Q&A with Alex Blumberg, CEO of Gimlet Media

I’m sitting backstage at the Westin St. Francis in San Francisco, California, and it is dark and cramped and quiet as our annual conference, Webinar World, officially kicks off. I’m in this area to try and quietly type out social media posts for our virtual audience, but I’m mostly trying to pay attention to the keynote speaker onstage. His name is Alex Blumberg and he is the CEO and Co-Founder of Gimlet Media, a major podcasting startup which recently raised $15 million in a Series B round.

Blumberg is not here to discuss funds, startups or anything approximating common Silicon Valley discourse. Here’s here to discuss something far more fundamental: storytelling. In particular, Blumberg is explaining how good stories are crafted over his preferred medium, audio, and how the crowd — mostly B2B marketers — can leverage these same elemental tools to capture the attention and trust of their preferred audiences.

I had the good fortune to steal Blumberg for a few questions after his speech. What follows is a brief Q&A, edited for clarity, brevity and context.

Q) [The American Broadcasting Company is producing a television series loosely based around StartUp, a podcast Blumberg produced.] ABC, that whole thing, I was curious — how is that going on? What is your mindset with them doing kind of an autobiography sitcom?

AB: Haha. Well, I think calling it an autobiography is way, way out there. So, they optioned season one of StartUp, but, like, when anybody options, especially when it’s a television show, they kinda fictionalize a ton of stuff. So, it’s loosely based on, sort of, the events inside of StartUp. So, there’s, like, a family and the guy is starting a podcasting company but not many of the details are the same. But it’s cool. It’s really, really crazy to think it’s going to be on ABC and Zach Braff is staring…

Q) Gotcha. In your opinion, are there any particular habits that a successful storyteller practices and nurtures?

AB: Yeah, I think curiosity is really important and just trying to stay true to a feeling that somebody has. Like, what are the feelings that are going on? If you can pay attention to the feelings people have and why, [and] how that applies to them, and [what] they may be feeling about whatever they’re going through — I think that’s important. I think curiosity and sort of, like, emotional availability are key.

Q) You mentioned identifying key points and emotion. How would you go about identifying key points within a story?

AB: So I think it all depends on the story you’re telling. Often, there’s a beginning. What I try to do is I try to think “Okay, so where does the story begin? What’s the middle — what happens in the middle and what’s the end?”

And, generally, over a story, something has to evolve, right? Something has to take place. You want to end up in a place that’s different than the beginning. And there’s all sorts of formulas for this. There’s a very famous Disney formula. It’s like, “Here’s this character and this is the way it was for many days. And then one day… and this is what it was like after that.”

And you see that. If you start watching you’ll see that. There’s a sort of “Here’s the everyday” and “And then one day” and then “The things change after that.” Some period of transformation has to happen. Every story is in some way, probably, about transformation — something changes in the end than in the beginning. And I think that’s where to look.

So we, when we’re telling stories, we’re looking for pivotal moments. We’re looking for not just, like, “We’re a solution to the blah-blah-blah.” Rather, we’re looking for something like “You know how this thing happened? Like, here’s a moment we’ve all had, right? You’re on the phone, or whatever, and ‘X’ happens and that’s frustrating and we’ve all felt that frustration. I’ve felt that one and then one day I learned this thing and now I want to tell you about the thing I learned.” And think that’s an arc that people will much more organically pay attention to.

Q) A lot of B2B Marketers like to talk about knowing their audience. To get this understanding, we generally use lot of data. How did you come to know your audience?

AB: This is something that we don’t know very well. I think you guys [B2B marketers] know this way better than we do. At This American Life we had most of my instincts that I’ve learned about storytelling I learned while there, and we didn’t know much, really, about our audience at all.

We knew, basically, that they were a public radio audience but we didn’t have very good data on who those people were and what they were coming to the show for. All we knew was that, um, genuinely, if we liked it, they would like it. You know? Generally. And I think we started to try and become a proxy for the audience in some way, which was some sort of on very, very deep human level.

