I’m a big fan of the podcast Reply All, a story-based show about the internet, hosted by Alex Goldman and PJ Vogt. I was reading a review of their appearance on a podcast live show called Cast Party that occurred on July 28th (fantastic) which got me thinking about how the hosts’ shows have changed in the past two years and made me wonder (curiously and excitedly) where they’re headed.
The pair of hosts started a similarly-internety podcast called TL;DR in 2013 in association with On The Media. That show was shorter (as the name, an internet abbreviation for “Too Long; Didn’t Read”, would imply) and more tightly focused on stories entirely created online. Stories ranged from the US Army’s robot recruiter to a musician who creates literally thousands of songs on Spotify to the man who became the unlikely poster boy for a hipster meme.
The two left the On The Media crew to join Gimlet, where they started Reply All. The show has been longer, stories have had more depth and layers, and they’ve had less adherence to being entirely on the internet. Two notable episodes include one where the origin of a 2000s internet meme is revealed to have poignant meaning and a two-parter where the internet causes a man to lose his faith and be ostracized from his community.
Sometimes the internet link is pretty light, and not even necessarily integral to the story. Their Cast Party piece was an interview with an actress who has performed the same play for years, a play that has a 1.5-star rating on Yelp. That was the primary connection to the “show about the internet” slogan until the hosts mirrored the sentiments the actress shared about why they create the online podcast itself.
Reply All also has little extra recurring segments. “Yes, Yes, No” lets Gimlet head Alex Blumberg ask hosts about some weird thing he sees online, to much amusement. A new segment revealed in episode 33 is “Super Tech Support”, where Goldman relives his IT days and helps Vogt with his tech issue. These are lighter, more fun pieces that let the Gimlet folks be more of themselves and less of narrators through another story.
What I’m sensing, though, is a growing distance between more recent Reply All stories, and the old TL;DR ones and current bonus/mini-segments. The former are more extensive, narrative stories, sometimes loosely tied to the online world. The previous podcast was more entrenched in internet culture and history, exploring sometimes smaller stories but immersed in that medium. The bonus segments are more casual, funny, and still strongly tied to the online world.
Vogt seems to acknowledge this gap during the transition of episode 33 (linked above). The first story involves a reporter talking with ISIS members on Twitter and lamenting the need to watch beheading videos. The second section involves Vogt asking how to unsubscribe from a cleaning service. Is it any different from the sometimes-stark transitions between This American Life acts? Maybe not. Other podcasts and shows manage to tackle serious topics one week and silly ones the next, or even do so in back-to-back segments. It could very well be that any concerns are idle hand-wringing.
Still, I find it worth addressing the changes Goldman and Vogt (and everyone behind them) have undergone in their storytelling since 2013. I’ve been describing the shows’ themes and focus with minimal personal opinion, but I am very much along for the ride wherever Reply All takes us. I love the different sides of their work for different reasons.
A huge part of my upbringing was in online culture and communities, so revisiting old online spaces, norms, figures, and trends solidifies and validates a kind of ephemeral digital history I was involved with. Stories taking place in the modern day tech world reveal surprising humanity and corners often overlooked in our filter bubbles.
Meanwhile, using the internet as a springboard to explore amazing stories that move far beyond the screen are absolutely worthwhile and meaningful to pursue. What is the meaning of technology if not to interface with humanity in important ways? It’s exciting that the hosts have an expanded scope of what they can cover!
What I remain curious about is whether such a broad spectrum of different types of stories can fit all under the same podcast. Should the focus permanently move away from the smaller TL;DR stories? Can a show about the internet be just that if it only springboards from Yelp or a random YouTube video? And do the mini-segments fit in? I’m curious what others think about this!
I appreciate that Goldman and Vogt treat their subject matter with respect and poignancy it is not often afforded. Not only does internet culture matter on-screen, but it also significantly affects people outside of it. I look forward to seeing how many moving, insightful experiences can be captured under this wide umbrella, with some personal touches and banter for a little more fun.