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Why Did John Gruber's Talk Show Leave 5by5?

Technology

LAST UPDATE: May 23, 2012, 2:33 PM EDT

This post has been updated numerous times. Scroll to the bottom of this post for the latest information or read the following subsequent posts. Thanks to all who contributed information and added to the conversation in the comments.

I’ll be honest: I don’t know the answer to the question posited in this headline. But I can speculate.

For those who don’t know what 5by5 is, it’s a podcasting network founded by Dan Benjamin. He founded it in 2009, but I first heard of it when he started broadcasting The Talk Show with John Gruber of Daring Fireball fame in July of 2010. This iteration of the show is technically a reboot; Benjamin and Gruber hosted a podcast of the same name from 2007-2009.

5by5 really took off in early 2011 when Merlin Mann, of Hipster PDA fame, started his own show on the network with Benjamin, Back to Work. Around the same time John Siracusa started his show on the network, Hypercritical, and the rest is basically history. 5by5 quickly became a premier podcasting network, especially for shows about technology and the self-employment lifestyle in general.

Though Gruber’s Talk Show was normally recorded weekly, it’s not so out of the ordinary for it, or really any 5by5 show, to skip a week unannounced or futz with the broadcast calendar. So when no new Talk Show episode had been posted since May 2nd, it wasn’t that much of an anomaly. Listeners just figured that the show was on hiatus; Gruber is often mysterious about his whereabouts on the air.

But Twitter lit up this afternoon when Gruber posted to his widely read site a link to a brand new version of the show, sans Dan Benjamin, on the Mule Radio Syndicate, a different podcasting network started by designer and Gruber’s American McCarver compatriot Mike Monteiro. No explanation for the move was offered in his blog post. And the new show, which he appears to be hosting alone with guests (this week it’s John Moltz), starts up right where the last show left off. No welcoming the audience to the new network, no reason is offered for the move. It’s just another episode of The Talk Show for Gruber, well, it’s his third first episode.

So what happened? Both Gruber and Benjamin remain silent on Twitter. No live 5by5 broadcast was recording when this news hit the web, so no live comments from Dan. For now we have no facts as to what happened. But I have some ideas.

First off all, I think it’s pretty safe to assume this is the result of a falling out. 5by5 still lists The Talk Show as a current show, with Gruber’s name still appearing on a few pages on the site. If this was a long-brewing, considered and amicable separation, I’ll bet Dan would have had time to get the site in order and basically list The Talk Show as an archive.

Then there’s the fact that Dan released a new 5by5 iPhone app for broadcasting live and archived shows from the network. Listed in the App Store as a “Benjamin Productions” product, it sells for $2.99. I wondered, when I saw, why it wasn’t released under the 5by5 name. I’m sure there’s a good explanation for that, but suffice it to say, even though he’s on nearly every show on the network, Dan usually doesn’t take public ownership of most of the site’s output. Perhaps that didn’t sit well with everyone.

Now I’m wondering whether or not that app, which is the 32nd most popular paid entertainment app in the App Store as I write this, and the monies collected from the sale of it had anything to do with the split. The network has a solid business model: they sell ad time on all of their shows. The app now becomes a separate revenue stream. I don’t really have an opinion either way on whether or not the app should be paid or free, but it’s very interesting that, moments after linking to his revamped Talk Show, Gruber posted a link on his site to Mule Radio’s iPhone app, which is free. From Mule’s description of the app on their Web site, emphasis theirs:

Our friends at Black Pixel have built the finest, FREEST podcast app around. Your favorite Mule Radio shows, 100% free.

The app launched yesterday.

My best guess is that there was either something related to the money the network was generating and/or the credit Gruber was or wasn’t getting for boosting the network to its current prominence. 5by5 probably wouldn’t be what it is without Gruber’s significant influence, but that cuts both ways.

The Talk Show always had two hosts. Dan Benjamin helped keep the show on track when Gruber would wander off and riff. This new show lacks that structure and is instantly less enjoyable to listen to. I’ll certainly give the new Talk Show a chance, but Dan will be sorely missed. The show didn’t really hinge on either of them; they made a perfect team.

I hope we’ll get an actual explanation soon, but for now the show’s fan-base seems confused and put off. The initial reaction seems to be “Good riddance, John. Let’s see how you do in the wilderness.” Maybe Dan Benjamin actually built a network of fans even more loyal than those who visit Daring Fireball daily. Maybe the assertion that there would be no 5by5 without Gruber is incorrect.

