An Interview With Alex Blumberg, Public Radio Journalist Turned Entrepreneur

If you’ve listened to public radio at all in the past decade you’ll recognize the voice of Alex Blumberg. Part of the adenoidal-voice-amazing-stories class of broadcasters, Blumberg worked on This American Life and the amazing Planet Money where he explained complex topics in succinct ways. Now he’s an entrepreneur trying to build his own podcasting empire by changing the way passionate audiences consume audio.

He’s got his work cut out for him, but he’s optimistic and, best of all, he’s started his own podcast series, The Startup, and is running through the process pitching and business building in a way that is as accessible and charming as anything I’ve ever heart. It’s well worth a listen and it can teach us all a lot about building something from scratch.

I spoke with Alex about his new series and, more important, his new startup, Gimlet Media. You can listen to the first episode of his podcast series below.

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TechCrunch: Most people probably know you from public radio but now you’re trying to build your own startup. Why? Was Ira Glass very cruel? What’s the situation there?

Blumberg: I saw what was happening with the shows I worked for and helped create, This American Life and Planet Money. Lots of passionate listeners, rapidly growing audiences. It felt like someone should be trying to get together money and investing in more shows like that. It’s hard for public radio to focus solely on digital though, because they have to tend to the terrestrial radio side of things too. So eventually, I figured I should try and do it myself, and the best way to capitalize it was by raising an investment round.

TC: Tell us about yourself. What is your startup?

B: I’m a long-time public radio producer and Journalist. I worked at This American Life and co-founded Planet Money. The startup is called Gimlet Media. We make podcasts. Our theory is that we’re on the dawn of a second golden age of audio. In the first golden age, there were all kinds of different radio shows, news, music, but also drama, and variety — the Shadow, Orson Welles, Ed Sullivan. But radio as a medium essentially stopped developing, even regressed, in the 1950’s with the advent of TV. It made small, occasional advancements along the way, mainly NPR and Howard Stern. But now, audio is going on-demand the same way everything else did 10 years ago. And that changes entirely the way we listen. Theres room for lots more variety, formal experimentation, new ways of listening that weren’t possible before. And audio is the constant companion to our new, multi-tasking lifestyles. You can’t watch a movie or read an article while you’re going for a run or driving to work, but you can listen to audio.

Sorry, got into pitch mode there.

TC: Listening to your Chris Sacca pitch was cringe-inducing – in an amazing way. What were you thinking?

B: I was thinking exactly what you think I was thinking … I’m totally fucking this up. And also, I’m nowhere near ready to be doing this yet.

TC: What do you think of the theatre of entrepreneurship – the three act rise and fall of all of these startups. Is there a drama here? Enough to tell a story?

B: Definitely. One of the things I’m continually learning about business — people pretend it’s all about numbers, but it’s not at all. It’s all about feelings, emotions. Also, there’s stakes. I mean, it’s weird that there aren’t more works of fiction based around business stories. Because there is a lot of natural drama.

TC: The startup is now called Gimlet Media as opposed to Orelo, which was the Esperanto word for ear. So you picked a name finally. Can you explain that awful Esperanto word?

B: No, I cannot. I mean, I guess it’s that the search for a name had been going on too long, and I’d lost all perspective. Although there was a small but vocal group on twitter who were really bummed when we didn’t go with Orelo.

TC: Is all this pain and hustle worth it?

B: Are you talking about the business, or just life in general? Whatever, the answers pretty much the same. Mostly I think yes. Occasionally, it occurs to me the answer might be no. But I’m certainly not going to stop doing it.

TC: What’s next? Did you get your cash?

B: We have most of our cash in hand. We’re up and running, we plan to be ready to launch new shows late fall early winter. Stay tuned.