In an early episode of the podcast The Vampire Squid, host Alan Li thanks his listeners and then makes a crack about seeing if he can give Malcolm Gladwell a run for his money. Mr. Gladwell's podcast, Revisionist History, is one of the most listened to in the United States and Canada.
The Vampire Squid, which went live in late June, has tapped into a vein that evidently needed poking. For a brief period, it was the most popular business podcast on iTunes in the United States, and in the top 15 over all, according to iTunesCharts.net. (It has since dropped out of the top 100.)
On the surface, it's hard to explain the appeal of The Vampire Squid. Mr. Li, a former junior banker at bulge-bracket investment bank Goldman Sachs Group Inc., has a monotonous, plodding delivery. The subject matter – demystifying the inner workings of finance and investment banking – is superniche. The sound quality of the podcast is mediocre at times, and the mise-en-scène is about as bare bones as you can get: Dude in a room talking into a microphone.
"I literally have maybe four pieces of equipment," Mr. Li, 24, explains in a telephone interview from a bustling New York coffee shop.
"I have my laptop, a pair of Bose headphones, a Yeti microphone and a pop filter."
Despite its stripped-down nature, The Vampire Squid and Mr. Li himself are oddly compelling. Even though he didn't grow up on the West Coast, Mr. Li speaks with a vague "surfer dude" twang, adding a measure of California cool and laid-backness to the tone. The intro theme music has a groovy Austin Powers-esque flavour to it. The host also speaks with the confidence and authority of a lifelong banker, despite only spending two years as an analyst, the lowest rung on the ladder.
Mr. Li says one of the big reasons he started the podcast is he realized that even in this information age, there is a dearth of quality insider intelligence on what it's truly like to work in finance.
"I had no idea what investment banking was until midway through freshman year," the Berkeley-educated Mr. Li says. "Giving exposure to students a little more early on is very valuable."
Tellingly, he says, one of the demographics that has reached out to him since the podcast debuted has been high school students.
Mr. Li "opens the kimono" – one of the phrases he explains in an episode – on his previous life as a junior technology banker in Goldman's San Francisco office. The good and the bad. His recounting of a typical day (or days) when a deal is "live" is gripping and horrifying at the same time. He maps out scenarios that junior bankers might find themselves in, and offers advice on how to handle delicate situations. Let's say you have a dinner arranged with your significant other and your VP drops an assignment on your desk at 8 p.m. on a Friday that's due later that night. What do you do?
In an episode explaining how initial public offerings work, Mr. Li ventures beyond the obvious explainer one might find on Investopedia. Ever wonder why a client picks a particular investment bank over another? What's the dress code for a technology banker in San Francisco versus an energy banker in New York? And what in the world are data room providers, and what's the deal with them buying bankers bottles of Grey Goose and Beyoncé tickets?
The name of the podcast is a reference to Rolling Stone writer Matt Taibbi's famous likening of Goldman Sachs to a vampire squid, "relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money." Wall Street and Bay Street are known for drawing in the alpha, superaggressive, competitive type.
But as Mr. Li points outs in an early episode, the vampire squid doesn't actually suck blood. The undercurrent of the podcast is that bankers aren't as predatory as they may seem. What Mr. Li does best is humanize the profession. He describes the camaraderie of the job, and the lifelong friendships he forged at 4 a.m. with other junior bankers while pulling all-nighters.
Mr. Li is currently producing in the region of three episodes of The Vampire Squid a week. Soon that will drop to around one a week, he says, when he starts a new private equity job in New York. In step with his career change, he plans to increasingly shift the podcast's focus beyond investment banking.
"As I continue to learn more about finance, I can hopefully pass that on to my listeners," he says.