Tips from Alex Blumberg

Alex Blumberg Tips

Alex Blumberg is the podcasting man of the moment who created Gimlet Media.

If you've listened to any of Gimlet's podcasts, you've heard how they've finally made sponsors ads that we actually want to listen to. 

He's also just done an online class about how to tell powerful and memorable stories through audio. It's one of the most helpful things I've ever done (yep, it's going straight to the resources page).

Below are my notes from the class plus some of tweets from other people who've done the workshop too.

But if you're serious about making your own audio stories, I 100% recommend you do this class!

Notes: Power your podcast with storytelling by Alex Blumberg

On finding your own voice
Something all of us beginners struggle with. Alex said to:

Pick someone that you love and try to imitate them...That’s how everyone starts.
— Alex Blumberg

On choosing a topic to make a podcast about
A podcast can be so many things.

Alex said you have to ask yourself what do you have to offer? 

  1. What are you trying to do?
  2. Pick someone to imitate and start imitating.

A good radio story is

  • Something you don’t want to turn off.

A good radio story has two things:

  1. Narrative
  2. Emotion

Questions and answers 
You want answers that are real and authentic.

How to get these sort of answers: You need to ask questions that make people answer your questions using stories or emotion.

Questions to get people to answer in stories

  • Tell me about the time when…
  • Tell me about the day when…
  • Tell me about the moment you realised…
  • Tell me the story of….
  • It is always great when people start talking in dialogue, “And then he said…. And then I said......”. To get these type of answers, ask them to describe the conversation they had with someone.
  • What were the steps that got you from …. to…. (each step will be its own story)

Questions to get people to answer with emotion and honest reflections

  • How did that make you feel? Sometimes you will need to encourage people here, especially if people aren’t used to talking about their emotions.
  • If the old you could see the new you… (the transition- what did it mean to them?)
  • If you had to describe the debate in your head, what would each side say? This will give voice to the interior drama and break away from the “canned conversation” type answers.
  • What do you make of that? (This is a question Ira Glass uses all the time).
  • Example of a powerful question: Would you have loaned yourself the money?


You need to give the person room to answer. So be quiet and let them speak.

Who to interview
You need to find people with:

1.  Direct experience
This person doesn’t have to be an expert. Someone with a direct connection e.g.“this happened to me”.

2.  And you need to audition them
Are they good talkers? Do they have direct experience? Can they give you what you want.

How to audition someone: ring them up and say "I’m doing this story on… Can I ask you a question about….”.

Know when to stop auditioning… Don’t talk for too long to the person or else the real interview will feel staged. 

At the interview
Be in charge 
The person knows you are there to interview them so do it! It is more awkward if you make chit-chat instead of doing the interview. Move the subject around. Switch off appliances. Tell them you want to “sit next to them like you’re watching a movie, but having a conversation”.

Embrace your weird appearance
Wear your headphones. They are not off putting. People spend far too much time thinking about how their appearance is going to freak people out. Don’t do this! Own it from the beginning. The more comfortable you are, the more comfortable they will be.

If the interview is going over time, politely ask for more time.

Plan for your interview
Alex is not a believer in serendipity.

I am a believer in bad luck! Create your own luck.
— Alex Blumberg

Go in with a plan and if that doesn’t work, be flexible and adapt.

Do the thing you're scared of doing. For most beginners (me especially) it is the “fear of reaching out”. People who are drawn to telling stories are at heart shy people. But, you’re allowed to call people, they’re able to say yes or no.

Alex Blumberg Story Formula

The formula
This is gold (if you're still reading you are one of the lucky ones, this is the most helpful part).

Alex's story formula for success is:

I’m doing a story about X. It’s interesting because of Y.
— Alex Blumberg
  • If you get the Y you know you’re on track.
  • Just because it is a worthy cause does not make it interesting. 
  • Y should surprise. If it doesn’t, it’s not going to work. 
  • Y can be an interesting angle aside from the known narratives that everyone has already heard.

Not interesting-
I’m doing a story about homeless people. It’s interesting because many homeless people have mental illnesses. 

