In the Public Ear: With New Podcasts, Gimlet Couples Production and Popularity

Earlier this month, Gimlet Media released the trailer for Heavyweight, a new podcast hosted by author and producer Jonathan Goldstein. In an interview for the podcast Startup, Gimlet founder and CEO Alex Blumberg’s introduction of Goldstein says it all:

Blumberg: “For people who don’t know, you’re a legend.”

Goldstein: “Oh, really?”

Blumberg: “…in the field of spoken audio.”

Goldstein: “There’s an oxymoron for ya.”

Oxymoron or not, Goldstein is an audio storytelling legend. Although he is primarily known for his writing, Goldstein has also reached millions on radio and podcasting programs. He is a frequent contributor and producer for This American Life, and is the creator of the critically-acclaimed Canadian Broadcasting Corporation show WireTap which enjoyed an 11-year run. Arguably, Goldstein is podcasting royalty.

The two available episodes are not lacking of Goldstein’s trademark autobiography-meets-literature-meets-wry humorist style. Both episodes are wonderfully entertaining and will appeal to fans of This American Life. However, Heavyweight will not hold the title of Gimlet’s shiny new show for long.

Gimlet announced five new podcasts at NewFronts, a digital media conference at which outlets court advertisers by teasing their upcoming content. The new podcasts include: a true crime program developed with The Jinx creators Zac Stuart-Pontier and Marc Smerling; Twice Removed, a genealogy-based show that finds connections between two strangers hosted by author A.J. Jacobs; Afterwards, a podcast reevaluating events of the past; and Science Vs., a science podcast acquired from the Australian Broadcasting Corporation that premiered this summer.

Within this lineup, Gimlet has two strategies at play: superior production quality and celebrity.

Gimlet has prided itself on the production quality of its work, and these new shows reflect that focus. In fact, the basic premise of Gimlet, as a company, is that it creates heavily-produced narrative podcasts, which Blumberg calls an “unfair advantage.” While conversation-based and talk show-style podcasts, like Panoply’s Political Gabfest or Ringer University, are easier to produce, they also are less likely to become an iTunes Top 20-ranked program. Gimlet is betting that their creativity and production know-how will make their new programs more popular, as well as more attractive to advertisers, in the long-run. The new podcasts they’ve recently premiered fit nicely into that strategy.

The other strategy at work? Celebrity. Many of the new Gimlet hosts are mildly well-known in their respective fields. Goldstein is considered by many, including Alex Blumberg, to be a legend in the field of spoken audio. Zac Stuart-Pontier and Marc Smerling, associated with the forthcoming true crime show, are the creators of mega-hit HBO show The Jinx. A.J. Jacobs of Twice Removed has written several buzzed-about books and given several viral TED Talks. These new additions align Gimlet with the broader trend of celebrity (or semi-celebrity) podcast hosts.

Podcasts with celebrity hosts are often personality-driven productions. Shows like the Joe Rogan Experience, WTF with Marc Maron, or StarTalk with Neil deGrasse Tyson, primarily rely on the host’s notoriety and personality to attract listeners. They are typically interview or talk-based podcasts, often lacking complex production techniques.

Yet, these programs can be tremendously successful. Each of the aforementioned programs are ranked within the iTunes top 100 podcasts, with Joe Rogan’s program in the top 10. Celebrity-hosted podcasts have also proved lucrative: podcastOne, one of the largest and most profitable podcast networks, has been investing heavily in talk-based, personality-driven programs.

It is likely that Gimlet does not plan to dive into solely celebrity-reliant podcasting. Instead, it may be trying to create its own hybrid that mixes personality-driven and narrative podcast styles. Of course, current Gimlet hosts infuse their programs with personality (what would Reply All be without Alex and PJ’s bickering), but many did not already have a well-known persona outside of their podcasts.

Gimlet wants the best of both worlds. While they are beginning to to introduce hosts that draw listeners with their renown, they also seem to want to keep their podcasts unique (and at the top of the iTunes list) through well-produced, narrative stories.

However, this strategy is not a guaranteed success. Gilmet tried a similar approach with their podcast Surprisingly Awesome – and it doesn’t seem to have worked. The show had two “celebrity” hosts, Planet Money co-founder Adam Davidson and Oscar-winning film director Adam McKay. The show featured strong production, and the two high-powered hosts had a fun on-air dynamic.screen-shot-2016-09-28-at-10-15-43-pm

Yet, neither Davidson or McKay appear to be working with the program any longer. McKay has not appeared on an episode since May 31st, Davidson has not hosted since August 5th, and neither host is listed on the Gimlet staff list. Instead, the role seems to be attributed to Rachel Ward, who claims she is the “producer/host” of Surprisingly Awesome in her Twitter bio.

With Davidson and McKay seemingly gone, the draw of the show has shifted away from its hosts’ celebrity. Although no official announcements have been made about the original hosts’ departures, it is not unreasonable to think that, as minor celebrities, they have many demands on their time. This is the potential downfall of celebrity hosts: their desirability makes it hard to hold on to them.

Overall, Gimlet’s strategy with its new podcasts is sound, calling upon its production strengths while making headway into the celebrity podcasting trend. If it works, Gimlet could potentially gain a wider audience, attract more advertisers, and lure even more notable hosts. But in the age of celebrity influencers and increasing production capabilities, only time will tell if new shows like The Heavyweight emerge victorious.

In the Public Ear is column by MediaFile’s podcast and public media reporter Grace Mausser that features commentary and analysis on podcasting, public media, and the organizations behind it all.

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