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A lot of people on the internet these days, including a lot of people I know, are obsessed with Serial. I am not. I have heard it, or rather I have heard a little of it, and at some point I may listen to the rest of it, but mostly I find the critiques I’ve read of it far more interesting than the show itself. Like, do the producers really get the cultures of the people they are talking about? I don’t know, but I’m interested. The show itself is engrossing and slick and smart and everything you expect from a This American Life spinoff, which it is, but in the end I often feel like I’m listening to the 21st century version of a 19th century illustrated crime newspaper — with the added advantage that no one has to do the police in different voices, because they can, at least in some cases, interview the police directly and edit in a studio into this thing I can download on my phone and listen to wherever. The future is pretty amazing. But of course I don’t really care who done it, which is a fundamental problem when the chief dramatic tension in a story is did he or didn’t he kill her.
But as I’ve said, I’m not obsessed with Serial. I’m obsessed with StartUp. Last week on StartUp, Alex Blumberg said if you’d heard of StartUp but not of Serial, you occupied a very interesting niche in the radio landscape and he wanted to hear from you. I’m not a member of that niche, but I might be a member of one of its neighbors, and I have things I want to say on the subject. I was going to brag that I heard StartUp before I heard Serial, but then I realized that everyone did, or at least everyone one who listens to This American Life did: StartUp’s first episode was excerpted in Episode 533; Serial’s first episode was aired as Episode 537. So much for my vaunted avant garde.
StartUp, if you haven’t heard it, is this meta podcast that Alex Blumberg is doing about starting his own podcasting company. I adore Blumberg’s work. I liked it even back when he was doing quirky stories (The Family that Flees Together Trees Together is an early favorite). That expanded when he started doing more topical work (Somewhere in the Arabian Sea is brilliant even though in theory we’re not exactly at war anymore). When he started doing economics stories with Adam Davidson, though, he started being brilliant about something I’ve always thought I should know more about but hadn’t previously spent any time with, because, after the night in seventh grade when my mother spent several hours attempting to explain what “adjusted for inflation” meant (I’d gotten curious about a graph in the back of my geography textbook) and we’d both ended up in tears, I thought maybe economics and I just were not going to be friends.
Blumberg’s work with Davidson, first on This American Life and then on Planet Money, changed all that. I don’t really want to confess to you how many times I’ve listened to the financial crisis stories. I can’t, actually, as I haven’t kept track. I love Planet Money even though I find it, like much of NPR, incredibly centrist and occasionally a little dense (I loved the tshirt project, but was it really a surprise to anyone that the garment industry follows poverty? Perhaps to people who didn’t spend a few years in the anti-sweatshop movement trenches, or read Naomi Klein’s No Logo, or read The Nation for years before that…).
So I was intrigued when Blumberg decided to strike out on his own. Intrigued and worried, and worried for a variety of reasons. If you listen to the very first show, you’ll get some of that worry right off the bat. Blumberg is so awkward, so bumbling, so nervous, so… embarrassing when he’s trying to pitch his project to investors that I actually had to pause the episode a few times just to breathe. The dramatic tension is like that in a really good novel — the kind where you want to jump into the pages and take the protagonist and grab her and say, “STOP! NO! DON’T DO IT!” Brilliant.
What fascinates me about StartUp is its storytelling, which is just as produced as that of Serial but which feels fresher and… messier. I love a good mess. But I’m also fascinated by the tensions it brings up. When Blumberg makes his terrible pitch to Chris Sacca, a venture capitalist, Sacca first gives him a better version of his pitch — all the reasons Sacca and others should invest in his company. Then, seemingly with his next breath, he gives a pitch of all the reasons they shouldn’t. Among those is that Blumberg risks losing all his credibility with public radio listeners by becoming a commercial entity. Some episodes later, you watch that happen, as the team gets into a major internet scandal because they mistakenly let someone who was being interviewed for an ad think she was being interviewed for, well, This American Life.
This is a pretty fangirly post, and I am a big fan. But I’m also a skeptical observer. I really want to see if this thing takes off, if Blumberg and company can build a commercially successful podcast company, and if, in the course of doing so, they can keep my anti-capitalist public radio listener self as a fan.