The Business of Storytelling

At podcasting upstart Gimlet Media, Lisa Chow ’13 tells the stories.

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Lisa Chow ’13 at Gimlet Media's Brooklyn offices.

Photo: Brett Essler

The Gimlet Media offices in Brooklyn’s Gowanus neighborhood look like any modern startup’s space — a young, caffeinated workforce on laptops, working against the backdrop of exposed brick, comfortable furniture, and bicycles.

But behind the scenes, Gimlet is changing the business of podcasting.

Co-founded by This American Life vet Alex Blumberg, Gimlet launched in 2014 as the popularity of podcasts was growing. (Startup was in fact its first show and the initial season was a successful meta-podcast chronicling the launch of Gimlet itself.) The company has since expanded its staff to nearly 80 and now produces more than a dozen shows on a range of subjects, telling quirky stories on everything from organized crime to science.

The rapid growth can be attributed not only to Gimlet’s creative products, but also to the young company’s fresh approach to revenue. While most podcasts rely on ad revenue, sponsorship, and the public radio distribution model, Gimlet licenses its intellectual property to Hollywood; several shows or movies based on Gimlet content are currently in production, including one based on Startup. This innovative model has made Gimlet especially attractive to investors; Gimlet made news recently with a $15 million Series B investment by Stripes Group.

In addition, a recent Edison Research study found that “24 percent of Americans have listened to a podcast in the last month” (up from 21 percent year-over-year) and an Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB) report predicts that podcasting ad dollars will increase 85 percent (to an estimated $220 million) over last year.

Lisa Chow ’13 was one of Gimlet’s first employees when she came on board to host and produce Startup near the end of its first season. Since then, Chow has guided the podcast through several seasons of captivating entrepreneur stories, including season four’s controversial profile of American Apparel founder Dov Charney.

Chow, who was both a Knight-Bagehot and Wiegers Fellow at Columbia and has worked as a journalist with WNYC, FiveThirtyEight, and NPR’s Planet Money, sat down with Columbia Business in the Gimlet offices to discuss the value of the MBA, the art of storytelling, and her favorite podcasts.

You had a long career in journalism before you entered business school. Why did you want an MBA?

I was an applied math major. So I always had more of a quantitative mind. At the same time, I was really interested in storytelling, and had been curious about business and economics pretty much since 2006. At WNYC, I started as a business and economics reporter and I covered everything from the big economic questions of our day, like why bad mortgages took down the global economy in 2008, to much smaller questions like why fruits and vegetables are so much cheaper in Chinatown. So, I had really kind of covered the gamut, and the reason I wanted to pursue the MBA was to deepen my knowledge in business and economics. I thought also it might give me more credibility with my sources.

How did Startup come to be created, and why do you think listeners find stories about startups so compelling?

Startup was launched as we were launching our company, and season one documented the launch of Gimlet. So, the founder of our company, Alex Blumberg, is a former producer of This American Life. So season one of Startup was basically him recording everything. So, him recording his conversations with his wife as he was starting the company. Him recording his pitches to investors out in Silicon Valley. Him recording…his negotiation with his co-founder on their equity split. Season one was a real hit, I’d say. It grew the audience very quickly. It was first person, so there was something about it that was very intimate and personal. And it documented the good, bad, and ugly of starting a business. Just how challenging it can be. I think that the way media covers startups and the way startup founders talk about their own companies, it’s always in this very positive, ‘I’m killing it, I’m crushing it’ way. And I think that this podcast really got underneath all of that in a way that felt honest and compelling.

Gimlet Media itself is a startup, so you’re living what you report. What’s that like?

Working at a startup and covering startups is kind of a unique position to be in. It makes me a lot more empathetic to entrepreneurs in a way that I don’t think I would have connected to them previously. I can connect to their experience in terms of the highs and lows, the burnout — just the fact that you’re creating something out of nothing which is a really exciting but scary thing to do. I think that’s probably made me a better journalist.

What makes a compelling story?

For me a compelling story has a couple of ingredients. At the heart of it, it is a compelling character. Someone who is charismatic, who is vulnerable, who kind of is willing to give access and let us in to really show the good, bad, and ugly of starting a business. It is very hard to find that person, generally.

Also, I think what makes a good story is that something happens. You want to see some action take place. So, capturing live tape is always very exciting to me. When we can capture something on tape as it’s happening.

What else makes a good story? Variety, I’d say. The fact that there are highs and there are lows. If everything is just kind of the same, it’s not very interesting.

Every story we look for those ingredients.

You alluded to the intimacy factor. The listener has to get to know the subject. What are some tips or tricks on getting that access?

People always ask me, 'How do you get people to share things with you?' You’re never going to force someone who doesn’t want to share something, to share something. It’s a very long vetting process where we interview dozens and dozens of people to figure out who naturally wants to share their story and feels confident and comfortable enough to highlight hard parts of their story.

I was listening to an interview with Errol Morris recently and he said the key to interviewing is to shut up and let people talk.

That is very true. Silence is huge. Silence used to disturb me; and now, silence is my friend. Just to kind of let it sit and let the person just talk is really helpful.

Outside of Gimlet’s stable of shows, what are the podcasts you listen to?

I am a huge fan of The Daily, the podcast from the The New York Times, which I think is amazing. There’s just an urgency in the podcast. It’s incredibly produced and an insight into a journalist’s world. They’re pulling back the veil a little bit and it’s provocative. It leaves me with a lot of food for thought — I think about it a lot during the day.

I listen to the Longform podcast, primarily because they’re interviewing longform journalists and it’s almost like a trade podcast. They recently interviewed the guy who did the OJ documentary [Ezra Edelman] and I want them to interview more filmmakers. So much of what we do at Startup is documentary film-style content.

And, Fresh Air, of course, because I think that Terry Gross is an amazing interviewer. A lot of the stuff I listen to is to help me be a better interviewer.

What were some of the big takeaways from your Columbia Business School experience?

I’ve always had a pretty good kind of bullshit meter, as a kind of skeptical journalist. And I think that the Business School actually enhanced that. Just understanding how a business works. How it makes money. How it loses money. How it kind of operates in a competitive environment with external threats. And those threats could be threats that you can control and other threats that you can’t.

In interviewing the CEO or the CFO of a company I probably would ask questions that were much more detailed than your typical business reporter. Having had the background of business school empowers me to do that.

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