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This Podcaster Is Charging His Guests $275 Per Session, and They Seem to Love It

(Photographs: Jo Corona)

Back in 2014, Uluç Ülgen fled romantic disillusion within the East Village and made a visit to his delivery country of Turkey. There, the shy Istanbul native encountered strangers who gave him a hand—with food, transportation and emotional help—without asking for anything in return. He returned to New York City and created the mürmur podcast, an “homage to the strangers who saved his life.”

Since then, he has hosted greater than 500 friends, and uploaded 289 episodes. At first, Ülgen picked strangers off the road, or they got here knocking at his door after seeing one among his flyers calling for friends. His first was his roommate; his second was Meshack, a person who on the time was homeless. Ultimately, others began to stream in: adventurous, curious eccentrics, individuals wishing for their voices to be heard and, inevitably, the occasional individual with a clear-cut agenda. The New York Publish and other information websites caught wind of the quirky endeavor and wrote concerning the man with the prematurely silver hair who wouldn’t turn anybody away, even when they came drunk, on medicine or in near-broken emotional states.

What began as a pastime and social experiment spurred by Ülgen’s want for significant connection has advanced into a full-time passion––and gig. Three months ago, the 30-year-old give up his day job as a bartender and server; now he expenses $275 for the experience of visiting his slender two-bedroom walk-up within the East Village for an hour and a half of recorded conversation that ends with a standard Turkish fortune reading. Ülgen promotes it as a podcast, but he additionally believes the term waters down the essence of what he has been tinkering with for 5 years now, which he describes as “part performance art, part social documentary, part mystical, and part comedy.”

With a 4.98 score on Airbnb—the place he promotes the podcast as one of the website’s “experiences”—the mannequin has confirmed to achieve success. So profitable, in truth, that in the few days between the time Bedford + Bowery met Ülgen and the time of this text’s publication, the worth tag jumped from $145 to $275. That’s more than the price of some shrinks. And yet, right after he changed the rate, two new bookings got here in– “one from Minnesota and the other from Guatemala,” he stated.

Ülgen got here up with the thought for the Airbnb Experience after posting on telephone poles and partitions turned unsustainable; Ülgen’s flyers ultimately tipped his landlords off and made them uncomfortable with the thought of a revolving door of strangers from all walks of life wandering into the constructing. After having to depart two flats, Ülgen asked a relative to signal the lease for his present East Village house, the situation of which he retains hidden.

The podcast interview’s unique value was one greenback, as a result of Airbnb forces hosts to worth the experiences so as to publish them. One buck turned 5, then 10, then 50, 70. “People just kept coming in,” Ülgen stated. “I got so backed up that I had to increase the price to something ridiculous to kind of ward people off from booking it. But even at this price, people are still booking, though not as regularly, admittedly.”

Ülgen wouldn’t reveal exactly how many individuals pay attention to his podcast, only that it’s a “surprisingly a small number.”

So why are individuals doing this?

“When people see the Airbnb experience, they go, Oh, I can be the star of my own show,” Ülgen explained.

The suggestions from reviewers is overwhelmingly constructive. They rave concerning the uniqueness of the expertise, about Ülgen’s heat and expertise for listening and tuning in to the visitor’s power, and about how a lot enjoyable the studio session is. “Hard to imagine how you can shoot the breeze with a stranger for over an hour but the whole experience was excellent,” wrote a former visitor in December of 2018. “From the deeply philosophical to the silly, we covered all of it.”

Ülgen claims that charging for the dialog doesn’t dampen its authenticity. “I really try to focus, to make the moment about us. I don’t think mürmur  is about me. It’s not about the guest, it’s about our collective synergy. And the conversation is entirely based on that in-the-moment synergy and nothing else. And usually it pertains to life stuff: successes, victories, losses, things that make us laugh,” Ülgen stated.

Underneath the standard subscription model, listeners pay because they consider of their native public radio station or because they like the content material they’re getting via their streaming apps. Or enterprise capitalists and media firms purchase podcast startups which are bringing in advertising dollars, as was the case when Spotify acquired Gimlet Media for $230 million earlier this yr. However with mürmur’s unique enterprise mannequin, it’s the visitors themselves who’re funding the podcast.

Ülgen doesn’t contemplate himself a journalist, and it irks him when individuals refer to the mürmur conversations as interviews (even so, on Airbnb the experience is featured as “The World Famous Podcast Interview.”) He doesn’t consider what he does as branded content material. In truth, he wasn’t even accustomed to the time period. In a follow-up e-mail change, he specified that he considered himself as an artist who had labored to “create a unique conversation style that’s intended to bring out the subconscious of my guests.” In truth, he promised he had “created an entire series of techniques to achieve this outcome.”

“Where mürmur is now, I don’t see it much different than a fine-dining restaurant experience like that of going to Eleven Madison Park or Nobu– both restaurants that I’ve worked for in the past. From start to finish, I am providing a well-curated experience that my guests will remember for the rest of their lives,” he stated.

