What Went Wrong at Gimlet?

Photo-Illustration: by Vulture

Reply All’s four-part series “The Test Kitchen,” on the allegedly toxic and racist workplace culture at Bon Appétit, begins with a simple thesis: that the magazine’s problems were all borne out of one original sin. That sin, as laid out by series host Sruthi Pinnamaneni, was the concentration of power among the same kinds of people — typically white, of the same class, and of the same tastes — at the expense of everyone else.

In interviews with Pinnamaneni, a longtime Reply All senior staffer, current and former Bon Appétit employees — all of whom were individuals of color —  were asked to be vulnerable, and in some cases, to relive hard experiences they had not yet fully processed: entry-level employees and temps who had been made to feel like second-class citizens; more senior staffers of color who felt complicit in supporting a troubling culture. The first two episodes seemed to resonate with a wide swath of listeners (including me). Though the miniseries was about one glossy Condé Nast publication, it served as a window into all manner of other workplaces.

Including, as it turns out, Reply All’s. To Eric Eddings and Brittany Luse, who were Pinnamaneni’s colleagues at the podcast company Gimlet Media from 2015 to 2020, all of this sounded familiar — a little too familiar. “When I found out they were making this series, I laughed,” said Luse. “I was like, ‘You have to be kidding me.’”

Eddings and Luse were the hosts and creators of The Nod, a Gimlet podcast that came to an end last year. Eddings was also active in a union-organizing push that largely took place in late 2018 and early 2019, a period leading up to Gimlet’s acquisition by Spotify. Shortly after the release of the second episode, he took to Twitter. In a long thread, he accused the Reply All team — specifically Pinnamaneni and PJ Vogt, one of the show’s co-founders — of contributing to a “near-identical toxic environment at Gimlet” as described in the Bon Appétit miniseries. “The BA staffers’ stories deserve to be told,” he wrote, “but to me it’s damaging to have that reporting and storytelling come from two people who have actively and AGGRESSIVELY worked against multiple efforts to diversify Gimlet’s staff & content.” He followed that up with a list of accusations: that Reply All held a uniquely influential position at the company, but remained insular. And when it came to the union meant to push for greater equity at the organization, he wrote, Pinnamaneni and Vogt behaved as if their power was being threatened.

Eddings’ thread went viral, promoted by various former Gimlet staffers and numerous peers in the podcast industry. By the end of February, both Vogt and Pinnamaneni would depart from the show permanently. (Neither has left Gimlet altogether; both are currently on leave from the company and declined to comment for this story, though they have issued apologies on Twitter.) The miniseries was abandoned and Reply All — arguably Gimlet’s most critically acclaimed show — was placed on hold.

The scandal at Reply All is just the latest addition to an increasingly long line of companies within the media industry that have been wrestling with accusations of fostering toxic workplaces. (Spotify, which owns Gimlet and Reply All, declined to comment for this story.) It’s also the latest in a wave of various reckonings within the podcast and radio business specifically, which have rocked organizations like the New York Times, KCRW, and WAMU. The story of what happened at Gimlet Media is not unique: In many ways, it’s a classic story about start-up culture. Gimlet, which was purchased by Spotify in February 2019, has been billed as one of podcasting’s biggest success stories, yet its meteoric rise papered over the managerial problems within the company. Soon, one of the industry’s most-coveted companies would erupt in spectacular controversy.

Gimlet was started by Planet Money co-creator Alex Blumberg, who sought to parlay his decorated history and experience as a public-radio producer into a profit-seeking podcast company. He founded the start-up in 2014 — around the time Serial was exploding in popularity, kicking the medium off into the high-flying trajectory it’s on today — and brought the consultant Matt Lieber in as a founding partner. The company was built on a foundation of public-radio talent. Its first talent hires, Reply All’s PJ Vogt and Alex Goldman, joined from New York Public Radio, where they had hosted a small podcast about technology called TLDR. (Pinnamaneni would join the company in March 2015, four months after Reply All’s launch.) Gimlet quickly became the poster child of this new industry, racking up headlines and buzz, up until the company’s blockbuster acquisition by Spotify.

Over the past few weeks, I spoke with ten former Gimlet staffers who described a distinctly informal company, one with the somewhat typical problems that come with working in a start-up environment. (Most of the former staffers whom I spoke to for this story didn’t want to be named, since podcasting is still a small community.) Gimlet was the kind of place, at least in its earlier years, where job titles might be loosely applied and there was little boundary between personal and professional time, with people often working very long hours and deep into weekends. As with start-ups in general, the organizational informality was occasionally exciting to its early employees. But it also led to an environment where there were severe imbalances in power, work, and compensation. Loosely enforced job titles meant that junior workers couldn’t adequately advocate for development in seniority, authority, and pay when they took on more responsibility. A senior producer could pull in a six-figure salary and not seem like they were doing much work, while a junior producer could frequently pull all-nighters and be paid much less — and still have no understanding on how they might formally progress within the organization

There were also pointed concerns about race and diversity in the workplace from the beginning. There were very few Black employees at the company, and the ones who were there had the kind of experiences that made them feel their perspectives were trivialized. CC Paschal, a Black former staffer, wrote in a personal essay about having her security concerns dismissed when she was asked to cover a Klan rally in 2017. (A source familiar with management says there is no HR record of this incident.) Another former staffer, who is also Black, recalled being criticized for refusing to work on a project because it could be perceived as racist.

