Update: Appropriately, you can now listen to an audio version of this essay. Thank you Kristin Myers for the dramatic reading:
A podcast network focused on narrative storytelling. Journalism. This is not a “typical” investment for betaworks, nor for many other venture capital investors in consumer technology.
At betaworks, we focus on building companies and also investing in outside startups that are innovating in our ecosystem. We believe that building makes us better investors and investing makes us better builders. We invest not only for a financial return (although we do like that!), but also to learn more about technologies and user behaviors we believe will become important. As creators of media products (from Bitly to Giphy), we recognize that audio is again an increasingly important form of media.
Audio is as different from the written word as television is from audio. I spent an evening watching Radio Love Fest at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, where Robert Krulwich of RadioLab observed that he looked up from a career in radio broadcasting to see that “Suddenly, closing your eyes and hearing something became…not just a thing people wanted to do but something that people seemed to increasingly prefer.”
Audio Is Becoming a Thing
In the new podcast Serial, a spinoff from This American Life, we listen along as Sarah Koenig tries to uncover the truth behind a real murder case that took place fifteen years ago. The story is broken down into episodes, released one per week. Serial has reached a level of cultural significance, attracting a reported 1 million listeners per episode (Wall Street Journal article here). This is representative of a larger trend — Americans are listening to more podcasts than ever before. It is far from exponential growth, but 39 million people listening to an average of six podcasts per week is a sizable audience (Edison Research). This will likely increase substantially as online audio becomes available in more places, from your car to your speaker system (currently now only 14% of people listen to online content in their cars).
More and more consumers who use Spotify and Pandora are trying new podcasting apps such as Overcast to enjoy other types of media in their cars, on the subway, or while out for a run. As consumers start to search for audio content, they are seeing an upper bound on the quantity of high quality audio programs. A podcast done well can be more engaging than a YouTube video, but for podcasts, the size of the audience is rising faster than the quality of the content. Alex Blumberg and Matt Lieber are building Gimlet Media to address that need.
“Mo Podcasts Mo Problems”
As Gimlet Media and others build out networks of high quality audio content, there will continue to be massive opportunities for innovation around the ecosystem. Digg identified some of the current challenges of sharing audio in the post Why Audio Never Goes Viral. Part of why we invest is to see around corners of emerging consumer behavior, so the unique technology problems that emerge from audio are important: “Podcasts take content and put it into a form that can’t be indexed by search engines or be speed-read, and which you can’t hyperlink to (or from).” — Charles Arthur, The Guardian Technology Editor.
If you’ve been listening to the first Gimlet Media podcast, StartUp, you’ve likely already been captivated by Alex’s earnest portrayal of starting a company. He wakes up in the middle of the night to whisper his anxieties into what I imagine is an old school micro-cassette recorder (but more likely is an iPhone). It is one of the most genuine portrayals I’ve ever heard of the beginning of starting a company. It’s also a great example of why audio, combined with great storytelling, can be such an incredibly engaging medium.
We’re eager to see what comes next, and excited to be part of Alex and Matt’s journey to build Gimlet Media.