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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

The hosts of Reply All never want to stop falling down internet rabbit holes

From left: PJ Vogt and Alex Goldman
From left: PJ Vogt and Alex Goldman
Graphic: Rebecca Fassola, Photo: Gimlet/Spotify
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Bestcasts asks podcasters to discuss the most memorable episodes of their podcast. For more podcast coverage, see Podmass, The A.V. Club’s weekly roundup of the best ’casts out there.

The podcasters: “A podcast about the internet.” That’s how Reply All hosts Alex Goldman and PJ Vogt billed their show when it debuted in 2014, though it only takes the length of one episode to discover that the internet is just a Trojan horse to gain entry into the large and tiny dramas of our lives. If technology was inextricable from daily human experience back in 2014, that’s only grown truer in 2020, and the series has steadily expanded both its avid following and the scope of the stories it chooses to tell. It’s hard to pinpoint what the show is about—and that’s just how the hosts intend to keep it. Now with a third host, Emmanuel Dzotsi, joining the team, Goldman and Vogt looked back at some of their favorite episodes from the show’s six-year run.

Episode 158: The Case Of The Missing Hit

The A.V. Club: How did this story come to you?

PJ Vogt: A friend of mine had just forwarded me an email from a buddy of his who had been having this problem: The friend had a song stuck in his head, couldn’t find any evidence of it on the internet, was convinced that it had been a big hit song, and was confounded by how a song like that could just disappear. My friend Chris, who forwarded it, said that it was a “courtesy forward,” convinced it was a non-story but trying to be polite.

It’s like we’re the SWAT team you call in when you’ve lost a penny. We just like to hurl lots of thought and effort into answering questions that don’t seem important. That kind of big, silly quest—it’s just fun. And if you can give the listener the feeling of contagious weirdness or wonder, it’s incredibly satisfying to pull off.

“The Case Of The Missing Hit” literally starts with this guy in his car being like, “Hey, honey, you remember this pop song? I can’t find it on Google.” If you have that question, you can choose not to answer it and move on with your life. Or you could spend months of work and make a nearly hour-long documentary about finding that song, and how something like that disappears.

One of the ways I think about the stories we work on is how many cards a story has to play. How many fun, weird things are you going to get to do with it? In this case, the fact that this guy had tried very unsuccessfully to re-create the song himself—and that there’s a recording of him singing all the instrumentals himself!—that’s just funny. That’s relatable. To me, it seemed so obvious that you’d want to re-create a better version [of the song]. I felt, for whatever reason, pretty confident that the song did exist. And because I can’t come up with a good answer for how a pop song would disappear, there has to be a story there.

AVC: The Reply All format is that you each take what you learned while reporting and bring it back to share with your co-host. How genuine is what we’re hearing in each episode? Is the story actually being presented in real time to the other host?

Alex Goldman: Yes. The advantage is that you get genuine interaction and genuine questions on the air. The disadvantage is that we have to do all of this cloak-and-dagger hiding from one another to keep information secret and dole it out in very specific ways. A lot of times, one of us will have to leave a story meeting in the middle, because there is a story that hasn’t finished yet that we need to talk about with the rest of the team, but we can’t reveal to each other. Which is really annoying!

Episode 102: Long Distance

AVC: Why did you choose this two-part episode?

AG: I received a phone call that was obviously a scam. They were saying that my computer was infected with a virus and they were Microsoft technical support. So I called them back and said, “Hey, what’s the scam?” They basically said, “We make a ton of money doing this, scamming unsuspecting Americans.”

I just started calling the number back all the time, and strangely, they were willing to talk to me. It went on long enough that I had developed something of a relationship with the guy who ran the call center, and he was trying to throw me off the scent of the call center by saying, “We closed down, but, uh, if you ever want to come to India, just let me know.” I think he was just trying to get me off his back, and I responded by saying, “Yeah, okay, I’ll come to India!”

I went to India, I met him, I spent a few days with him. It was a very uncomfortable experience because it was clear he was lying to me the whole time. I was trying to find the call center, and it was pretty tense.

AVC: This was a hefty, international production—was it harder to keep this story a secret from your co-host?

PV: This was such a sore point. “Long Distance” took a very long time to report. There were many months where there was a project that Alex was working on, the team was very excited about it, I was reporting a lot of stories to buy time for that story, and I was like, “This is very hard, because I don’t know what I’m doing this for!” To be working on something that big for that long and [to] know so little about it was driving me insane.

AG: He was kept in the dark probably two to three months.

PV: I think it was longer than that—maybe four or five. That was really hard. There have been times where we’ve thought, “Oh, the secrecy pendulum has perhaps swung too far.”

AVC: But not that time?

AG: In retrospect, it did swing too far. There were points where I could have updated him on my reporting. But there’s this feeling that you have, that there’s going to be an obvious end point to this thing where it’s satisfying enough to share it with people. Honestly, that happens less than half of the time. You just kind of have to pick a point and start talking about it. In “Long Distance,” we kept finding out more and more, talking to more people, and it wasn’t until we said, “Well, I guess we’re going to India,” that we were like, “Okay, we can talk to PJ now.” That was a turning point.

