(Photos: Jo Corona)

Back in 2014, Uluç Ülgen fled romantic disillusion in the East Village and made a trip to his birth country of Turkey. There, the shy Istanbul native encountered strangers who gave him a hand—with food, transportation and emotional support—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 more than 500 guests, and uploaded 289 episodes. In the beginning, Ülgen picked strangers off the street, or they came knocking at his door after seeing one of his flyers calling for guests. His first was his roommate; his second was Meshack, a man who at the time was homeless. Eventually, others started to stream in: adventurous, curious eccentrics, people wishing for their voices to be heard and, inevitably, the occasional person with a clear-cut agenda. The New York Post and other news sites caught wind of the quirky endeavor and wrote about the man with the prematurely silver hair who wouldn’t turn anyone away, even if they came drunk, on drugs or in near-broken emotional states.

What started as a hobby and social experiment spurred by Ülgen’s desire for meaningful connection has evolved into a full-time passion––and gig. Three months ago, the 30-year-old quit his day job as a bartender and server; now he charges $275 for the experience of visiting his narrow two-bedroom walk-up in the East Village for an hour and a half of recorded conversation that ends with a traditional Turkish fortune reading. Ülgen promotes it as a podcast, but he also believes the term waters down the essence of what he has been tinkering with for five years now, which he describes as “part performance art, part social documentary, part mystical, and part comedy.”

With a 4.98 rating on Airbnb—where he promotes the podcast as one of the site’s “experiences”—the model has proven to be successful. So successful, in fact, that in the few days between the time Bedford + Bowery met Ülgen and the time of this article’s publication, the price tag jumped from $145 to $275. That’s more than the cost of some shrinks. And yet, right after he changed the rate, two new bookings came in– “one from Minnesota and the other from Guatemala,” he said.

Ülgen came up with the idea for the Airbnb Experience after posting on phone poles and walls became unsustainable; Ülgen’s flyers eventually tipped his landlords off and made them uncomfortable with the idea of a revolving door of strangers from all walks of life wandering into the building. After having to leave two apartments, Ülgen asked a relative to sign the lease for his current East Village apartment, the location of which he keeps hidden. 

The podcast interview’s original cost was one dollar, because Airbnb forces hosts to price the experiences in order to post them. One buck became five, then 10, then 50, 70. “People just kept coming in,” Ülgen said. “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 people listen to his podcast, only that it’s a “surprisingly a small number.” 

So why are people doing this?

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

The feedback from reviewers is overwhelmingly positive. They rave about the uniqueness of the experience, about Ülgen’s warmth and talent for listening and tuning in to the guest’s energy, and about how much fun 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 guest in December of 2018. “From the deeply philosophical to the silly, we covered all of it.” 

Ülgen claims that charging for the conversation 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 said.

Under the usual subscription model, listeners pay because they believe in their local public radio station or because they like the content they’re getting through their streaming apps. Or venture capitalists and media corporations buy podcast startups that are bringing in advertising dollars, as was the case when Spotify acquired Gimlet Media for $230 million earlier this year. But with mürmur’s unique business model, it’s the guests themselves who are funding the podcast.

Ülgen doesn’t consider himself a journalist, and it irks him when people refer to the mürmur conversations as interviews (even so, on Airbnb the experience is featured as “The World Famous Podcast Interview.”) He doesn’t think of what he does as branded content. In fact, he wasn’t even familiar with the term. In a follow-up email exchange, he specified that he thought of himself as an artist who had worked to “create a unique conversation style that’s intended to bring out the subconscious of my guests.” In fact, 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 said.

At another point, he compared his podcast to a counseling session, an Eckhart Tolle seminar, or a private exercise 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 said. 

When B+B first brought forth the issue of payment, Ülger’s initial reaction was that the news would probably upset people– “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 although he now lives off of the mürmur episodes and other experiences or services he offers (like reading guests’ fortunes from Turkish coffee grounds or a “safari tour” where Ülgen takes guests to the sites of famous movie scenes, as well as to frequent celebrity-sighting spots), he still wanted to be loyal to the original spirit of the project and hence looked to “give back to the community.” Every few weeks he will schedule group complimentary coffee readings. The next one is slated to take place July 30 in the 6BC Garden.

According to Ülgen, the paid coffee readings now amount to more than three quarters of his income. I first heard of him through a Spanish friend who booked him for one of the fortune readings, which are not broadcast. During a trip to New York City, she had scrolled through more than a hundred Airbnb experiences before selecting the kahve therapy session. She told B+B that she had booked the experience not because she believed in the fortune-telling aspect, but because she was astounded by Ülgen’s ability to reinvent himself and because she wanted “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 apartment with four complete strangers: two women 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 with his mother from Istanbul to Rochester, Minnesota. The change was drastic and Ülgen struggled to learn English and acclimate to the new surroundings. He remembers how as a teenager he would lock himself up in the bathroom and cry all day, thinking, “I’m never, ever going to learn how to speak this language.” His crippling shyness and social anxiety followed him into his adult years. After high school, he enrolled in university but dropped out during his third year. “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 decided to monetize the podcast in April of last year. A few months later, he added the Turkish coffee reading experience to the mix, inspired by yet another trip to Turkey in which his father—who died unexpectedly soon after—read his fortune from some remaining coffee grounds.

Earlier this month, I went on a complimentary kahvë (meaning “coffee,” with an umlaut added by Ülgen) reading session, joining a couple from Singapore—Jackson and Ella—who were traveling while on vacation. My Spanish friend wasn’t wrong: Ülgen is a great conversationalist. He switched topics with ease, jumping from an explanation of the origins of the Turkish coffee tradition to his soul-searching journey from six years ago in what seemed like a single breath. 

I’m not much of an esoteric person, and journalists are trained to stick to the facts. So, here are the facts: Ülgen told me I was like a caterpillar in a sort of cocoon, undergoing a very profound and solitary transformation. A glob of coffee grounds reminded him of a black grizzly bear. A formidable challenge was in store for me, but I would emerge victorious and ready to become a butterfly. He then pointed at what seemed like the caterpillar’s speed trail and said that I had recently had to walk away from someone to be on my own– “a much, much needed thing.” He was right. 

As he interpreted Jackson’s coffee grounds, Ülgen suddenly stopped mid-sentence. “Oh, wow,” he said. He saw many fish leaping up on a table, meaning sudden and large bursts of financial success. But there was something else. “Are you pregnant, Ella?” he asked Jackson’s partner. The couple looked at each other and shook their heads “no.” Well, Jackson’s coffee grounds harbored the promise of a baby “of some sorts,” Ülgen said. Maybe it was work-related, he ventured. 

A few days after the reading, I got 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, both from kahvë readings and mürmur guests. He isn’t afraid to wear his emotions on his sleeve, and his guests respond to that. Their conversations with him are candid, but also sometimes uncomfortable, brash or even lewd, as you can see from this 30-minute compilation of mürmur sessions.

In the end, the soundest reflection came from my doorman, Bob. “People pay for a product they can get for free all the time,” he said one night, unfazed by the story of Ülgen charging his guests 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.”