We just assumed, “Okay, it [the audience] is basically a curious person with some level of curiosity about the world. But that is also a human being with human boredom.” And so we’d try to pay attention to our own boredom as much as possible… in journalism, you’re trying to get across information, but you don’t want it to be, like, “Eat your broccoli.” You wanna feel like “Oh, this is an important story, but I’m not listening to it because it’s an important story. I’m listening to it because it’s an interesting story. It’s going to make me feel something. I’m going to learn something or whatever.”

So just really keenly developing your own sense of, “I’m bored by this.” And, also, just trying playing it for people, “Do you care? Do you care what I’m saying right now?” And that’s a question we ask all the time: “Do I care about what you’re saying?”

Q) So, in hindsight, how did you identify what people did care about? How did you pick up on what resonated with your audience?

AB: We get feedback from the show. At Gimlet, our most basic metric is, “How many people listened? How many people engaged with us? How many people give us feedback? How many people tweeted us? How many people listened to all the way through?” You get listener data — you can see listening curves — and that’s getting better and better and more sophisticated as more analytics tools are rolling out, so you can sort of see [where] you could have problems in stories. Like you don’t set it up properly, and it’s actually a great story, but you haven’t set it up properly and it sounds like a boring story. And you see people drop off really quickly. And then sometimes you see [that] you set it up pretty good and then it starts to drizzle out and you can see people drop off there. So that’s a pretty good tool for us — you know, what does our listen-through curve look like? Most people listen all the way through — we have pretty high engagement.

Q) You posed the question onstage “What is audio good at?” And you walked us through what it is good at. How did you come to identify what that medium — or how do you identify what a medium — is good at?

AB: Well, a couple things, I got hired to teach a class — a radio journalism class — in the early 2000s at Columbia University and I was like “Ugh, I have to come up with a curriculum.” I had been doing radio for a while but I hadn’t really thought about what it was good at. So, I started thinking about it and I realized that the stories I really liked, the stories that really resonate with me, had these elements.

We did this TV show — it was a This American Life TV show on Showtime — where we tried to do a version of This American Life on TV and out of all of this stuff we’d do the interviews. And they would be these killer audio interviews and they just wouldn’t work. You’d watch the dailies and they’d just be boring. I was like, “This is so weird because, as audio, this is going to kill. I know it’s going to kill because I had been doing it for a long time and I know that it’s going to be riveting audio.”

But watching it? Sometimes just watching the person say it just was boring, you know? And they’d [other TV shows] do some dumb thing where they’d have some weird accent or say something vaguely rude to somebody and you’d be, “Oh, I want to watch that.” And then you’d realize “Oh, these mediums are really good at different things.” And it started to make me understand that the same sequence of actions that makes a really good audio story happens just visually. If you were just watching somebody engaged in a process, you’re hooked. “What is that person doing?” And they’re walking down the hall looking at the doors and they’re trying the keys. And you’re like, “Wait, what is going on here?” And so the same thing happens, but it’s just a different vocabulary.

And audio is different. In audio, conflict can be internal — you can hear people wrestling with their own feelings. In video, it’s harder to see so that conflict has to be a little more external. That’s why people really like fighting. That’s … that’s why reality [TV shows] exists and why reality always needs a person who’s, sort of, got poor impulse control to stir things up. It made me understand, “Oh, this is why, this is why TV is the way it is.” Because, it’s just, that’s what it needs — that’s what we, as human beings, want to watch.

Q) How familiar are you with webinars?

AB: A little. I’ve done one or two.

Q) Okay, so webinars combine a few different mediums — so it can do audio, it can do video, it can do both at the same time — do you that’s an asset, like, being able to do multiple [mediums] or would you think it’d be better to just focus on one particular medium?

