All within days of Eddings’s tweet thread, and a year later the show’s co-hosts Goldman and Emmanuel Dzotsi called it quits. Gimlet struggled to produce another hit, and Spotify began squeezing its asset for more juice.
You could hear it first in the ads. In early episodes of Reply All, ads felt like an extension of the show. A Squarespace ad might feature the hosts reading audience submissions to “Gopher Gripes,” Goldman’s Squarespace-built page for crowdsourcing comically small-minded gripes (“My limes are too thin to squeeze!”), so that Squarespace’s “simple drag-and-drop tools” were touted almost entirely by implication. These ads also didn’t repeat, so there was always something new to hear. By 2021, however, Heavyweight’s one riffy Squarespace ad ran at every commercial break, making host Jonathan Goldstein’s cheerful insouciance depressing at the first repetition and maddening by the fourth or fifth. Nowadays, most podcast ads resemble those of TV shows or commercial radio, if you hear them at all, which many people don’t, thanks to the fifteen-second skip button.
Spotify also began making Gimlet’s programming Spotify-exclusive, publishing new episodes only on Spotify, rather than other streaming apps such as Stitcher, Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, or YouTube. With Heavyweight, this shift occurred between the first and second halves of a very suspenseful story, with Goldstein jumping in at the end of part one to explain that the conclusion was available only on Spotify. (It worked on me: I downloaded the app right there in the middle of folding laundry.) And while Heavyweight had enough devotees to survive the change, other shows didn’t. In October 2022, Spotify canceled twelve shows from Gimlet and Parcast, citing low listener numbers—which Gimlet’s and Parcast’s unions argued was a direct result of the move to exclusivity.
By measuring success in raw listener numbers while also paywalling episodes in the hope of driving up subscriber numbers, Spotify all but ensured that only a few shows would earn their keep. On top of this, Spotify’s biggest non-Gimlet podcast projects are not panning out: the Obamas declined to renew the exclusive contract they signed in 2019, a collaboration with Ava DuVernay didn’t produce anything, and a $20 million podcast deal with Prince Harry and Meghan Markle recently fell apart, leading Bill Simmons, Spotify’s head of podcast innovation and monetization, to call the royal couple “fucking grifters” on his own podcast.
As shows shrink their budgets and shutter, and fewer new projects are greenlit, network largesse may come to seem a thing of the cherished past. Tape syncs don’t appear as often on the “Public Radio NYC” listserv these days. Transcription jobs have disappeared completely, because it’s cheaper and faster to use AI services like Trint or Descript; and as those services have gotten better, even “Trint cleanups” (editing out errors) are history. It feels increasingly like in place of high wages and project diversity, the podcast industry has austerity and Joe Rogan. Rogan’s tens of millions of listeners make his show Spotify’s most successful podcast in the United States and ninety-two other markets. Podcast strategist Eric Nuzum put it more bluntly: Rogan is “the only thing they have,” he recently told Amrita Khalid of Hot Pod. No matter how often Rogan says the n-word or spreads anti-vax conspiracies, Spotify needs him.
Gimlet’s aesthetic legacy lingers. You can hear it in Sounds Gay, a limited series from SiriusXM’s Stitcher Studios on which JT Green recently served as series editor. The show is hosted and produced by Sarah Esocoff, and investigates “the intersection of music and queerness” using a kaleidoscopic assortment of experiments in format and content. The strongest aesthetic influence on the show’s formal eclecticism, Esocoff told me, was WNYC’s Nancy—a weekly podcast exploring the LGBTQ experience that ran from 2017 to 2020—but Esocoff also mentioned Reply All’s “quest episodes,” in which the reporting process itself was the content of the story.
Other major podcasts stand in opposition to the Gimlet aesthetic. Take Defector Media’s Normal Gossip, distributed by the podcast collective Radiotopia. In each episode, host Kelsey McKinney takes one or two guests through a gossip story from the real world—not about celebrities, just normal people having normal drama. The guests are usually comedians, writers, or other podcasters, and they stand in for the listener as McKinney spins a tale about messy conflicts in a knitting club, a dog park, or a gay kickball league. Whereas it’s common at Gimlet-style shows to re-record narration exhaustively, Normal Gossip purposefully does episodes in one take, from a bulleted list rather than a polished script.
But even if the episodes have the energy of conversations between friends, each one takes a staggering amount of work to produce: the stories must be sourced, plus expanded through subsequent interviews, then run through a process of repeated rewriting, both to scrupulously anonymize the characters and to reshape and exaggerate the plot in accordance with the game-of-telephone magnification distinctive of orally transmitted rumors. I know all this because McKinney and her co-creator, Alex Sujong Laughlin, have made it their business to adopt a StartUp-esque self-reflexivity from the get-go, explaining to their listeners how the show gets made. “We have this belief,” Laughlin told me, “that the audience, the readers, the subscribers, are the shareholders—they’re the people who give us money to operate, so we want to tell them how we’re using that money.” It’s a choice consistent with Normal Gossip’s origins and ongoing membership in Defector Media, which is a worker-owned, subscription-based media company that practices a similarly radical transparency.
“When listeners think that it’s easy to make something,” Laughlin explained, “they expect it to be frequent, widely available, and low in cost. And my belief is that’s part of the problem happening in the podcast industry right now. There’s not a lot of literacy about what the true cost of a podcast is. The cost has been artificially lowered.”
