Gimlet Media's Alex Blumberg talks diversity and Hollywood ambitions

Plenty of media companies are grappling with how to recruit and maintain diverse talent. But how many of them are openly discussing their own pitfalls on the air?

Gimlet Media is. On Friday, the narrative audio company released an Ask Me Anything-type episode of StartUp, a podcast about what it's like to get a business up and running. In the episode, host Alex Blumberg, who doubles as CEO and co-founder of Gimlet, takes questions from listeners about everything from the company's diversity problems to its Hollywood ambitions.

"The drama does not stop once you raise that first round (of funding), people, let me tell ya," Blumberg said at the start of the show, which started out as a podcast documenting the formation of Gimlet.

Blumberg, a This American Life and Planet Money alum, founded Gimlet in Brooklyn in 2014 with Matt Lieber, a former podcast and radio producer for shows such as On Point and Slate's Culture Gabfest. Since then, the company has grown substantially — and one listener asked a question about how Gimlet was doing in terms of diversity on its full-time staff.

The answer: Not great, but improving.

"I think we have eight Black people at Gimlet right now, and six of them, I believe, are full-time employees," said Brittany Luse, a producer and host at the company, in the episode.

Blumberg and Luse openly discussed Gimlet's attempts to recruit and maintain a more diverse staff and pull up company numbers. Of all the full-time employees at Gimlet, about 18 are non-White while 55 are White, according to Blumberg. While that only comes to about 24 percent non-White employees, it's much better than the company was doing when it first started.

Blumberg said in the episode that when he first started Gimlet, the overwhelming majority of the staff was White and most shows were hosted by White men. While that's still somewhat the case, the podcasting company has been making strides, with Luse hosting a show about Black culture called The Nod and a new human resources director focusing on diversity in the hiring process. Gimlet has also created a mixed group of about 20 employees that meet once a week to discuss recruitment, maintaining diverse talent and expanding diversity initiatives to include things like sexual orientation and religious identity.

"Even though we’ve made some progress, we still have a lot of work to do," Blumberg said in the episode.

Most people in senior positions at Gimlet are still predominantly White, while non-White employees are mostly in junior positions. Luse also pointed out that there are no Black editors for her podcast about Black culture — a problem that Blumberg says he temporarily fixed with a small group of Black advisers from other media outlets who are working on the show.

"To actually make the progress we want, everybody has to be working on this," he said in the episode.

Blumberg's radical transparency on StartUp is a common theme throughout the AMA episode — it's even the point of one listener's question. And aside from the podcast host's open discussion of diversity, that intention really shines through in Blumberg's explanation of Gimlet's Hollywood ambitions.

In response to one listener's question about the creation of movies and TV shows based on Gimlet podcasts, Blumberg launches into a background on how StartUp is being made into a show for ABC. Blumberg said in the episode that when Head of Multiplatform Chris Giliberti was approached by film producer John Davis about option rights for season 1 of StartUp, he told him not to negotiate. At This American Life, Blumberg said he never had much success getting his stories picked up by a major network.

"This turned out to be bad advice," he said in the episode.

Davis ended up getting Zach Braff to star in and direct the show, and ABC went from ordering and shooting a pilot to picking it up for series.

"That happens very rarely," Blumberg said in the show. "You can set yourself up for making a lot of money if the thing ever actually gets made."

Unfortunately for Gimlet, that's not the case with ABC's new show, which is based on the beginning of Gimlet and StartUp's coverage of the company. Giliberti didn't negotiate with Davis to get more money out of the option agreement, and the podcasting company will likely only make six figures from the show's production.

"Considering we are the point of origination for an entire broadcast TV franchise that’s called 'Alex, Inc.,' I think we’re probably under-compensated," Blumberg said in the episode. "Not only are we not making much money, we also don’t have a lot of influence over the show that’s being made about us."

Now that ABC is making a show about Gimlet, Blumberg said that he's changed his thinking about Hollywood. Giliberti has since sold three more projects — one for a show and two for films — and Gimlet stands to earn millions if any of them are picked up by major networks.

"In some ways, things have gone like they expected they would. What’s amazing is how completely surprising it feels, almost every day," he said in the episode. "It is legitimately thrilling to live every day in a future that you couldn’t have imagined."

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