L.Reply All’s reputation was at an all-time high in the summer. The long-standing internet podcast recently released an episode about a man who had a ’90s pop song on his mind – a piece of music that apparently no one on earth could remember. The presenters of the show, PJ Vogt and Alex Goldman, researched courageously, left no stone unturned and brought in some music heavyweights to help. Skilfully paced and impossible to question, it combined a tempting imagination with an incredible payout. The Missing Hit Case has been dubbed by critics as one of the greatest podcast episodes of all time.
Just months later, Reply All hit the headlines for all the wrong reasons. In early 2021, she started a spin-off miniseries called The Test Kitchen, which focused on the food magazine Bon Appétit’s supposedly toxic and racist workplace culture. However, after only two episodes were released, a former colleague accused the team behind The Test Kitchen of distributing a similar environment at Gimlet Media, the company that makes Reply All.
Vogt and Sruthi Pinnamaneni, a Reply-All producer and host of The Test Kitchen, were singled out for allegedly actively opposing attempts to diversify and unionize within the company. The couple were on leave from Gimlet (and subsequently left Reply All), The Test Kitchen was scrapped, and Reply All’s production was paused.
Until now. This week, the podcast returns for the time being after a brief, awkward explainer posted in April. Presented by Emmanuel Dzotsi – who became the show’s third host in October 2020 and will now host with Goldman on a permanent basis – this episode outlined the fall of the podcast into disgrace and posed existential questions about its future. The tone was tortured and uncertain. “We don’t know if it’ll work,” Dzotsi said of the show’s restart. He is not alone with this feeling.
Reply All isn’t the first podcast to try to recreate its reputation after a media storm, but it’s one of the most famous. It was unlikely, however, that Spotify-owned Gimlet would give up the show without a fight: a popular podcast brand is a huge commodity these days. But maintaining that value means establishing the source of Reply All’s success. Is it his unparalleled commitment to internet ephemera? Distinctive storytelling? Or maybe the real, longstanding friendship at the core of the show?
Gimlet will hope it won’t be the last. Vogt and Goldman started the podcast as friends in 2014 after meeting early on their radio careers (in the April episode, Goldman sadly revealed that he has never had a job in the industry that his former co-host was not involved in ). There’s no denying that Reply All’s appeal lay in the relationship between its moderators: the familiarity and camaraderie made their journalism look refreshingly personal.
If that momentum is broken, it can spoil a podcast almost instantly. In September, Poppy Hillstead – so far a third of the presenting cast on the comedy series Gossipmongers – claimed on Twitter that she had been ousted by fellow hosts David Earl and Joe Wilkinson. After three series, Hillstead said she was told she “lacked the required experience” and was fired by two men she considered her friends.
Hillstead had the last laugh, however: their new podcast, Poppy Hillstead Has Entered the Chat, was nominated for Best Comedy Podcast at the British Podcast Awards this month. Wilkinson and Earl, meanwhile, never brought up the controversy; The Gossipmongers iTunes page has been plagued by negative reviews lamenting Hillstead’s sudden departure.
That last laugh … Poppy Hillstead.
Vogt’s exit from Reply All could similarly detract from the show’s appeal. Not only has the central friendship been lost, but the allegations against him also undermine the nerdy but nice atmosphere of the show. Likewise, with Goldman and Dzotsi at the helm, it could thrive: it is possible to develop a relationship while creating podcasts (see the brilliant, myth-shattering You’re Wrong About podcast, the hosts of which met in person five months after the show was televised met). Dzotsi’s previous work on the podcast probably means he and Goldman are already closer – but the on-air chemistry that Reply All was built on is by no means a given.
The Test Kitchen saga highlighted another problem facing a wave of super-successful podcasts: that the unfiltered intimacy of many trades is conveyed through giant corporations (Spotify paid $ 230 million for Gimlet in 2019). Calling attention to the money and corporate greed involved can alienate fans. One show that suffered from a breakdown in friendship and the public airing of a contract dispute was Call Her Daddy, a sex and lifestyle podcast hosted by Sofia Franklyn and Alexandra Cooper. Call Her Daddy was bought by digital media company Barstool Sports in 2018 and was the fifth most popular podcast on Spotify in 2020 – until it ended abruptly in the spring with no explanation.
It was later revealed that the couple’s death was due to the rejection of a $ 500,000 salary offer plus bonuses, leading to Barstool’s boss David Portnoy calling the women “unprofessional, disloyal, and greedy.” Eventually Cooper settled down and Franklyn left amid a disagreement between the two; Call Her Daddy continued to present the former alone, while the latter launched its own podcast.
On social media, listeners expressed their dismay at the amount of possible paychecks from the supposedly every woman hostess; former fans later expressed their dissatisfaction with the couple’s individual businesses in online reviews. Both failed to restore their joint venture’s popularity, although Call Her Daddy is still relatively high on the podcast charts, proving the value of an existing brand.
Although Reply All’s accounting focused on the behavior of certain colleagues, it became clear that some employees at Gimlet felt disempowered and exploited. Podcasts, including Reply All, act with a companionable reliability that can curdle company inconveniences. Whether or not Reply All’s reputation is overshadowed by such complaints depends on the quality of the Goldman and Dzotsi version – if it’s full of high-profile threads like The Case of the Missing Hit, listeners may miss the association.
A good story is a precious commodity in the podcasting world. But they must be able to validly tell great, untold stories. In recent years, numerous podcasts have been accused of plagiarism and unreliability for Isis activities in Syria, including murder. When the authenticity of its claims was questioned, the Caliphate returned its Peabody Prize, while the New York Times admitted that some episodes did not meet their standards of accuracy.
While Reply All’s coverage has not been questioned – Goldman has stated that their investigations will be externally verified to ensure they are watertight – the alleged hypocrisy that belied the test kitchen’s story undermined the show in more subtle ways. Exposing the truth – especially on an issue like racism in the workplace – requires a flawless reputation. Nothing invalidates an exposé like the detective involved in a similar scandal.
Reply All became a hit because it had so many of the best qualities in podcasting: warm, personable hosts with a real connection who went on a journey of discovery with conscientious reporting. His recovery will depend on how well Goldman and Dzotsi are able to recreate that DIY charm in a world where big podcasts mean business. Can it come back from the abyss? If not, his days might be numbered.
Reply All returns on June 10th