In a Surprising Move, Gimlet Cuts Popular Podcast “Mystery Show”

Fans of podcast Mystery Show will finally have some closure. On October 6th, podcasting giant Gimlet Media and founding Mystery Show host Starlee Kine announced, on separate platforms, that Kine would no longer produce or host the show for Gimlet. Mystery Show was an important member of the burgeoning podcast organization’s foundation as Gimlet’s third show to air. However, this is the first time Gimlet has cancelled a show.

A fascinating exercise in what a podcast could be, Mystery Show was ambiguously described as “a podcast where Starlee Kine solves mysteries.” During the show, Kine brought listeners along on winding, mystery-driven adventures. Each episode dove into a mystery that could not be solved by a Google search – from discovering the owner of a found belt buckle to Britney Spears’ opinion on obscure facts. Each episode differed in topic, theme, and often, structure. With her show, Kine was able to turn big stories into tiny heart breaks and little stories into magnificent quests.

Plus, it had a great theme song.

For her and her team’s efforts, Mystery Show was named iTunes’ Best New Podcast in 2015. It shot to the top of the iTunes Top 200 podcasts list shortly after it premiered in the summer of 2015 and is still ranked 106th in the list despite having no new episodes since July 2015 and only six episodes total.

In an announcement, Gimlet recognized the show’s achievements, saying:

Mystery Show is an ambitious production and Starlee has an uncompromising vision for the show, which is what makes it so great. However, these factors combined make Mystery Show unsustainable to produce and publish on a consistent basis, and therefore Gimlet will no longer produce new episodes of Mystery Show.

Kine was less diplomatic in a statement posted on Medium:

In April, Gimlet let me go. This came without warning while I was in the midst of working on the second season. I’d been having trouble figuring out the new season — second seasons can be tricky — and so I’d gone away, to work on an episode. I didn’t make as much progress as I had hoped, but the season was starting to take shape. The day I returned, Alex told me the show was unsustainable. I was out. I lost my staff, my salary, my benefits, my budget and my email address. Mystery Show is the only show this has happened to at Gimlet. Just a few months prior, iTunes voted it Best Podcast of the Year.

Although Kine has not been listed on the Gimlet staff site since August, it was not confirmed that she no longer worked at Gimlet. In fact, her release in April was not widely known in the podcasting world. As Kine alludes to, in her announcement, the hushed release caused many fans to question the future of the show through the summer. The recent explosion on social media about the news further indicates that many were unaware of the change.

The reason behind Gimlet’s decision to release Kine is not entirely clear. Gimlet says the show is “unsustainable,” which is understandable, as it did require extensive travel. Within the six existing episodes, Kine has travelled to Las Vegas for a Britney Spears concert, Phoenix to track down a man known as Hans Jordy, and Los Angeles in search of a specific vanity plate.

Episodes could also take anywhere from several weeks or an entire month to produce. In “Source Code,” an episode in which Kine seeks the true height of Jake Gyllenhaal (5’11’’), Kine spent months seeking a resolution. As she poetically muses in the episode, “Seasons passed, winter came, stars died, innumerable gallons of ice cream were consumed, countless boons were bent, babies learned how to crawl, teenagers learned how to kiss, podcasts went from being popular in a niche way to a mainstream way… It might be helpful to imagine a wall calendar for this part, with the pages dropping off one after another, after another, after another. The time just falling away…”

With the extensive travel and time involved in many of Mystery Show’s episodes, the “ambitious production” and “uncompromising vision” to which Gimlet alludes in its announcement take on a different tone.

However, much of what makes Mystery Show  seemingly “unsustainable” also applies to Gimlet’s newest show, Heavyweight. In Heavyweight, host Jonathan Goldstein explores regrets in people’s past. Like Mystery Show, Heavyweight has an open-ended and ambiguous aim. Both shows also focus exclusively on human stories and are nearly devoid of traditional news reporting. There are no segments or recurring gimmicks for either show to fall back on. Both shows’ respective hosts, Kine and Goldstein, have a penchant for the poetic, often combining their literary dexterity with journalistic drive that gives each show a unique flair.

Yet, there are likely differences that outsiders may not know. Perhaps Goldstein takes less time to produce an episode, costing Gimlet less money. Perhaps he has a clear vision for producing more than six episodes, which would give Gimlet the opportunity for more advertising revenue. Perhaps Goldstein already knows what season two will look like, and Gimlet will not need to pay him while he figures it out. Perhaps, there are interpersonal factors within the organization that are impossible to know or responsibly speculate about.

Despite these setbacks and disappointments, there are opportunities for Kine. She is currently producing and guest starring on the podcast Election Profit Makers, which bets on various aspects of the election. Additionally, both Gimlet and Kine have indicated that they are negotiating the future of Mystery Show. Gimlet wrote that the organization is “in discussions with Starlee to reach an agreement where she may produce Mystery Show independently of Gimlet,” while Kine has cryptically reported that she will “look forward to opening a new case soon.”

In the podcasting realm, there is not a precedent for a show moving from a podcast network to being independently produced. It is not obvious that this will be possible, especially for a show like Mystery Show, that comes with high costs and time-consuming production. Further, it is unclear if Mystery Show’s sponsors, including KIND Snacks and Squarespace, will travel with the show or remain with Gimlet Media.

However, if any podcast has a shot at making it post-Gimlet, the highly acclaimed and iTunes’ ranked Mystery Show may be it. In addition to the slew of articles written about the show, Kine was interviewed on “Conan,” bringing some of the biggest attention to Gimlet since the launch of its founding podcast, StartUp.

In the case of Mystery Show, Gimlet’s loss could soon be another network’s gain. Both Radiotopia and PodcastOne currently produce complementary podcasts to Mystery Show, and it could fit nicely into these networks. Additionally, although these networks have sponsors, they do not have the name recognition or public profile of Gimlet. If Mystery Show were to join, they could benefit from the media attention the new program could bring.

Finally, it should be noted that neither Gimlet nor Kine appear to be happy with the situation. Kine is clear in her announcement that the decision was surprising and stinging. The bitterness is palpable when she writes that “Mystery Show is the only show this has happened to at Gimlet.”

Gimlet too seems unsatisfied with the separation –  or, at least, Gimlet CEO Alex Blumberg does. Blumberg, who worked with Kine on This American Life, added an addendum to a recent episode of StartUp, addressing the situation:

I can honestly tell you it was one of the most amazing podcasts that I have ever had the privilege of being associated with…On [StartUp] we are transparent about a lot of things but there are certain things that simply need to remain private. What I can tell you is that I’m really, really sad and I wish Starlee all the best.”

It may take a while for the full story behind the release to come to light. There’s also a chance it may never come to light. What is known, however, is that no parties involved seem happy with the situation, and that the future of Kine and her show remain, like her episodes, a mystery.

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