clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Mystery Show was the top podcast of the year when it debuted. And now it’s canceled.

Being beloved couldn’t save it from the harsh reality of the podcasting business.

AWXII - Day 1
Starlee Kine speaks at an Advertising Week 2015 panel in New York City.
Photo by Daniel Zuchnik/Getty Images for AWXII
Aja Romano writes about pop culture, media, and ethics. Before joining Vox in 2016, they were a staff reporter at the Daily Dot. A 2019 fellow of the National Critics Institute, they’re considered an authority on fandom, the internet, and the culture wars.

Fans of the celebrated podcast Mystery Show are reeling in the wake of Thursday’s news that the show — at least in its current incarnation — has been canceled.

Centered on host Starlee Kine's attempts to solve small but intriguing mysteries, from the origin of a unique belt buckle to Jake Gyllenhaal’s exact height, Mystery Show launched in May 2015 with a six-episode first season that saw the show widely hailed as the best new podcast of the year. A second season was announced in January.

But new episodes never materialized, and Gimlet Media, the startup podcast network that produced Mystery Show, has since parted ways with Kine.

In an October 6 Facebook post, Kine revealed that Gimlet quietly canceled the show in April:

In April, Gimlet let me go. This came without warning while I was in the midst of working on the second season. I’d been having trouble figuring out the new season – second seasons can be tricky – and so I'd gone away, to work on an episode. I didn't make as much progress as I had hoped, but the season was starting to take shape. The day I returned, [Gimlet co-founder and producer] Alex Blumberg told me the show was unsustainable. I was out. I lost my staff, my salary, my benefits, my budget and my email address. Mystery Show is the only show this has happened to at Gimlet. Just a few months prior, iTunes voted it Best Podcast of the Year.

Kine, whose previous credits include contributions to the famous Ira Glass–hosted radio show This American Life, added that since April, she has been "working every day to figure out a new plan for the show."

Kine’s bubbly personality and her interest in the whimsical mysteries behind everyday things characterized Mystery Show’s first season. But achieving the podcast’s signature mix of in-depth reporting and unexpected story turns involved several production challenges, including extensive travel, a wide variety of interviews, and a considerable amount of spontaneity.

In a formal announcement issued after Kine’s Facebook post, Gimlet stated that these factors led to the company’s decision to stop producing the podcast:

Mystery Show is an ambitious production and Starlee has an uncompromising vision for the show, which is what makes it so great. However, these factors combined make Mystery Show unsustainable to produce and publish on a consistent basis, and therefore Gimlet will no longer produce new episodes of Mystery Show.

Gimlet also added that the podcast network was "in discussions with Starlee to reach an agreement where she may produce Mystery Show independently of Gimlet."

The announcement has left many fans of both Mystery Show and Gimlet itself wondering what this means for the future of Kine’s project, and for Gimlet’s hitherto spotless reputation as a podcast publisher.

Gimlet is known for its independent startup vibe, but the end of Mystery Show is a brutal reminder that podcasting is still a business

Gimlet is an independently funded startup created in 2014 by a team of producers who, like Kine, previously worked on This American Life. The company has produced seven podcasts to date, including the popular Reply All, which focuses on internet culture, and Startup, which follows Gimlet’s own business journey, beginning with the founders’ success in raising $1.5 million for the project through crowdfunding and venture capital.

All of Gimlet’s podcasts have gained fame and achieved success, and until now the company has largely been seen by listeners and podcast industry insiders as a friendly and transparent "indie" operation with huge ambitions. In other words, Gimlet has been hailed as a model of ethical startup success.

But the news that Gimlet considers Mystery Show "unsustainable" has changed that impression for many loyal fans of Kine and the show.

Rumors that Mystery Show had been canceled had been swirling for months due to a lack of updates from either Kine or Gimlet. After Kine confirmed the cancellation, Gimlet co-founder Blumberg recorded a short audio note regarding the decision, but its cryptic nature didn’t exactly clarify the company’s thought process. The statement essentially translated to, "We’re sad, but we can’t talk about it":

Fans reacted to Blumberg’s update by chastising Gimlet for its lack of transparency and for the length of time it took to make the news public. And while it’s not unusual for a business to receive this sort of criticism, the reality that Gimlet actually is a for-profit business, and that it must make strategic business decisions to survive, seemed to disconcert onlookers.

Given the jaunty, informal tone of Gimlet’s podcasts and its stated commitment to transparency, perhaps this disconnect is understandable. The podcast blog On This Week’s Episode summed up the discordance:

Of course not all shows will work out, but there's something about Kine's story that leaves a bitter taste. Gimlet has always played up its pally, happy family vibe - cross-hosting shows and giggling about office high jinx. If Kine's account really is the whole story, it does seem like an unnecessarily cutthroat approach. Podcasting may be a growing business, but couldn't it try and be a nicer one than most?

But investing time and money without seeing any real results — Kine stated she had "gone away, to work on an episode" but "didn't make as much progress as I had hoped" — is a lot for any startup to bear, let alone one as reliant on new content as a podcast network. And while Gimlet now has its share of detractors, plenty of people recognized that the media company was in a tough position.

Gimlet still has several popular podcasts to fall back on. The fourth season of Startup began October 6, the same day as Kine’s announcement, and its newest show, Heavyweight — which takes a concept similar to Mystery Show’s exploratory journalism and applies it to small events from the past — is already garnering buzz. Outside of canceling Mystery Show, it seems as if everything is business as usual at the company, however jarring a concept that might be for fans to accept.

As for the question of whether Mystery Show might ever be produced elsewhere, some fans have been buzzing about crowdfunding the show, while others have their misgivings that crowdfunding would do more than enable what seems to be an already unwieldy format. So far, Kine hasn’t provided any additional updates on potential funding avenues, other than a brief Twitter follow-up:

For now, the fate of Mystery Show is an open investigation.

Sign up for the newsletter Today, Explained

Understand the world with a daily explainer plus the most compelling stories of the day.