Last September, Gimlet Media found itself in the middle of a late-summer slump.
The podcast studio experienced a 7% drop in consumption of its shows that month even as podcasting overall at its parent company, Spotify, grew 11% by the same key metric, according to a company newsletter obtained by Insider.
Though its flagship series “Reply All” had returned with new episodes, Gimlet was the lowest-performing podcast studio at Spotify in a month when consumption of the audio giant’s original and exclusive podcasts grew 43% to 62.2 million hours.
Spotify attributed the drop to “listenership decay” after five popular Gimlet shows — including scripted thriller “Sandra” and true crime series “Conviction” — concluded their seasons. Consumption of Gimlet shows rebounded the following month, another internal document showed, though the studio still claimed Spotify’s lowest share of listening time.
A Spotify spokeswoman said that Gimlet consumption has increased 25% since September, even with some popular shows publishing less frequently.
Spotify paid a reported $230 million in February 2019 to acquire Gimlet, boasting that it had nabbed a “best-in-class podcast studio” known for prestige programming. The deal, the largest up to that point for a podcast studio, ignited a frenzied two years of consolidation in which podcast businesses continued to command higher and higher prices.
“In hindsight, it seems like what Spotify bought with $230 million was essentially the narrative,” said Nick Quah, who writes industry newsletter Hot Pod. “It was a statement that they were open for business. ‘We want to invest and own the talk space. We want to move beyond music.'”
Two-and-a-half years later, Gimlet is struggling to find its place within Spotify’s podcast universe, according to internal data and interviews with 10 current and former staffers at Gimlet and Spotify.
Spotify’s move into podcasting is about volume and exclusivity, sources told Insider: Lure millions of listeners with podcasts they can find only on Spotify and, in turn, sell advertising against that audience. It’s a strategy that relies on copious hours of cross-promotable programming.
As Spotify’s other podcast studio acquisitions, Parcast and The Ringer, have supercharged their output — each producing more than 200 hours of programming monthly per the internal documents — Gimlet remains committed to its curated storytelling, which is more labor intensive. Insiders said the disconnect can be traced to a lack of clear goals from Spotify; attrition of key Gimlet leaders, many of whom moved into larger roles at Spotify; and a battle over Gimlet’s culture that played out publicly last spring on “Reply All.”
Lydia Polgreen, Gimlet’s managing director, said the studio has grown its total audience of monthly listeners by 600% since the Spotify acquisition. She added that while numbers go up and down seasonally, Gimlet still had the “ineffable X-factor” of creative storytelling.
“We’re making shows that get a lot of attention and speak to audiences that I think are really important and underserved,” she said. “What I hear is Spotify is really excited and proud that Gimlet is part of the family.”
Spotify’s spokeswoman underscored Polgreen’s comments in a statement: “Gimlet is beloved for its thoughtful and deep reporting like ‘Resistance,’ ‘Stolen’ and ‘Welcome To Your Fantasy’ (co-produced with Pineapple), and it really makes Gimlet stand out.”
Gimlet, born in 2014 out of public radio veteran Alex Blumberg’s desire to create a home for ambitious audio storytelling, pitched itself as the “HBO of podcasting.” Its popular show “StartUp” chronicled the studio’s own early days; scripted thriller “Homecoming” was adapted into a glossy Amazon Prime drama series starring Julia Roberts.
A few years in, though, cracks were showing in Gimlet’s business. During much of 2018, the company wasn’t generating enough advertising revenue to fund its pricey productions, Blumberg revealed in an episode of “StartUp.”
Business picked up at the end of 2018, but staffers still breathed “a sigh of relief,” said one former employee, when Spotify appeared with its deep pockets and global reach. But Spotify didn’t immediately drive its existing audience — now up to 365 million monthly active users — to Gimlet shows, causing frustration among staffers, the former employee added.
Instead, Spotify largely left Gimlet alone — allowing it to keep its Brooklyn office and, per multiple sources, a separate Slack domain until a few months ago.
Some employees relished the creative freedom but others describe a period of uncertainty. Spotify “didn’t know what they wanted the partnership to be,” said one former staffer. “There wasn’t a clear strategic vision around how the two companies would actually merge.”
An ex-Spotify employee echoed the frustration: “It’s like adopting a teenager and having no plan on how to get them to college.”
Meanwhile, Spotify CEO Daniel Ek went on a podcast binge. In March 2019, Spotify acquired Parcast, a Los Angeles-based studio known for high-volume shows about scandals and true crime, and in February 2020 it scooped up Bill Simmons’ sports and pop culture shop The Ringer.
Spotify also paid a reported $100 million to stream “The Joe Rogan Experience” exclusively — a move that has caused some outrage inside the company, where critics feel he foments intolerance and promotes conspiracy theories — and inked deals with coveted talent including Barack and Michelle Obama via their production company Higher Ground.
