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Spotify’s Gimlet Media hires new Head of Content

That person is Lydia Polgreen, the New York Times veteran who spent the last three years as editor-in-chief of HuffPost. Confirming the move on Twitter Friday morning, Polgreen wrote: “Gimlet has built the greatest audio team in the world, and I’m so lucky to have the chance to learn from them. Together we have the opportunity to chart the future of the spoken word on the world’s most powerful audio platform.”

I’m told that Polgreen will report to Alex Blumberg, and that she will be responsible for overseeing the division’s entire slate including “strategic planning and setting a creative vision for the studio.” As for HuffPost, The Daily Beast noted that she did not announce a successor when she informed her team of the move on Friday. Polgreen will begin her time at Spotify sometime later in the spring.

It’s a splashy personnel move, the kind that gets picked up by both the entertainment trades and the New York Times alike. But it’s also a curious one, given the absence of audio work in Polgreen’s resume and her broader positioning as a modern newsroom leader. We’re still very early with this development, but the immediate temptation is to view this hire as indication that we may get a newsier Gimlet — more news podcasts perhaps? More investigative documentaries? More gunning for those Pulitzers and Peabodys? — whenever the Polgreen tenure begins. Then again, it’s probably too early for any pigeonholing right now.

Still, thinking through this hire did make me bump up against an old question: what is Gimlet Media these days, anyway?

There was a time when I could articulate, at least to myself, what a “Gimlet show” was. Put simply, a Gimlet pod was what you get when you take the core proposition of a standard public radio podcast (often narrative, but not always), remove the burdens of a certain cautiousness, and see where it takes you. The end result was Gimlet’s early slate of releases, which was near-legendary. It included the first season of Startup, Reply All, Heavyweight, Mystery Show, The Nod, and Science Versus, a cluster that felt truly producer-centric — as in, let’s take a native audio talent who has been traditionally under-supported and really find out what that person can do — which still felt like a revelation in the 2015-2017 stretch.

When I think about those early shows, I see color. (Not in the conventional sense of how that word is typically deployed in these kinds of columns; one thing that Gimlet has previously been criticized for is its whiteness.) I mean, like, synesthetically: when I think of that early slate, I tend to imagine splotches of color. There is a fizz to those shows, a lightness that makes listening to them feel warm and engaging and hopeful. You can still get this from Reply All, which just this past week dropped an all-timer of an episode, and you could even access some aspects of that sensibility when the subject matter was significantly heavier, as in the case of Uncivil, which was developed with external talent Chenjerai Kumanyika and Jack Hitt, and Crimetown, which was forged through a partnership with the documentarians Marc Smerling and Zac Stuart-Pontier.

(Smerling and Stuart-Pontier would go on to create their own podcast imprint called Crimetown Presents, which is run through Cadence13 and not affiliated with Gimlet Media. One of its more recent releases, The Ballad of Billy Balls, exhibits some of this producer-centricity.)

You’re free to j’accuse me of concern-trolling, but I feel there to be significant distance between those original launches and the more recent batches of Gimlet releases. To be clear, I’m not talking about quality. Almost all of the latter day productions, in particular The Cut on Tuesdays (co-produced with New York Magazine) and Story Pirates, have vivid points of merit. Rather, I’m talking about identity — cynically, #thebrand — and, as an extension of that, I have some trouble connecting Gimlet’s creative present with its past. I’m also having trouble cleanly articulating its differentiating qualities against an ever-broadening horizon of competitors that have hit the scene, many of which are infinitely capable.

I guess I know how we got here, roughly speaking. We were told, in that last season of Startup narrating their sale to Spotify, that the type of stuff they used to want to make was expensive to produce and hard to monetize. And so they sought to switch things up, which resulted in these partnerships and Hollywood-friendly fiction shows and a vastly prolific branded content department. Which is a perfectly understandable development; I’m not saying it isn’t. I’m just having a hard time clearly telling what makes that audio team the greatest team in the world when you have, you know, Radiotopia and NPR and The Ringer and Pineapple Street and the New York Times, among so many others.

It’s often been argued in my general direction that ordinary media consumers don’t give two shits about the identity of a podcast network or book publisher or a film studio or whatever. That normal people won’t care if something’s a Gimlet podcast or a Pineapple podcast or an NPR podcast; they just want what they want. The “good stuff.” I’ve never bought that. In my mind, such a situation depicts strong failures in branding, marketing, and effective communication of what these creative companies stand for. In any case, to argue for that interpretation of mass listeners is to dismiss the segments of listeners who do care about such things — and therefore can be identified as high quality consumers to engage with — while de-prioritizing the important work of publishers figuring out their place in a saturated universe.

More to the point, though, the question of Gimlet Media’s creative identity should matter more nowadays within the context of its own parent company. On-stage at the Hot Pod Summit last Thursday, Gimlet co-founder Matt Lieber — now Spotify’s Head of Podcast Studios and Operations — spent some time talking about how Spotify’s contemporary podcast production operations are spread across four divisions: Gimlet, Parcast, The Ringer, and the Spotify Original banner. Parcast and The Ringer have sharp identities: both shops possess distinct aesthetics, sensibilities, functions, and goals. Meanwhile, the Spotify Original brand holds a Swiss army knife quality, shouldering the responsibility of being purposefully broad and being able to hold new partnerships and projects that are obviously valuable but are unhoused internally, brand-wise. (Shout-out to Kevin Bacon.)

Held up against two sister divisions with strong identities, another division that covers all other bases, and an ever-competitive universe of competitors, what is a Gimlet Podcast supposed to be? And under Polgreen’s tenure, what will it become?