Best of luck to them both.

UPDATED May 18, 2012, 5:53 PM EDT: Hacker News has a great thread going on why this split happened so suddenly. User dimensionmedia points out the following tweet from Mule Radio Syndicate:

So no bad blood, at least not between Mule and 5by5.

There’s also some speculation that the show’s t-shirts may have something to do with this. It sounds silly to actually write that sentence, but these shirts were a hot commodity in anticipation of Apple’s Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC). To add a bit of conspiracy theory to this, Gruber announced a run of Daring Fireball t-shirts today.

A number of people have pointed out the awkward sign-off from that May 2nd episode. William Savona posted the clip on Twitter:

Hacker News user bjplink transcribed it:

Benjamin: We’ll be back regular time next week, right?
Gruber: I guess so.
Benjamin: Ok. Thanks John.
Gruber: Adios.

UPDATED May 18, 2012, 10:41 PM EDT: Hacker News user lukeman dug into the Mule Radio app and found this:

So Mule now has The Talk Show and its new iOS app is really a reskinned 5by5 app that never was released (check inside the app bundle and you’ll see the class prefix is FBF and the 5by5 logo is even in there—presumably unused).

Daniel Pasco, the CEO of Black Pixel who makes the app, took to Hacker News to clear up confusion:

The application and the source code in question belongs to Black Pixel. We designed and developed the application in-house, at our own expense, and were going to license the binary for free, non-exclusive use on the 5by5 network, but that deal didn’t work out.

Quite some time later, we got to know the folks at Mule Radio, and felt like there might be a good opportunity for our work to see the light of day. So we discussed things with them and licensed the binaries to them for use on their show.

An honest mistake, but one worth noting.

Gruber also interviewed Pasco back in June 2011 when Black Pixel acquired NetNewsWire.

Updated May 19, 2012, 8:01 AM EDT: While there are still no definitive details on what happened with the split, John Gruber, his Wife Amy Jane Gruber and Mike Monteiro took to Twitter last night and basically spelled out that there was nothing amicable about this. A reader also pointed out to me that, before any of this news, Dan Benjamin tweeted to following to a listener asking why there hadn’t been a show in awhile:

A few hours later, Amy Jane Gruber, who tweets a few times a month, started talking about the split:

And finally:

Lonelysandwich is Adam Lisagor, known for his unique Internet advertisements. He is also an Executive Producer of Put This On and a co-host of You Look Nice Today, a weekly conversation podcast he records with Merlin Mann and Scott Simpson. I suppose we could assume she is quoting John, but then that would imply she had a problem with Dan Benjamin. Updated May 20, 2012, 5:32 PM EDT: Commenter HarveyMunchkin points out that this interpretation of this tweet is probably backwards. See below.

Late last night, John responded in his own oblique way with a single tweet related to the split.

The loudest voice on Twitter was Mike Monteiro, who started Mule Radio Syndicate:

He also retweeted a few choice tweets:

There is still no full story as to why the split happened and, other than his single tweet, Dan is yet to acknowledge it. These tweets pretty much confirm this wasn’t a clean, amicable break, which makes you wonder who’s running Mule Radio’s Twitter account.

Updated May 20, 2012, 5:32 PM EDT:

This is the last update I plan to make to this post, but if anything new comes up you can be sure I’ll write a new post about it.

Gruber linked to Paul Ford’s post from January, 2011, “The Web Is a Customer Service Medium” last night, the crux of which is, “‘Why wasn’t I consulted,’ which I abbreviate as WWIC, is the fundamental question of the web.” His chosen excerpt includes “the way that digital groupies claim ownership of their heroes online,” perhaps chiding those who feel blighted by his (or, in fairness, Dan Benjamin’s) actions.

But he also leaves this part out:

The web is not, despite the desires of so many, a publishing medium. The web is a customer service medium. “Intense moderation” in a customer service medium is what “editing” was for publishing.

So, is this story the fault of the “digital groupies” for taking ownership of their heroes, or the fault of the publisher for not mitigating this customer service blip properly?

I wrote my own piece on why this is a story, which I just posted.

Also, I enjoyed this post by Joshua Altmanshofer. It’s a nice, personal reaction to this whole story.

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