Matt Lieber, The Art of Podcasting No. 21

Many podcast fans first “met” Matt Lieber when he came on as Alex Blumberg’s business partner early in the first season of StartUp. What some may not know is that Lieber has been working in and out of broadcasting for years, including as a producer for Slate Culture Gabfest. Now as the cofounder and President of Gimlet Media, Lieber is on the forefront of the podcasting revolution, helping to develop groundbreaking shows like Reply All and Mystery Show. Recently he sat down with The Timbre’s Devon Taylor to talk about his road to radio, the challenge of discovering new shows, and how Gimlet aims to become the HBO of podcasting.

THE TIMBRE

So you guys are expanding and taking over the world, huh?

MATT LIEBER

I don’t know about taking over the world, but we are expanding. Yeah, things are going well. We’re eight months into the company and it feels like we’re getting our footing here and ramping up. I mean, having the three shows up at the same time is really fun.

THE TIMBRE

It’s been interesting watching this whole thing unfold because it really did unfold before everyone’s… ears? Since you joined Gimlet kind of on air. I want to talk a little bit about your background before you joined. I don’t think that maybe that many people realize that you were a producer yourself. I mean, you’ve been doing this for quite a long time. So tell me a little bit about your background in radio.

MATT LIEBER

Yeah, I spent most of my career as a radio producer, and I just grew up loving radio. I would wake up and listen to NPR. I would listen to Sports Talk. I would listen to old jazz radio in the evenings, and so it’s how I just got lost in the medium.  I ran my college radio station up at Bowdoin College in Maine, and I did talk shows and I did music shows.

Then I spent about 10 years as a producer at a number of different public radio shows and spent a bunch of that time at WNYC here in New York launching new shows and producing. So I covered a lot of politics, did live music, did culture stuff, did a lot of live news. Media has always been my love.

And then I sort of took a swerve…

THE TIMBRE

When you went to get your MBA?

MATT LIEBER

Yeah, yeah, I swerved into business because there came a point where I thought I wanted to do something different and something bigger, and I felt like, if I had the tools of business, it would let me do stuff. I went back to business school, and then spent a few years as a management consultant, working on all different kinds of businesses but really trying to focus on digital business and media companies.

That whole time I was always looking at radio, thinking that there was a big opportunity, because I had sort of seen what had happened to newspapers with the rise of the web. I had seen what happened with the music industry with MP3s and streaming music. I thought, ‘A big change is going to be coming to radio.’ I could see it happening with podcasts.

I was a huge podcast fan and I produced podcasts, too. I was one of the first producers of the Slate Culture Gabfest.

THE TIMBRE

Oh, wow.

MATT LIEBER

Yeah, and so I saw podcasting happening and saw the beginnings of a really big digital transition from the AM/FM broadcast tower to your smartphone. It wasn’t that it was happening super rapidly, but I felt like I knew it was coming and it was inexorable. That was around the time that I met Alex Blumberg. We shared the belief, and so, it was a good fit.

THE TIMBRE

So when you went back to business school, you had never really taken your eye off the ball of radio and audio.

MATT LIEBER

Yeah, I always wanted to come back into audio. When you’re in business school, you pursue projects you’re interested in, like I did a project for SoundCloud when I was in business school. I was always really watching how the podcast world was evolving. A lot of my friends are radio or podcast people, because that’s who I used to work with, so I was always keeping up, and keeping a pretty close eye on it. It’s definitely my first love.

THE TIMBRE

I’ve talked to so many people about the trajectory of their career and they kind of say, “Well, yeah, then I ended up doing this, and that worked out, because I was able to do this,” but you seem like you were a little bit more carefully putting the pieces together.

MATT LIEBER

Yeah, it didn’t feel that way. It didn’t feel intentional at all. When I was in business school and I was working as a management consultant, people were like, “What’s your five-year plan? Where are you headed?” I felt like I really want to be in media, and I really want to be in audio. That’s what I really care about.

But now that I look back on where I’ve come, it fits together. The job that I have now and what we’re doing at Gimlet brings together everything I’m interested in and care about, from a business side, and operations, and building something, to being in audio. The road that I’m on, it didn’t really exist. So, I’m just inventing it.

THE TIMBRE

This is kind of random, but did you ever hear Steve Jobs’ commencement speech at Stanford?

MATT LIEBER

Yeah.

THE TIMBRE

He says, “You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking back.” You just have to do the things that you are passionate about and connect the dots later.

MATT LIEBER

Exactly.