At another level, he compared his podcast to a counseling session, an Eckhart Tolle seminar, or a personal train class. “These are all services that can help people at different stages in their lives. And as long as we still take it upon ourselves to give back to the community, as I do with my complimentary coffee readings, then I think we are contributing positively to society,” he stated.

When B+B first introduced forth the difficulty of cost, Ülger’s initial reaction was that the information would in all probability upset individuals– “Maybe because I’m making money from doing my podcast but using a method that is not commonly used, which is to, you know, have the guests fund the project.” He continued: “I can just imagine people saying, ‘Who does this guy think he is, charging his guests for money?’ But I know for a fact that I’m doing this project because I know it’s sincere and that if it wasn’t, then I wouldn’t be doing it.”

Ülgen did emphasize that though he now lives off of the mürmur episodes and other experiences or providers he presents (like studying friends’ fortunes from Turkish espresso grounds or a “safari tour” the place Ülgen takes friends to the websites of well-known movie scenes, as well as to frequent celebrity-sighting spots), he still needed to be loyal to the original spirit of the undertaking and therefore appeared to “give back to the community.” Every few weeks he’ll schedule group complimentary coffee readings. The subsequent one is slated to take place July 30 within the 6BC Backyard.

In accordance to Ülgen, the paid coffee readings now quantity to more than three quarters of his revenue. I first heard of him via a Spanish pal who booked him for one of many fortune readings, which aren’t broadcast. During a visit to New York Metropolis, she had scrolled by means of more than a hundred Airbnb experiences before choosing the kahve remedy session. She informed B+B that she had booked the experience not because she believed within the fortune-telling facet, however because she was astounded by Ülgen’s capacity to reinvent himself and as a result of she needed “to witness the life of somebody who makes money and lives in one of the best neighborhoods of New York all because of a talent passed down from a Turkish grandmother.”

She posted a photo of Ülgen huddled in his approximately 485-square-foot condominium with 4 full strangers: two ladies from Delaware, a kid “of staggering shyness” from the Bronx, and herself. “I don’t imagine there are many Turks in New York who had their grandmother read the fortune to them, as happened to Uluç when he was young,” she wrote.

When Ülgen was nine, he moved together with his mom from Istanbul to Rochester, Minnesota. The change was drastic and Ülgen struggled to study English and acclimate to the brand new surroundings. He remembers how as an adolescent he would lock himself up in the rest room and cry all day, considering, “I’m never, ever going to learn how to speak this language.” His crippling shyness and social nervousness followed him into his adult years. After high school, he enrolled in college but dropped out throughout his third yr. “When I first started the show, I couldn’t even make eye contact with people,” he remembered, “I was self-conscious about my life, or the chip on my front tooth. I would cover my mouth, look away and talk a hundred miles per hour.”

He determined to monetize the podcast in April of final yr. A couple of months later, he added the Turkish coffee studying expertise to the combination, inspired by yet one more journey to Turkey by which his father—who died unexpectedly quickly after—read his fortune from some remaining coffee grounds.

Earlier this month, I went on a complimentary kahvë (which means “coffee,” with an umlaut added by Ülgen) reading session, joining a pair from Singapore—Jackson and Ella—who have been traveling whereas on vacation. My Spanish pal wasn’t incorrect: Ülgen is a superb conversationalist. He switched subjects with ease, leaping from an evidence of the origins of the Turkish espresso tradition to his soul-searching journey from six years in the past in what seemed like a single breath.

I’m not a lot of an esoteric individual, and journalists are educated to stick to the details. So, listed here are the information: Ülgen informed me I used to be like a caterpillar in a kind of cocoon, undergoing a very profound and solitary transformation. A glob of coffee grounds reminded him of a black grizzly bear. A formidable problem was in store for me, but I might emerge victorious and ready to develop into a butterfly. He then pointed at what appeared like the caterpillar’s velocity trail and stated that I had just lately had to stroll away from someone to be alone– “a much, much needed thing.” He was right.

As he interpreted Jackson’s coffee grounds, Ülgen instantly stopped mid-sentence. “Oh, wow,” he stated. He saw many fish leaping up on a table, which means sudden and giant bursts of monetary success. But there was one thing else. “Are you pregnant, Ella?” he requested Jackson’s associate. The couple looked at one another and shook their heads “no.” Properly, Jackson’s espresso grounds harbored the promise of a child “of some sorts,” Ülgen stated. Perhaps it was work-related, he ventured.

A number of days after the studying, I received a text message from Ülgen. It was a screenshot of a message relayed from Jackson: “My wife is indeed pregnant, we checked later that night. It is uncanny! :)”

Ülgen is used to getting messages like the one above, each from kahvë readings and mürmur visitors. He isn’t afraid to put on his feelings on his sleeve, and his visitors respond to that. Their conversations with him are candid, but in addition typically uncomfortable, brash and even lewd, as you possibly can see from this 30-minute compilation of mürmur periods.

In the long run, the soundest reflection got here from my doorman, Bob. “People pay for a product they can get for free all the time,” he stated one night time, unfazed by the story of Ülgen charging his visitors to be on the air. “For example, why you buying bottled water when the tap water is just as good or better than the bottled water? It’s just the marketing. He sounds like a smart man to me.”