TAL’s Alex Blumberg plans for-profit podcast network

By Andrew Lapin

Blumberg, who helped NPR’s Planet Money raise nearly $600,000 in a Kickstarter campaign, hopes to foster more narrative audio in digital form. (Photo: NPR)

This American Life Executive Producer Alex Blumberg is launching a for-profit podcast network to produce original audio content outside of public radio.

Blumberg, who also co-hosts NPR’s Planet Money economics podcast, plans to launch his still-unnamed digital experiment in the fall. The shows will focus on narrative journalism in the vein of TAL and Planet Money and will not pursue broadcast distribution. Blumberg points to the increasing use of smartphones, connected cars and on-demand listening as evidence of a growing market of digital listeners.

“This is a huge audience that will go digital,” Blumberg wrote in an email to Current. “And we want to be here to welcome them.”

At first Blumberg’s network will offer the shows on iTunes, but Blumberg hopes to create a new distribution system with his business partner in the venture, an individual whom he declined to name.

“We love listening to podcasts. But they are hard to discover, complicated to sign up for, hard to share and of uneven quality,” he said. “We want to try and solve these problems, by making shows ourselves and building a product that will help listeners discover audio they love.”

Blumberg is funding the network with an initial round of seed investments from Silicon Valley investors and hopes to support it with ad revenue and listener donations. He would not disclose the investors. “We won’t ever do anything like a pledge drive,” he said. “But the basic idea — get the most passionate portion of your audience to pay — is the same.”

He cites Planet Money’s 2013 crowdfunding experiment, in which it raised nearly $600,000 on Kickstarter to manufacture T-shirts while reporting on the garment industry, as a template for the sort of fundraising he hopes to do with his new project.

The decision to make the network for-profit rather than nonprofit stems from Blumberg’s belief of what constitutes either. “There’s a viable business model here where we can do great work, create awesome programming, and have it pay for itself. I don’t see why a company like that should be a nonprofit,” he said. “For me, the nonprofit designation should be reserved for enterprises where the work is valuable but simply can’t be made to pay for itself. It’s hard to imagine a for-profit homeless adult literacy program, for example.”

Blumberg aims to give podcast creators partial ownership of their shows, possibly via individual contracts, while serving in an “editor-developer” role himself. He hopes to launch three shows in the first year but isn’t ready to announce any. Though aiming for purely digital distribution, Blumberg is talking to “several” of pubradio’s major distributors about partnerships.

Blumberg’s venture arrives shortly after the launch of another podcast network and the wind-down of another one.  In February, Public Radio Exchange and producer Roman Mars launched Radiotopia, a seven-show, donation-based podcast network. Then last month, Public Radio International launched their own four-program podcast network, SoundWorks. Also in May, independent podcast network Mule Radio Syndicate, which helped connect shows with sponsors and audiences, ended business operations.

Blumberg encourages interested parties to email him or follow him on Twitter for more information about the network.

Comments, questions, tips? lapin@current.org
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