THE TIMBRE

So when this whole Gimlet thing came along, what made you say, “This is the opportunity I’ve been waiting for”?

MATT LIEBER

I would say there were three parts.

One was: Could I see it as being a growing market that would become very large? I looked at on-demand audio, spoken-word audio, and I said, “Yeah, this is going to grow and be very big.”

Two: Are these people I want to work with? And I think Alex Blumberg is just amazing. I think he’s one of the best people in the world at what he does, and I’m still in awe at the fact that he orchestrated and created StartUp while starting the business.

And three is: am I excited about this? Do I actually care, and am I passionate about what we’re going to try to do?

All those things were a resounding yes. And so I left the security and safety of a really good job for this big, risky endeavor.

THE TIMBRE

So, since you’ve taken on the leadership role of this team, how has your perspective changed on this industry?

MATT LIEBER

My perspective hasn’t changed that much, to be honest. I love the market we’re in. I think it really rewards high quality work and great storytelling, and it’s super fun to be a media company focused on those dimensions.

We’re growing faster than I ever expected. We have a bigger audience than we ever thought we would by this point, so we’ve been pretty validated. I would say, the big change in the market since we first started is we’ve just seen more great content come in, and we’re beginning to see the evolution of technology as well.

Within the first few weeks after StartUp, Serial came onto the scene and just blew the doors open in terms of awareness of podcasting and showed that you could grow a really huge audience. I mean, if you look back at what Serial did in the last year, they were one of the biggest blockbusters–a cultural phenomenon across any media.

THE TIMBRE

Absolutely.

MATT LIEBER

TV, film, web, you name it. I definitely did not see Serial coming in that window. And it’s been great for us, because it’s raised awareness, and it brings new listeners into the media.

Then I think, over the next year, we’re going to start to see a new entrance to the distribution side. I think we’re going to see some interesting plays on where people could listen, how they could get podcasts recommended, all that stuff.

THE TIMBRE

You have such a unique position in this world, because you’re both looking at this as a creative type, but also as somebody who’s probably analyzing these market forces, and I’m curious what you attribute the success of Serial to.

MATT LIEBER

What do I attribute the success of Serial to? They had a good story and they’re an amazing team. And they spent, I don’t know… how long did they spend? A year, a year and a half reporting that story?

Part of the success is really old-fashioned stuff, like, they did the reporting, they told a great story, and they did just an incredible job of executing it. And then I think there’s an X facto. It’s hard to predict hits. That’s what is difficult and also enjoyable about being in a creative endeavour. There’s some element that is not predictable.

THE TIMBRE

The reason I ask you that is because you guys are considering what shows to develop and what shows to bring on, and you’re thinking about ‘Where is this world headed?’ and ‘What should we be focusing on?’ And so I’m just curious about how you look at the success of certain shows and take cues from those shows. Whether it’s Serial or something else.

MATT LIEBER

So the way we think about it is, to have a successful podcast, you have to basically do three things: You have to tell a great story. That’s number one.

The show has to be populated by people the listeners want to hang out with. So it has to be a good companionship experience.  That’s number two.

And number three is, as a listener, are you learning something? Like, when you listen, have you come away with a new perspective or discovered something new or just learned something?

Those are kind of like the basic ingredients. It’s not a formula, it’s not mathematical, but those are the sorts of things we look for, and I think across categories, those are the kind of consistent elements to grow a big and loyal audience. And so when I think about Serial on those dimensions, on a score of 0-10, they get a 10 on all dimensions.

THE TIMBRE

Yeah, absolutely. So the first show you took on was Reply All, which certainly had some differences from TLDR, but was in many ways a show that was already up and running and had a team and an audience. What made you decide that was the show that you wanted to be the first show after StartUp?

MATT LIEBER

Alex and I were both big fans of the show. We thought PJ Vogt and Alex Goldman were unique talents, and we already saw that they were doing those three things. They were telling interesting stories about the part of the world on the internet that we weren’t really hearing anywhere else. They were super-companionable; I really liked hanging out with them on the show. And I learned something. They were really always trying to answer a question with their show.

They were covering internet and technology, but doing it in a way that felt very human and felt different than the scores of tech and internet coverage that you might see on the web. And that felt very interesting. We thought if we invested in them and put a team around them, they could stand to grow. And they have.

THE TIMBRE

It’s been interesting to follow because TLDR was really enjoyable, but I feel like what you guys have done with that format in just a few months has really opened it up. I mean, it feels like we’re constantly going on a journey that we don’t always know we’re going on, and that’s really exciting.