The above example is not interesting because most people know that many homeless people have mental illnesses (the Y) already.

Interesting- I’m doing a story about homeless people. It’s interesting because there’s a simple solution to the problem”.

A simple solution to homelessness, really? See how that Y is more interesting?

You need to know X and Y before you go out to do the interview. If you don’t have Y, you have a boring frame.

And finally, this is something I found particularly helpful because when I interview people they always go off on long and boring tangents. I don’t want to be rude when they do this so I let them go on and on and on…. I often end up with hours of tape that I have to edit down into a 5 minute piece. Alex had this advice:

You are doing this.
This is your podcast.
It’s your job to bring them back to the topic.

And that's just my notes from the first session! There's still another whole session of Alex's tips and tricks to gorge on, do check out Jeff Large's notes from session two.

And again, I can't highly recommending doing the class for yourself. 

Visual breakdown of the 2014 Third Coast competition winners


Congratulations to all the winners of the Third Coast / Richard H. Driehaus Foundation competition. There's some great audio stories there (some I remember listening too) others I haven't heard yet which I'm looking forward to devouring over the next few weeks.

There are are some interesting things I think we can learn from listening to the winning stories and also by looking at the data behind the winners.  I hope you find this helpful or at least interesting. 

When I first quickly scanned the winners of the 2014 Third Coast / Richard H. Driehaus Foundation competition my first thought was, "Gee where are all the women?!"

BUT my eyes deceived me!

On breaking down the data, you can see that he percentage of female to male producers is almost equal (male 53%, female 47%). Isn't that great! 

Gender Breakdowns Third Coast Festival Competition

If only there was a more equal gender representation among hosts of radio shows and podcasts (but, let's save that thought for another day). 

As if we didn't already know that America is the place to be if you want to make amazing radio stories, I feel like this map rubs it in a little bit especially if you aren't, like me, from the US.

I still haven't been able to make an audio story over 10 minutes. Does anyone else have this problem? Perhaps I need to use music more, string out the story a bit more to get it to the sweet spot of 10-20 minutes in length. But, I must say, I'm happy that half of the winners were 10-20 minutes in length, it seems like an achievable length to aim for to me.  

Sexuality, memory, the body and the mind are the category subjects that were the most popular. Each subject was featured in 3 pieces. Perhaps we should all make our next audio stories based on one of these themes, is anyone else up for the challenge?


I love that Emily Hsiao and Annie McEwen made the list as independent producers. I loved reading about the development of Annie's story on PRX's Second Ear so it's great to see her get a win for all her hard work. And Emily is another successful graduate of the Transom Story workshop, they sure know how to breed winning-radio-makers there, don't they?!

I also find it reassuring to see that 3 of the winners were made by producers working alone which is how I like to make my audio. 

Lastly, I also made note of how the first 10 seconds sounded for each piece (because the first 10 seconds are so important!)

  • 100 Songs in a Day: narration
  • Arthur's Story : field sound, subject, interviewer
  • Burroughs at 100: archival tape
  • Chicago to Mexico by Bus: field sound, narration
  • Fault Line: field sound, narration, subject
  • Help Wanted: narration
  • Here I Am and Here Be Danger: field sound, SX, narration
  • The Hospital Always Wins: host
  • Lance and Nina An Unlikely Story of Recovery and Redemption: field sound, narration
  • Leaving a Mark: field sound
  • The Real Tom Banks: actor (could be a computer not an actor)
  • Teenage Diaries Revisited - Melissa's Story: field sound, subject

I don't think the first 10 seconds of any of the stories surprised me which was disappointing. But perhaps I'll be more surprised when I hear the entirety of the pieces.

Some notes on this data. You can look at how I got to these figures by downloading this excel spreadsheet (please correct me if I got anything wrong). 

As far as "team members" go, I didn't include the subjects or actors as part of the team when I calculated the gender breakdowns.

I made the infographics using excel and adobe illustrator (for my first attempt I used which was easy to use but them all the data got messed up and was showing up in different charts- nightmare, avoid it!)