“It took a while for me to come to a realization that, like, 75 percent of Black employees were described as ‘aggressive’ in formal reports and feedback, and in one-on-ones with managers,” that former staffer told me. “It’s difficult to give feedback on anything to some people in great positions of power at the company without being called aggressive.” (When contacted, a source familiar with Gimlet management disputes this, saying that “the team reviewed the available employee-feedback documents and could not find any use of ‘aggressive’ in a negative or needs-improvement context.”)

Then there was the fact that a meaningful number of Gimlet’s productions leaned on contract workers, who didn’t typically get company benefits. Many of the Black and brown workers at Gimlet were contract workers, not staff members, which meant they automatically had less job security. James T. Green, a former contractor at the company who is Black, recently wrote about his experiences in his own personal essay, where he laid out the way he felt strung along throughout his time as a contract worker. He described his time at the company as leaving him with what he dubbed “Gimlet PTSD,” marked by memories of “unconscious curtailing to white colleagues, and silently holding your tongue in fear of retribution.”

All this is in contrast with the environment described in StartUp, Gimlet’s very first podcast, a meta-show where many of the episodes are dedicated to Blumberg’s self-documentation of his efforts to build the company. Viewed through the lens of the past few weeks, the dissonance of that show is striking: StartUp painted a consistently breezy picture of the office, one that was unnaturally transparent and empathetic. Listening back to the 2015 episode, on the company’s state of diversity, is particularly dissonant with this current discourse; it conceded that, indeed, Gimlet was extremely white, but that diversity also meant a bunch of things beyond race, and that they were working on it.

“For a long time, they were able to utilize this bumbling white-guy persona that’s rampant in radio,” said Brittany Luse. “It’s the persona who answered the door when people showed up asking why there were failures.”

Many of the problems at Gimlet Media — at least through its pre-acquisition years — seemed to be rooted in two related dynamics. The first is the feeling among staffers that power at the company was usually held by and distributed among certain kinds of people with the same tastes in audio. These were usually public-radio veterans: typically people from upper-middle class or wealthy backgrounds who had gone to similar schools, worked at similar jobs, and could afford taking on poorly paid “perma-lance” positions favored by public-radio stations. They were often white, but not always. (Pinnamaneni, who is South Asian, came from the typical audio-professional background.) Some former staffers expressed frustrations at how early senior hires tended to be “grandfathered” in through close informal relationships, creating a sense of a privileged class within the company that could be hard to crack into if you didn’t come from the same contexts. In other words, the same dynamics that were presented at Bon Appétit in the “Test Kitchen.” Some workers who came from different work or educational backgrounds — or who simply had different tastes and perspectives — said they felt like they were only guests in someone else’s home. “It feels like there’s ‘family,’ and then there’s field hands,” said a Black former staffer I spoke to.

The problems at Gimlet came to the fore thanks to a unionization effort. Sometime in the late summer of 2018, a group of around ten people — a mix of staffers and contractors — began the process of organizing. Eddings was part of that original organizing committee; at least half of the group were people of color. The committee sought to advocate for a long list of improvements at the company, including a push to more effectively recruit, retain, and empower more workers of color and diversifying the overall staff at Gimlet. The organizing committee approached the various teams at Gimlet and received the strongest pushback when they arrived at the last on their list: the team at Reply All.

It was widely known that the Reply All team was close to management; most of its senior members dated back to the company’s earliest days. Former staffers say this often resulted in their needs being prioritized — like receiving preferential treatment with studio time, which was a precious commodity in the earlier days of the company. “They were the prized horse,” said a former contractor. “They could get what they wanted and needed from Alex because they had his ear, while everybody else had to go through the normal processes which usually didn’t work.” That said, it should also be noted that the show was an important workhorse for the company; before the acquisition by Spotify, Reply All was publishing episodes to considerable audiences the most consistently across all of Gimlet’s shows, thus driving the bulk of the company’s advertising impressions.

The people with the longest tenures at the company were the most skeptical of the union effort, according to the former contractor. “There was a sense of trying to protect ‘old Gimlet,’” said another former staffer. The Reply All team had taken issue with the fact that they were the last to be approached about unionizing, and a source familiar with their thinking at the time said they were chiefly concerned with the organizing committee’s approach to deciding who would be included in the union — and how those decisions would ultimately impact the operations at Reply All.