You say learning something, and I assume you don’t mean like kind of the straight educational format, but more like you learn something about a person, or about the world, or even about yourself.

MATT LIEBER

Yeah, exactly.

THE TIMBRE

I guess I should ask you that, rather than tell you.

MATT LIEBER

<Laughs> Yeah, I don’t mean learning in the didactic sense, but that you came away with something, you understood something, you experienced an emotion, or you experienced an angle of empathy that you hadn’t before you listened to it. And it feels relevant to your world in a way.

Those are the kind of shows where it’s not just, “Oh, I listened to it, and it was entertaining. I’m going to move on.” Instead it’s like, “I want to come back next week. I want to know what they’re going to talk about next week.”

Because ultimately, what we’re trying to do with Gimlet shows is build a relationship with listeners that exists over the long term. And it’s not about, “Can we get X million of listens or views on this one story?” and then you move on into the noisy environment of media. It’s like, “Can we have a deeper connection with listeners?” and “Can we build a loyalty that will continue over you know, years and decades?”

THE TIMBRE

Right.

MATT LIEBER

That is what you see with the most successful radio shows, be it public radio shows, be it This American Life or Howard Stern. It’s an experience that you want to come back to again and again, because you have a relationship to it.

THE TIMBRE

I know on our site, we look at a lot of different sites like AV Club and The Dissolve and Pitchfork as kind of analogues for what we’re trying to do. I’m curious if you look outside of radio for analogues and examples and direction in how you’d want to grow the company.

MATT LIEBER

I think we look at premium cable. I look at HBO or AMC, and that works for a couple reasons. One is, they’re doing work of very high quality and they’ve built a brand around quality. And they can, under the umbrella of that kind of network, have lots of different kinds of shows. The Sopranos feels different than Girls feels different than The Wire, but they all share some sense of voice or editorial integrity that meets a bar that places them on HBO.

And if you asked me, “What are you going to do tonight?”, I won’t be like, “Oh, I’m going to go home and watch AMC.” No, I’ll never say that, but I might say, “I’m going to go home and watch Mad Men.” But the fact that it’s on AMC means that if I see a new show on that network, I’ll give that a try.

THE TIMBRE

That’s exactly how I look at it as well, so I’m very heartened to hear you say that. But to me one the obvious differences between your shows and their shows is that most of those shows you mentioned are working off the premise of fiction. And I’m curious if you see any place for fiction in podcasting.

MATT LIEBER

Definitely. Yes.

THE TIMBRE

<laughs> That was very concise.

MATT LIEBER

And I think also if you look at the most successful shows, they’re shows that have broken format, that are trying to do something new in a new format. I believe we’re very, very early in the lifecycle of digital audio, spoken word digital audio. Innovation is rewarded. StartUp was essentially like reality TV in a podcast form.

THE TIMBRE

Yes, exactly.

MATT LIEBER

It hadn’t really been done before. Serialized reporting on true crime like Serial hadn’t really been done before. So I think, yeah, absolutely, I would love to see someone take a shot at fiction. And there are folks doing it already.

THE TIMBRE

Do you feel like you need to have a real background in radio to be able to create those innovative formats?

MATT LIEBER

No, I don’t think so. I mean, Welcome to Night Vale is fictional. And it has a big, very engaged audience. I don’t believe that came out of a radio background. It came out of, I think, theater. So yeah, that’s the beauty of it. There’s room for lots of different formats, there’s room for folks from all different kinds of backgrounds to come in.

One thing I’d say is that barriers to entry are very low in terms of creating something, barriers to growing an audience are high. It’s hard to cut through and grow a large audience because there’s so much out there.

THE TIMBRE

How do you feel like, for a producer that’s, say, just reading this interview, how do you feel like those indie producers can get discovered and can build those audiences?

MATT LIEBER

I think the first order thing is to make something great. By far, that’s the most important thing. And, I don’t know, growing an audience… man, that’s the million-dollar question!

THE TIMBRE

<Laughs>

MATT LIEBER

I think if you make something wonderful, and you engage with your listeners, then they’ll go out and tell their friends, and word-of-mouth can be a driver of audience growth. So what we’ve tried to do is get our shows in front of other podcast audiences because the best potential audiences are listeners who are already listening to other podcasts. And then, I don’t know, there’s definitely no magic formula here.

THE TIMBRE

I think it was actually PJ that said it’s got this feeling of this island experience where you can have a whole audience that loves this one show and they’re not necessarily going to listen to this other show that they might also love because they won’t know about it.