More recently, Alex Cooper agreed to distribute “Call Her Daddy” exclusively on Spotify in a three-year, $60 million deal, per the Wall Street Journal.
But Spotify has a finite number of promotional spots on its highly trafficked homepage. “They brought on a ton of podcasting companies at once and they can’t promote all of them super aggressively,” said one Gimlet staffer. “There’s never going to be as big an audience for bespoke narrative shows as there is for Joe Rogan.”
After its sale to Spotify, Gimlet’s leaders — executives who in some cases made millions in the Spotify acquisition — took a step back from the business. Matt Lieber, who co-founded Gimlet alongside Blumberg, moved to a job running operations for Spotify’s global podcast studios. Blumberg, who had been leading Gimlet as its CEO, shifted to a creative role, including hosting environmental series “How to Save a Planet.”
Shortly after the acquisition, tensions inside Gimlet spilled into public view. Staffers in March 2019 mounted a union drive, which culminated two years later in a contract with Spotify that set salary minimums at $73,000 per year for Gimlet associate producers, established minimum raises, and guaranteed severance pay.
Gimlet also has been reeling in recent months from a reckoning over its work culture ignited by a “Reply All” miniseries that explored workplace misconduct at Condé Nast magazine Bon Appetit. Several Black employees publicly shared how they had felt marginalized at Gimlet and the dustup ultimately led to the departure of “Reply All” host PJ Vogt.
Remaining hosts Alex Goldman and Emmanuel Dzotsi are retooling the high-profile show, which returned from a hiatus in June, and are recruiting a reporter-producer and an editor.
Polgreen disputed the notion that Gimlet had lost steam. Instead, she told Insider, the studio has offered Spotify expertise in storytelling, distribution, advertising, and marketing, with several more of its executives moving to broader roles at Spotify to help power the streamer’s overall podcasting ambitions.
In the years since the Gimlet acquisition, Spotify has become a clear challenger to industry leader Apple Podcasts, building up a library of 2.9 million episodes and enticing more than 25%, or around 91 million, of its users to engage with them. Investors have largely cheered Spotify’s pivot, though analysts at Citi earlier this year questioned whether the investment has paid off.
Meanwhile, the US podcasting business has grown by 37% to $842 million, according to the Interactive Advertising Bureau. With IAB predicting that ad revenues will tip over $2 billion by 2023, competition has heated up.
Not only have wannabe audio stars flooded the space with new shows, but powerful new players also have swooped in to compete with Spotify for rights to top podcasts. In June, Amazon nabbed the exclusive premiere window for “SmartLess,” an interview show from Will Arnett, Jason Bateman, and Sean Hayes.
“The podcasting landscape is much, much more crowded than it used to be,” Polgreen said. “Any publisher that you look at, everything that they’re making now is getting smaller audiences. The question of what qualifies as a quote-unquote hit in podcasting is really a shifting thing.”
Spotify’s podcast charts are dominated by exclusives like “The Joe Rogan Experience” and “Armchair Expert With Dax Shepard,” as well as a smattering of Parcast shows and broad hits like “Crime Junkie” and the New York Times’ “The Daily.”
“The Journal,” a daily news program produced in partnership with The Wall Street Journal, consistently performs well on Spotify’s chart listing its most popular podcasts in the U.S. And the studio’s “Science Vs” has charted as the No. 1 podcast in the science category on Spotify in the last 90 days, Spotify’s spokeswoman said.
Because Parcast and The Ringer produce more programming, their podcasts command a greater share of overall consumption on Spotify. The internal document from September 2020 shows that Gimlet produced 19 hours of programming that month, compared to 276 hours from Parcast and 233 hours from The Ringer.
Gimlet staffers have long bristled at such comparisons, arguing that their shows take longer to produce than their Spotify siblings’ talk radio and true crime formats. “It is a lot easier to ramp up the money you make on The Ringer and Parcast,” a Gimlet employee said.
But former employees concede that Gimlet is protective of its programming and brand, which has hindered its ability to develop formats that can be cheaply and quickly replicated in success.
Polgreen said that developing new shows is a priority; Gimlet has podcasts in the works with Ava DuVernay’s ARRAY and Jordan Peele’s Monkeypaw Productions, as well as a collaboration with Crooked Media, about journalist Jason Rezaian’s imprisonment in Iran.
“In podcasting the hardest thing is to get an audience for a new thing,” she noted, adding that she has been focused making Gimlet a place where creativity can thrive, be that through the union contract or by charting a path forward for “Reply All.” “My role is to create as hospitable and conducive an environment as possible for creative people to do the best work of their careers.”