Most of Normal Gossip’s revenue currently comes from Radiotopia: as part of their contract, Laughlin and McKinney receive an “ad revenue minimum guarantee,” meaning that they make a fixed amount whether or not Radiotopia sells ads on the season. (This is not common.) Between Radiotopia’s guarantee and proceeds from Normal Gossip’s live tours, “that’s enough to help boost Defector, the company, along,” too. Via the collective ownership model, the success of this one show is helping to produce other projects. It’s a sharp contrast to the win-or-die logic of Gimlet.
Looking to the future of the medium, Laughlin hopes to see more producer ownership of IP and more producer visibility, rather than hosts getting all the credit. She also wants to see more collectives—“more groups of people working together to make a thing, without taking the bad money.” She laughed, and added, “I can say this, in my very privileged position, which is having one of the few good jobs in audio, where I have a small budget to do what I want within the confines that I have. Our goal here is not to become podcast millionaires,” Laughlin said. “Our goal is to make a thing that we’re really proud of.”
My favorite podcast clip of 2023 comes from Radiotopia’s In the Scenes Behind Plain Sight. In one episode, hosts Ian Chillag and Mike Danforth do a promo for a fake true crime podcast:
DANFORTH: In March 2023, five college students went missing from a van in the Arizona desert. Where they were found will blow you away.
CHILLAG: New from Radiotopia, in conjunction with Wondery Media: a Gimlet Studios production, in partnership with Gizmodo and Wall Street Journal Digital.
DANFORTH: From Paramount+ and Siemens Furniture, now at Menard’s.
CHILLAG: It’s Missing from a Van: Where They Were Found, a new series from One Girl Murdered Studios and PRX, in partnership with Planet Money.
DANFORTH: From Earwolf, Gimlet Media, and Lender’s Bagels, Missing from a Van: Where They Were Found uncovers not just where they were found, but where they were missing from: a van.
CHILLAG: From New Yorker audio, in collaboration with Wondery Media and Audiocracy, with exclusive audio from an identical podcast released just four months ago, Missing from a Van: Where They Were Found, from Rolling Stone magazine and Wondery Media, in partnership with ABC Studios, a division of CBS, is available wherever you get your podcasts.
This goes on for several minutes, until it seems nobody’s not implicated. It’s an amusing commentary on our present moment: media companies are struggling to find new ways to be profitable in the era of the algorithm, and so place larger and larger bets on fewer and fewer articles of culture. The middle has been ripped out of the cultural spectrum, leaving only the incredibly profitable canopy and an understory of media made so cheaply that their popularity and quality don’t matter: you could call it Roganomics. It’s the financial logic under which the beloved indie music marketplace Bandcamp was sold in 2022 to Epic Games, who are best known as the makers of Fortnite, and who held onto their new asset for only nineteen months before laying off 16 percent of Bandcamp’s workforce and selling the company on to Songtradr, a music licensing service, who recently fired half of Bandcamp’s staff. “The products and services you depend on aren’t going anywhere,” Bandcamp’s co-founder and CEO had said at the time of the 2022 Epic acquisition; but as the ensuing half-ironic, half-utopian “Nationalize Bandcamp” memes indicated, it’s been a while since anybody believed those sorts of promises.
That’s not to say the system worked perfectly before the Spotify era. Part of the mythos of This American Life is that the show’s biggest early break wasn’t the show itself, but Ira Glass’s pledge modules, those short pre-packaged clips that local NPR affiliates will circulate during pledge drives to solicit donations. Rather than beseeching or berating listeners, Glass entertained them. In one pledge module, he shares the statistic that nine out of ten regular NPR listeners don’t donate, then proceeds to call a local phone company and ask if he can have a similar deal on phone lines: ten phone accounts, but nine are free. Glass plays it straight, patiently explaining and reexplaining the deal he’d like, and the phone company employee politely but firmly says there’s no way in hell. These modules were incredibly effective—in a 2019 interview with Blumberg, Glass recalled one such module that earned $35,000 in eight minutes for Boston’s WBUR—and Glass would only provide them to stations that also agreed to take This American Life. That was how the show built its audience and its budget: one begrudging NPR syndication at a time.
Perhaps economic conditions can help explain the central aesthetic gesture of the Gimlet era: the posture of self-reflexive truth-telling that let the listener into the process of making an audio story, even into the process of paying for the story to be made. You had a medium that was cash-rich but deeply precarious, which produced artists who were fixated on the dubious economics of their work, and who naturally couldn’t help but construct narratives that inveigled listeners into a similar fixation. If the promise of the early Gimlet era was that the artist might become something like a tech entrepreneur, the past few months have seen that promise carried implacably to its conclusion.
It’s a very American story, which is to say that you can tell it two different ways at once: as one man’s visionary quest to turn a bright idea into, at the New York Times’s estimate, a personal payout of over $20 million dollars; or as a case study in the infinite fungibility of capital, which creates and dissolves podcasts along with literary careers according to its inexorable logic, and the stubborn fact of labor, of the human bodies and heads, which also have ears, that generate the surplus keeping the sluices flowing. The last word belongs to the Parcast and Gimlet unions, who issued a joint statement on June 5, the day of Spotify’s 200-person layoff.
“Gimlet was a pioneer in the podcast industry,” the statement reads, having produced many shows that “turned people into podcast listeners.” Indeed, “Spotify acquired Gimlet because it saw something special in the studio. But instead of building on that legacy, the company undermined it, and four years later Gimlet is no more.”