AB: I don’t know. I think it depends on how you’re reaching people and where you’re reaching people. We did a story, when I was at Planet Money, we did this big thing where we followed a T-shirt around the world — so, we documented it as it got made. So, it was this really great project and we talked to the people in Bangladesh who sewed the T-shirts together and we talked to the yarn-spinners in Indonesia, who made the yarn that went into our t-shirt, and we just followed it all the way around — the ship rows, everything.

And it was really great. We did videos of it and we did radio stories of it. The videos and the radio stories were completely different. And they focused on completely different things. They [TV and radio stories] had two different teams doing it and the way we constructed the stories — they were about the same thing, but the way we constructed the stories were completely different…

A really big thing that’s happening in Bangladesh was people — especially women — were just leaving the countryside where there’s just, like, extreme, extreme poverty. People not having enough to eat kind of poverty. And then moving to the cities, where they’re working for incredibly low wages and yet, slightly higher standard of living. They have calories to eat now and they have a little bit of excess cash. And so, they’re horrible jobs from a Western perspective, but compared to what they had available in the rural countryside, they’re better. And that’s why everybody was leaving. And so what we were able to do in the video, [show] what’s happening on a massive scale.

That’s like a societal revolution in Bangladesh, right? There’s millions and millions of people. And, in the video, we were able to show this shot of all these women walking down the street just to get to the garment district — just to give you this sense of scale. We could never do that in audio. What we were able to do on audio was to give you the feeling of what it is like to grow up in this incredible rural poverty and what it feels like to finally get to the city. And those are complicated feelings. And we were able to represent that in the audio way better than what we were able to represent in the video.

So it was interesting, right? We were able to show these different facets of the story.

What I would say is that you’d want to do — just make sure — don’t try and do everything, just use the medium. Video can do things that audio just cannot do, right? And audio can do things that video is not very good at. So I think just choose. That’s why I’m saying, audio is really good at narrative and it’s really good at feeling. You can convey feeling — you can do that way better on audio than you can on video.

Q) Well, speaking of feeling, you mentioned the importance of emotional honesty and all that good fun stuff. How do you think, as marketers, we can approach and identify emotional honesty?

AB: I think you embrace it. When we [Gimlet] started out it was a business story — like, people have told the startup story and it’s always like, “we’re killing it!” And never, “This is scary and I feel like I’m going to fail all the time, right?” And we told the honest story of what it’s like to start a startup — and that was incredibly valuable for us. Because, I think, it humanized us, it made people, like, connect to our story. It made that story accessible to people.

So, I think if you can, meet people where they are. And the best people at this — I don’t care who you’re talking about — Howard Stern, Tony Robbin — I’ve been to a Tony Robbins seminar-like, he does this. He zeros in on an emotion — he’s a master at it. He will zero in on the thing that you’re actually feeling and, instantaneously, people will start crying…

I think if you just connect with emotion — I’m not saying you have to be like, “This whole thing is a lie” and, “This business is a sham!” Or you’re like “I hate my job.” You don’t have to get into that, but somebody has a feeling about, like, “it is hard to cold-call a customer,” or “it is hard, or sometimes I feel like I don’t know what I’m doing and I…whatever.” We can be a lot more honest than what we let ourselves be most of the time.

Q) Where do you get your best feedback from?

AB: This is something that we don’t do well. We’re in the dark ages in podcasting. We have a very dumb delivery mechanism which is the MP3 and we just don’t get a lot of it.

Q) What books are you reading?

AB: I have been on a fiction tear because my kids have finally gotten to the age where I have free time again. I haven’t read in forever, and now that my kids are five and seven and they can just, sort of, entertain themselves for a couple hours in an afternoon so I can read now. So I read — just finished The Underground Railroad by Coslon Whitehead. I’m a huge Jennifer Egan fan, so I just finished her most recent one, Manhattan Beach, and then I read The Goon Squad. I’ve read on a tear. And now I’m on the Michael Lewis book, The Undoing Project, which is about these two Nobel winning economists, or they’re psychologists, but they went on to work in economics. It’s super interesting.