Issue 245,  published February 11, 2020

Plug and Play

There’s always value in a simple pitch, I suppose. For Meet Cute, a New York-based podcast company that announced itself in Variety a few weeks ago, that pitch has two parts. The first is a pithy, albeit somewhat woo-woo, mission statement: “Hope for the Whole World.” The second is a sharp product focus, with the company working to make short-form audio romantic comedies — rapidly and at volume, with the logic of an algorithm and the rigor of a factory floor.

The basic construct of Meet Cute’s audio output is a quick-turnaround fifteen-minute rom-com broken down into three-minute long episodic chapters, primarily delivered over a standard podcast feed. When we spoke over the phone last Friday, co-founder and CEO Naomi Shah talked about these compositions in strictly formulaic terms: “There’s usually five parts to the rom-com,” she said. “There’s a meet cute, then there’s some sort of conflict, then there’s usually a couple of steps of working through a journey together, then there’s a resolution, and then there’s happily ever after.” Note how that five-part formulation maps, neatly, onto the five-episode release structure.

Speaking as a connoisseur of the genre, I suppose the structural description is generally accurate, but there’s something a little halting about hearing the rom-com broken down into assembly line boxes. Then again, Syd Field has a legacy of being a wildly famous screenwriting teacher, and the reality is that you don’t get well-made stories without a sound implementation of structure, so I should probably take my bleeding heart artist marbles and go home.

Anyway, here’s the financial context for this story: as the Variety write-up notes, the company has raised more than $3 million from a group of investors that includes Shari Redstone’s Advancit Capital (which has also invested in Wondery) and Union Square Ventures. (Prior to co-founding Meet Cute, Shah was on the investment team at USV, and appears to still formally hold a position there.) The Variety piece has useful detail as to how that money will currently be spent, and you should probably pay close attention to the bit on a fund that “will pay writers $1,000 for their scripts to be developed in a podcast.”

The company is currently pre-revenue. Like, really pre-revenue. I wasn’t given a straightforward answer when I inquired about plans for future ad sales, paywall experiments, or anything like that. “Right now, really 100% of our attention is being focused on making the content and putting it out there for users,” said Shah. “So I guess I can’t really answer that question because we don’t really have a business model right now.” That said, the Variety piece does note that the company will retain IP ownership over the stories they produce, which opens up the possibility for derivative revenue. But that kind of money is really hard to get going, so you can’t really position that revenue channel as a primary business model.

I also wasn’t given a clear answer when I asked about how the team views the nature of its competition — in other words, the market it will eventually inhabit. But one can probably already make a few guesses as to how the Meet Cute story might end up, if it does end up getting past… well, its own meet cute. The key, I think, is to view them as an upstart niche media company built around the audio format and a specific genre focus. From that standpoint, one could evoke something like Dipsea, the short-form audio erotica platform that’s powered by a paywall, or more conventionally-known paid audio apps like the meditation-focused Headspace and Calm. But a more appropriate comp would probably be Parcast, the volume-driven and ad-supported purveyor of quick-turnaround pulp podcasts that was acquired by Spotify last year.

Despite the capitalistic oddity of its financial context and the striking literalism of its paint-by-numbers approach, one can’t really deny that there’s precedence for a company like Meet Cute and what it’s trying to do. The best-case scenario, I think, would be the realization of something like the Hallmark Channel, the prime vessel of inexhaustible utility from infinite variations off a fairly rigid formula.