I had to get a new phone recently. Actually, I just needed the phone I had to be fixed, since it was only about a month old but was acting as if some sad soul that enjoyed pranking me had taken up residence and for fun took over the screen at random times. Point being, after a forty-five-minute wait on a wooden stool a store associate came over and we started working through the issue.
Half an hour later, when he decided that he should just give me a new phone because I was moving and that is enough stress without a haunted phone, we hugged a fond farewell knowing more about each other than I know about most of my relatives.
Technology is cool and it makes lots of things easier or more fun, but tech is at its best when it is all about people: invented by them, used by them, fixed by them. Reply All, a technology podcast by name, believes that
all the interesting stories on the internet are not about technology, they’re about people.
I got that quote from an interview with Alex Goldman – who cohosts Reply All alongside PJ Vogt – and I have to agree with him. That agreement means that telling the story of Reply All wouldn’t be worth nearly as much without the story of Goldman and his team, because everything starts with people. Usually people failing.
Alex Goldman and PJ Vogt had known each other for a while before starting Reply All.
PJ and I worked at WNYC in New York City. We worked for a show called On The Media which was like a media-analysis show, and WNYC announced a contest competition.
The radio station wanted to start a new show and would allow any of the producers to pitch their idea. The winner would be paid to produce the show and given the time and resources they would need to see the dream come alive. Goldman and Vogt got right on it.
PJ and I put together a pitch that is dramatically different from the show we do now. It was a daily digest of things that were going on on the internet… it was going to be a quick-production, quick-turn-around show.
Like I said, good stories tend to start with people failing.
We did not win this contest.
But the idea was interesting enough that the men’s boss came to them and offered them enough time to make the show. Of course, they wouldn’t be paid for it, but the time was a good place to start. And so Goldman and Vogt made 34 episodes over the year at WNYC of what Goldman referred to as “Reply All 1.0.”
Later, when Alex Blumberg decided to found Gimlet media he invited Goldman and Vogt to make their show there and Reply All was reborn into its current form.
Goldman and Vogt may be the official hosts of the show, but the duo have quite the team working alongside them to produce their hugely popular podcast. Damiano Marchetti (producer), Phia Bennin (senior producer), Tim Howard (executive producer), and Sruthi Pinnamaneni (senior reporter) all work alongside Goldman and Vogt (both of whom wear more hats than merely hosting the show).
For a crew that has worked with such big names in public radio as Radiolab, Freakonomics, This American Life, 99% Invisible, and Planet Money, it is no wonder that Goldman feels consistently challenged in his work.
I work with people who are so talented and so driven that they push me way harder than I want to be pushed… I get pushed harder than I’ve ever been pushed at a job before, but the reason I am proud of the show is because of the coworkers who push me harder than any job I’ve had before.
All of that pushing has more than paid off, as Reply All has several million downloads every month and continues to unearth fascinating stories that draw people in. The crew puts in a lot of work in order to produce an episode (Goldman told me about how the pushing he receives from his coworkers is necessary because of the massive amount of labor involved in putting a story together), and that effort reflects loud and clear in every episode.
Most people have an all-star team because they have a job that only all-stars can handle. I mean, if Iron Man could have beaten Thanos alone he wouldn’t have wasted his time and limited emotional energy on rounding up and working with the other guys, but then we wouldn’t have had Avengers Infinity Wars. Point being, Reply All has an amazing team for good reason.
Our process is usually pretty labor intensive. Basically we go in and pitch a story and once the pitch gets accepted, we interview people. Sometimes it can be as few as one or two, sometimes as many as fifteen to twenty.
The more people they talk to, the more twists and turns develop in the story, and the team follows those twists to produce a show without any boring moments.
The perfect story has emotional shifts that surprise us: like something funny in a moment that is serious or something devastating in a moment that seems kind of silly… surprising but also have a person at the center of it… stories that surprise us and continue to surprise us.
For the listener, following those shifts and surprises makes talking about technology relatable and interesting because everything becomes very human and real. Alex, PJ, and the Reply All team also make the more technical side of the internet and its functions easy to understand as well as making the impacts of their topics on everyday people clear, while never losing the story.
If you’re looking to hear about long-distance scam callers or internet pranksters, death-row questions or lost phones, Reply All is for a person like you.
Alex suggested the following four episodes as a starting point for new listeners to Reply All. Each episode features a different producer on the show.
Behind the Streams is a new series by Podchaser that explores popular podcasts and the brilliant minds behind them. Email Morgan ([email protected]) to tell her why your favorite show should be featured next.