PV: The primary editor of our show is [executive producer] Tim Howard, but other people edit—Sruthi [Pinnamaneni] edits, and I edit. So imagine you’re one of the people who’s supposed to edit a website or magazine or whatever, and it’s like, “Yeah, there’s going to be a cover story, lots of resources are going to be spent on it… Can’t really tell you about it. We really want to see what you say about it.” A lot of our show is like a trust fall with each other.

AVC: How would you say your hosting has evolved over time?

PV: When I started, I was interested in something-unusual-happens-to-a-single-character types of stories. I was scared of bigger reporting stuff. But I got more comfortable trying stories where the reporting journey was weirder. Then you do some bigger ones and you can apply what you’ve learned. There are skills gained from each story that you learn to take with you.

AG: I think I’ve gotten a little looser. I’m much more willing to let a conversation get range-y, because it’s in those moments that a lot of the magic happens. The personality appears.

PV: Alex, looking at the episode “Long Distance,” the fact that a call center exists in India that targets Americans is not news. That’s a fact. But everything that makes that story wonderful is the fact that you’re the person who ends up having a 45-minute conversation with a scammer and then calls him back every day because you kinda like the guy… That’s abnormal. It’s the fact that you are doing it that makes it good. As the show’s gotten more mature, your ability to use your own personality as an instrument has developed.

AG: Thank you. Wow.

PV: Yep, no problem!

Episode 130: The Snapchat Thief

AVC: What makes this a standout episode?

AG: Lizzie got in touch with us and said that her Snapchat handle, which was “Lizard,” got taken by someone. Then when she got it back, they started sending text messages to her, essentially threatening her. I thought it was just going to be some person I wouldn’t be able to find. But when I started looking into it, I found a thriving economy of mostly teenage hackers who were trading what they call “OG usernames,” or usernames that are a single word (a noun or something with as few letters as possible). These guys are buying and selling these things for thousands of dollars, and stealing them from people in really devious ways. A lot of the story was just me fly-on-the-wall-ing a Discord channel that a group of hackers calling themselves Xanax put together. I was reading their conversations and listening to them talk to one another. It was fascinating. I actually managed to get a hacker to send Lizzie $100 in Bitcoin for her trouble, because he felt bad.

AVC: That must have been unexpected.

AG: Very unexpected! The first time I talked to him, he was being kind of an asshole. He was like, “Okay, the account was stolen and she got it back—what’s the big deal?” I tried to explain to him how unsafe it makes you feel (she did get threatened). At the time, he was just goofing around, but the next day, it seemed to have sunk in. I’ve stayed in touch with him, off and on. He’s a pretty nice kid, honestly.

AVC: This episode was the closest you have ever sounded to losing your patience with someone you’re interviewing. What does it take to talk to—for lack of a better term—teenage brats? As a podcast about the internet, you deal with some unsavory people in your reporting. Is that a challenge?

AG: Honestly, unsavory people are probably the people I find most interesting. It’s such a fool’s errand, the idea that you can drill into someone’s head, “Hey, you’re doing a bad thing that’s hurting people and you should really stop.” No one has ever made that argument compelling enough to convince people. Even the guy in “The Snapchat Thief” who gave Lizzie $100, I know for a fact that he’s still hacking and taking people’s stuff.

But the way that people slip into that kind of behavior and their ability to manipulate other people—I find that all fascinating. My patience for those people is pretty much infinite. The thing I started to lose my temper about was him asking, “Hey, can I shout-out some of my friends on your podcast?” [Laughs.] That’s the weirdest thing about these kids: Some of them do it for money, but most of them just do it for clout. They just want to be able to say, “My Twitter handle is X.” That is the end goal. “My Instagram handle is @fuck!” That is a huge deal, way bigger than the fact that they can sell [the usernames] for a couple thousand dollars. That’s so uniquely teenaged.

PJ: Sometimes we have a question that’s not about a straight-line quest—it’s more about wherever you end up getting waylaid. You lift a rock and discover a whole world. For me, the world of these teen hackers was really fun. I was [skeptical] that hackers were going to let us into their world in a way that was going to feel satisfying. It was surprising to even hear their voices, you know what I mean? That made me really happy.

AVC: You just announced a third host, Emmanuel Dzotsi. Where do you see the show going from here?

PJ: For me, a lot of the excitement is the new younger producers who have their own ideas about what type of stories they want to tell. Emmanuel recorded a three-part series on infighting among Alabama Democrats. It was great. When we started, it felt like we were trying to make some things without the resources or experience [we needed], and Tim [Howard] said the way we’re going to hold our own with these bigger shows is that we’re going to surprise people. Week to week, people are going to hear a show that doesn’t sound like the show they heard the week before. If we can do that, we’ll stay interesting, and we’ll always be ahead of people’s expectations. Our show has internalized that. And what’s really exciting is that the more new people show up, the easier it is to be surprising, because they are surprising.

AG: I just keep going out of spite for PJ. He can’t be the one with the big viral hit episode!

AVC: That’s a healthy rivalry.

AG: Someone online pointed out that the first 20 episodes of Reply All were between 15 and 22 minutes. Now, every episode rounds out at 45 minutes, up to two hours. We’ve done big episodes. It’s a symptom of our appetite getting bigger, and our ability to tackle those things getting bigger, now that we have a bigger staff. That’s the goal: In the same way as superhero sequels, where the explosions have to get bigger, that’s how I want Reply All to go.

PV: Or it’s like superhero sequels that keep happening long after you want to keep seeing them.