MATT LIEBER

It’s so funny because I completely agree. I think in the world of producers we all assume that there’s much more overlap than there actually is. In fact, Alex Blumberg made a thing of this in StartUp and talked about Serial and said something to the effect of, “If you haven’t heard of Serial, well first of all, you must have been living under a rock…”

THE TIMBRE

Right, right.

MATT LIEBER

“…but tweet me if you haven’t heard of Serial.” We still get dozens of tweets.

THE TIMBRE

<Laughs> Wow.

MATT LIEBER

Every day or every week. And emails–People being like, “Hey I’ve never heard of cereal.” And they spell it cereal, not Serial. And that’s totally anecdotal. It doesn’t necessarily represent some huge percentage of the audience, but I think we do overestimate the overlap. Which is an opportunity, right?

THE TIMBRE

Well, yeah, you guys are moving in this technology direction. Do you think that’s the answer–the platforms?

MATT LIEBER

Uh, I don’t know!

THE TIMBRE

Solve the problem right now!

MATT LIEBER

I don’t know. When I look out there, the big platforms for streaming media, across music and video, I’m expecting to see them start to focus in on podcasts, and I’m hoping that will solve some of the discovery issues.

THE TIMBRE

We get a lot of emails of, “Hey check out our show!” It’s always exciting when we discover a new show, but when we do, it also feels a little bit like, for every show that we discover like that, we are fully aware that there are probably a hundred shows that we can’t find and that are just as good and just as innovative, if not better. And it’s very frustrating because it’s just this world of people toiling away in their closets making these great shows and putting them out there to a resounding silence from listeners.

MATT LIEBER

No, I totally agree. I think discovery could stand to get a lot better.

THE TIMBRE

Apart from discovery, what do you see as the biggest problems facing the industry?

MATT LIEBER

Ah, that’s a good question. I don’t think a ton in terms of problems. I guess for us, we’d like to have better data, like to have better discovery mechanisms… You’ll probably eventually see us start to do some experiments around monetization directly from listeners, because that’s something we’re always interested in. And the tools–I don’t think they’re problems, but I think we could all use better tools along those three dimensions: Data, discovery, and dollars.

THE TIMBRE

Yeah. You’re in a unique situation because it’s sort of like you have this industry that hasn’t told you this is the way it’s done. But also because they haven’t told you this is the way it’s done…

MATT LIEBER

That’s what’s so fun about it! That’s what makes it such an exciting time. We are all collectively writing the rules. It’s another cool thing about podcasting. A lot of the folks who are making new podcasts, we all kind of know each other and it’s kind of a strong community.

I just think when I look at the evolution of other media, I don’t know if this is how it was in video, and if this is how it was in the early days of the web, but it feels very supportive. It’s a very collaborative community of folks who are trying to do great work. I just love that about it.

And because there’s so much growth, it’s not like we’re stealing share from each other. I truly don’t believe we’re competing for listeners with any of those networks or podcasters. Because what we hear again and again from our listeners is, “Tell me what to listen to next. I need more good stuff to listen to.” And so because we’re so early and there’s so much growth, it doesn’t feel as though we’re competing for audiences as much as we’re creating new audiences that we can all share in.

THE TIMBRE

What are your biggest fears, I guess, as far as either Gimlet or even just the podcasting world in general? What do you worry are barriers that just won’t be overcome?

MATT LIEBER

That’s a good question. I’m not worried about barriers for the market. I sometimes hear people talk about the podcast bubble. That doesn’t concern me at all, because I know there isn’t one, and if you look at the data, it’s clear over the long term that there’s been strong and steady growth, and there’s continuing to be strong and steady growth. And also everything we know about podcast listeners is once they start podcasting, they never go back. So I’m not concerned about that.

THE TIMBRE

You’re such a positive guy. You made my negative question into a positive.

MATT LIEBER

<Laughs>

THE TIMBRE

How do you feel about how things are growing with Gimlet right now? Is it on track where you thought it would be by this point?

MATT LIEBER

Oh, yeah. I mean, we’re way ahead of where I thought we’d be by this point. What are we six, eight months into the business? I don’t have the numbers in front of me, but we have a big audience. Listeners are engaged and have been coming back for more. The economics of the business are working, and we’re able to invest back into new shows. And I feel proud of what we’re doing. I think the shows are great. I’m a fan of the shows, so I’m feeling great about it.

 

~

Author Description

Devon Taylor is co-founder and editor in chief of The Timbre. Her work has been featured in The Atlantic, CutBank, and The Tottenville Review. She grew up in New Jersey, received her Masters in creative writing at the University of Memphis, and lives in New York City.

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