Reply All’s resistance makes up the bulk of the allegations in Eddings’ thread; some details remain murky, and the situation seems more complex than a Twitter thread allows. He accused Vogt of sending “harassing messages” to members of the organizing committee, but no one interviewed for this piece was willing to be more specific about the content of the messages. Eddings also accused Pinnamaneni of holding an anti-union meeting “trying to rally people against” the organizing effort, but another former staffer and a source still at the company described the meeting as being more about Pinnamaneni trying to build a space where workers could feel free to express their concerns about the unionizing process without the organizing committee present. Beyond the specific allegations, former staffers were consistent in describing this as an emotionally intense period at the company, as the tension over the organizing effort and the general culture of overwork came to a head. The atmosphere within the company had taken on an icier tone after the union effort went public — now it had turned into outright resentment. Eddings told me he felt like those who opposed the union regarded workers who were interested in the union as “people who are bad at radio trying to wreck the company.” Other former staffers said they heard similar sentiments expressed in private conversation.

Unbeknownst to the organizing committee and most of the other staff members, Gimlet was in talks with Spotify, which wanted to buy the company. The committee was informed of this sometime in January 2019. Shortly after, while the Spotify negotiations were underway, there was a meeting between company leadership and the organizing committee in which Blumberg appealed for them to hold off on the union effort, lest it risk jeopardizing the acquisition talks. The source familiar with management said the request came out of the fact that the sale was viewed as necessary, as the company was financially unsustainable at that point in time. One former staffer active in the organizing effort described Blumberg as seeming like he took the union effort personally. “Alex wanted so badly to be perceived as a good guy, to be perceived as a person acting on behalf of empathy,” said the former staffer. I had heard a rumor that Blumberg cried during the meeting; I asked them if it was true. “Oh, Alex cries at every meeting,” they said. “There was a lot of crying at Gimlet in general.”

For some former staffers, there was only so much sympathy they could muster for a company they had felt undervalued by. “I can understand the anxiety of losing out the opportunity to keep this business going,” one former staffer told me. “But you had a lot of power and opportunity to change. You had people fighting for a salary, not a big payday.”

In the end, the committee agreed to hold off on the organizing push until the sale was finalized. When Spotify acquired Gimlet in February 2019 for a deal worth $230 million, Blumberg and Lieber became millionaires several times over. Vogt and Goldman, early employees who held considerable shares in the company, were also said to have profited considerably. Two months later, the union was recognized, and at this writing, the Gimlet Union remains in the bargaining process.

Although Gimlet recognized the union nearly two years ago, they are still negotiating a first contract. Meanwhile, a lot at the company has changed: Goldman of Reply All is now on the union’s bargaining committee; in his thread, Eddings said Vogt eventually came around on the need for the union too. The company is now led by former HuffPost editor-in-chief Lydia Polgreen, who was hired by Spotify in early 2020. Blumberg reports to Polgreen, and Lieber no longer works with Gimlet directly. (Blumberg and Lieber declined to comment on this story.) A source familiar with Spotify’s current operations told me that Polgreen has since put more formal structures for career progression in place and is rebuilding the leadership team, that the company has scaled down its reliance on contractors, and that over half of new hires identify as people of color, and of those, almost half identify as Black. It is, in some ways, a different Gimlet than it was before the acquisition.

Meanwhile, Reply All’s podcast feed remains dormant. A source familiar with the team tells me that they’re taking some time to “process, regroup, and reimagine the show.” At some point, they’ll start publishing again, with at least Goldman and Emmanuel Dzotsi, who was added as a co-host last September, at the helm. Across Gimlet, a new generation of producers, hosts, and staffers is being ushered up, typified by the recent launches of shows like Resistance, led by Saidu Tejan-Thomas Jr., a Black writer, poet, and producer, and Stolen: The Search for Jermain, hosted by Connie Walker, a Cree journalist.

Feelings about Vogt and Pinnamaneni remain mixed among many in the Gimlet orbit. The fact that they both left the show came as a slight surprise to Luse. “I think I came to expect that nothing would happen,” she said. “That’s just what happens in the media in general.” Several people I spoke with placed the mess at the feet of Blumberg and Lieber, whom they described as lacking in leadership. And the working conditions, uncertainty, and tension of the pre-Spotify era continue to weigh on many of the workers and contractors who lived through Gimlet’s fast rise. They witnessed firsthand what happens when a company gets too big too quickly for its leadership to pay close attention to its own people.

As one former staffer told me, it’s not enough to have leaders with good intentions. “Neglect turns into malice,” they said.

What Went Wrong at Gimlet?