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BEHIND THE SCENES with PJ Vogt


Some background: Alex Goldman and PJ Vogt started TLDR a podcast about the internet, when they were working at WNYC. In late 2014 they left WNYC and joined Alex Blumberg's new podcasting company, Gimlet Media (he's the "Blumberg" referred to below.)

To me, the name Reply All generates a perfect amount of visceral internet cringe. Can you talk about the naming process post- TLDR ? What were some other contenders?

Thank you! And oh lord, it was hairy. Alex and I texted name ideas back and forth for months. We could never agree. I wanted it to be called "Handshake" and I also fought really hard for "Never Better," because there's a writer named Alex Balk who says that one of the rules of the internet is it gets worse every year, never better. A lot of the names Goldman liked felt like the titles of books to me. I remember him pushing for "The Known World" for awhile. Also "NO CARRIER" which in retrospect I like but for no memorable reason really scoffed at a lot. There was a lot of multi-directional scoffing. At one point Blumberg just said he was going to lock us all together in a room for three hours and we'd come out with a name. And he did. And we did this very complicated process of spitballing on a whiteboard and it got us nowhere in particular. And then Goldman said, "You know, my wife had this idea for a name, Reply All." And we liked it because it describes an annoying mess but it also sort of feels warm somehow. And we were very, very tired of having a name that needed a long sentence of explanation to make sense.

How did you first come across the phenomenon of Larry Shippers? And, more generally: how do you find your stories?

Back when we were TLDR , we reported this story about a programmer named Rob Dubbin who built a robot teenager who lives on the internet. It was a pretty complicated and absurd story. There was this little tangent in that piece about how a man named Keith Calder had accidentally convinced a bunch of teenagers that he was involved in a One Direction conspiracy, but it was too complicated to explain. Which we literally said in the piece, there was a line that was like - "This other thing happened, but it's too complicated and internetty for us to get into." So that was maybe a year ago? Then in the winter, my friend Kevin Nguyen just started pushing me to do the Keith Calder story as its own episode. And so we called Keith and he was a great interview and he ended up being our tour guide into this whole world of Larry Shippers, which I hadn't understood before then. We find some our stories by reading the internet all day, and we find many of the good ones through luck or through our friends, or through the subjects of other stories. Which is frightening - that we would have to rely so much on serendipity. But it's true. I almost never feel confident that we are ever going to have another idea, but I have gotten used to knowing that that feeling is a stupid feeling and good to ignore.

Do you struggle with how much or little to explain/translate internet culture for your listeners' varying degrees of internet fluency?

Yep! One useful thing about Gimlet is that we work in an office culture that completely spans the internet-savviness gamut. One person who works on our show is an actual coder, who has written brilliant essays about the guts of how the internet works. Another person is a very proud dumbphone owner who would like to retreat to the mountains one day and abandon all technology. That's a really good environment for us to work in, because our assumptions about what is interesting and what is obvious and what bears explaining get challenged a lot. I don't know how to articulate it, but I think there's a writing trick you can usually pull off where you quickly fill in the people who might be confused about something without badly boring the people who get it. You write it in TV recap voice, if that makes any sense.

Something that I think is notable about this episode, and your podcast in general, is the real respect you have - almost a sense that you're rooting for - your interviewees. In other hands, the Larry Shippers could easily have been made fun of. Is this something you think of consciously?

Thank you, that is a really nice thing to say. I think about it a lot.

I just think the more interesting story always comes out of really trying to understand somebody. Most people have pretty good reasons for what they think and how they act. Assuming that someone is a flat cartoon of dumbness or greediness or whatever is very boring. And those Shippers were just such gems as humans. They were so smart and thoughtful. I didn't agree with their theory but I was impressed by the way they'd assembled their evidence and the way they handled my skepticism. Also, besides the normal human reasons to be compassionate, there was this other thing. I was testing out this idea I had of trying to be like the straight man in a comedy scene.

For people who are not comedy people - the straight man is the serious person who resists the craziness in the scene - it's their job to remind everyone that the funny person is behaving against the normal rules. Like on Seinfeld , if Kramer is trying to install a garbage disposal in his shower drain, the straight man is the other guy in that scene, the one who is telling him that most people would find it gross and impractical to put garbage disposals in their showers. Bad straight men think their allegiance is totally to the audience. They'll make fun of Kramer, they'll be smirky and sarcastic and play to the crowd. But a good straight man is somebody who knows that really, their allegiance is split. They're with the audience - they have to point out the truth as they see it - but they're also secretly on Kramer's side. Their job is to say, "In our world it is not considered normal for you to prepare meals in your shower. But tell me why you think you ought to. And tell me what other meals you make in your shower." Your job is to keep the fun and interesting stuff happening, because that's why we're listening in the first place. Obviously it's not the same thing as being a reporter, but there are similarities in attitude that can be helpful.

In practice, all this means really is that in in the beginning of those interviews, I said something like, "I want to be up front with you - I do not believe your theory, I don't think it's true. But for this conversation, I am going to be totally game and open to being convinced. So gimme your best case for this." That felt fair, and it meant they could just explain what they believed without wondering how I was judging them or if I'd present them in a cartoonish way. And it freed me up to just try to listen closely.

Often Reply All stories start with "here's this crazy thing that happened!" and then take a turn toward meaning-making and surprisingly human conclusions. At what point in the process does meaning click into place for you?

We talk about it early and often. There's a whole genre of rejected pitches that we call "This Thing Happened" pitches, where something unusual happened but we don't think it's about anything. We try to avoid those stories. A question throughout editing is always "Where does this go to?" "What idea is this driving toward?" which is a very much a This American Life philosophy, I think. Something nice is that often having to solve the idea question changes the structure or the reporting of the story. That happened in this episode actually.

The first draft of this was mainly just an interview with Keith. It opened with some interviews with Portuguese One Direction fans who loved the band but were not Larry Shippers. And the structure was like - This is Reply All ! - Welcome to this world of ardent One Direction fans! They tweet at Harry Styles 10,000 times in a month! They hack into each other's accounts to try to get him to follow them! - And now meet the man who stumbled blithely into that world: Keith Calder. In that draft, we never talked to Victoria or Eli or anyone else who believed in the conspiracy. Instead I wrote this ending about how the internet is great because it made Keith an uncle to a world of teenagers, in an uncreepy way. Blumberg VERY politely said that this was an overwritten conclusion, the way I'd written it was a stretch, it exaggerated the closeness this guy had with these fans. I hadn't earned my ending. And so we talked out this other idea, which had come up in conversation in our edits, which was: why is this conspiracy theory charming? As opposed to most of them, which are ugly? And then we realized that we had to talk to some of the Stylinson truthers to try to answer that question.

So our problem with our first ending was that the idea wasn't good, but the idea wasn't good because I hadn't done enough reporting. And after we did that reporting, we did actually land on an ending that was a mix of the ideas we wanted in there - why this conspiracy theory was good, and a better, reporting-earned sense of what exactly Keith's relationship to these fans is. And the story about my childhood best friend - that just came out of talking about the conspiracy in the office. The kind of thing that you say and don't realize could go into your story until someone tells you to put it in your story. Everyone at Gimlet is good at catching those for one another. And telling you when you put in something weird and personal that doesn't actually serve the story and is just you being a weirdo.

Can you give an imaginary synopsis of a Reply All episode from the year 2019?

Oh man, I have no idea. I know what our next two shows are. Beyond that the future is a whiteboard with some squiggles on it. I read this Scott Carrier piece this morning where he said that "fun and scary at the same time is called freedom." We feel that way deeply right now. I hope that feeling stays.