PJ Vogt - Reply All
A podcast about the internet
“Okay, this is a cursed interview.” That’s the first thing I heard when I turned on the tape of interview with PJ Vogt, who co-hosts a podcast about the internet called Reply All with Alex Goldman. He’s not wrong. Between last minute scheduling conflicts, me losing close to an hour’s worth of our conversation to a bad microphone, and more dropped calls than seems plausible given all the ads about network coverage I’ve seen recently, I count myself really lucky to have what you’re reading right now.
Reply All is basically my ideal podcast. It’s the podcast I would make if I had the skill to recognize the bones of a story well enough to pare down hours of tape into fifteen or twenty minutes of narrative, the attention to detail required to make it sound professional, and the empathy it takes to get someone to open up about their most personal moments.
The show has always managed to find interesting topics and report on them incredibly well. I was particularly impressed by this early episode on Yik Yak, racism, and Colgate University. Even when I think I already know the story, like when Chiara Atik followed along with someone’s breakup via Venmo the show manages to add a lot to my sense of the people involved.
Imagine you’ve just read about a young PJ interning at NPR and deciding to stay there instead of returning to school. Imagine he’s talked about looking for stories where the subject shows personal growth. Imagine he’s said nice things about working with Alex. Now read the rest of the interview, please.
Why do you think people share the things they do with you? On some episodes you’ve even kind of told them that if you were in their position you don’t think you would go on the show.
Well, Alex has said that.
I don’t know. When someone’s doing it, a lot of times it’ll feel very lucky and it feels like a fragile thing.
Alex and I both worked in public radio, and public radio is a weird thing. But you think of it as a normal thing. It’s like, “Why would you tell a bunch of strangers something?” “Oh, it’s for NPR.” And somehow that makes sense. But, like, “Why would you tell a bunch of strangers something?” “Oh, it’s for an internet culture podcast…” I don’t know why people do it.
I think it’s one way to construct meaning out of life. Something awful, or astounding, or embarrassing happens, and the act of telling it and being listened to and having somebody try to understand it [creates meaning].
I think a lot of people who like listening to things like that, who like listening to stories and interviews, they’re kind of waiting for the day where someone’s going to sit down with them and just talk to them and just [say], “Let me know what happened to you.” I think maybe that’s part of it.
I think that’s some of the instinct that makes me want to do this kind of thing.
Part of it seems like maybe they want to build their own understanding of it, but do you think that there’s also this hunger for you to build a narrative around it? To see how somebody else takes their story and finds something meaningful in it?
Yeah, and I think that that can be frustrating for people. I always worry when we profile somebody how they’re going to feel about how we see their life. But, beyond the vulnerability of that, I think there is something nice about just, like, “If somebody else were paying very careful attention to the things that I’m going through, and trying very hard to understand me, what would they come away with?”
I think that can be valuable for people. I mean, sometimes it’s weird. Sometimes you’ll do an interview with somebody and you’ll talk to them for two or three or four hours. And you’re talking about big stuff. You’re talking about something that happened to them that was a big enough deal that it’s a story.
It’s a really quick and intimate thing. And one of the strange things is that then you’re done. You spend a bunch more time alone with their voice, thinking about them and writing about them. And then the episode goes up and you shoot them an email like, “Hey, just so you know, it’s up.” And, usually, they say that they liked it. And that’s it.
It’s very strange. It feels like there should be another thing that happens.
So, most of the time when they say they liked it, do they expand on that? Is it usually a pretty perfunctory e-mail back? Or is it like, “I think I think you really got this right,” or, “I hadn’t seen it that way but now I think that makes sense”?
Usually, it’s a little bit longer.
Sometimes you don’t hear anything. I haven’t had the experience yet of somebody being like, “You really got this wrong,” or, “You really mischaracterized me.” Yeah, it’s usually like a medium-length email.
It’s nice. It’s also weird because a lot of times it’s like they’ve said everything they can. Because, the way we interview, we spend a long time with people. You get to a point where they have nothing more to say about the thing. You really just, you know, relentlessly made them talk about it. And then you’ve put every good idea you have about it into the piece, hopefully.
It’s really nice. It’s kind of what you wish you got with other people, which is continuing glimpses into how they are afterwards. We actually probably could check back in on people sometimes. It’s one of the things a podcast can do that a radio show doesn’t do because it can’t, and you kind of don’t realize it’s an option because you’re still used to being a radio show.
Why is it something a podcast can do but a radio show can’t do?
I think with a podcast it’s easier to refer back to something you did before. You can do it sometimes [on a radio show]. Serial could make episodes that were built on the assumption that people would start from the beginning. But it’s harder for This American Life to be like, “This week on This American Life we’re going to do chapter ten in a story that we started two months ago, and if you’d like to start from the beginning you have to go back in time.”
That makes sense.
When you’re constructing a story, after after the interview – and you’ve talked about not being able to get what you need sometimes for a story – as you edit it together, how much of the meaning do you feel like you and Alex are kind of like imbuing it with?
That’s a tricky question. I mean, I think what we try to do is we take the interview we have. We talk about what we think it means, but we make sure that we’re talking to the people in the story about what we think it means, also.
I think the worst case scenario would be [that] you tell somebody’s story and you have some fancy, highfalutin idea about what it all meant and they would think it was total bullshit. Like, it’s okay if they think it’s total bullshit, but you need to give them the chance to tell you that they think it’s total bullshit. And you want to give them that chance in tape.
I feel like it’s important to get as close to the truth as you can. I think if you have the experience of somebody doing a story about you then you look at media differently afterwards, because you just sort of see how they get it wrong. Even if [they] don’t get the facts wrong, just like how they kind of miss it. Ideally, the people that we talk to would feel that as little as possible.
Yeah, I was thinking about cases where you have to interpret motivation for things, and people are really bad about understanding their own motivations for stuff.
Yeah, in that case you just say, “Can I test out my theory on why you do what you do?” I mean, we did in this episode that came out last night.
Jonathan Goldstein reported this story for us about a former child star named Mason Reese who was uploading all these old videos of himself on TV onto YouTube.
But one of the videos was of him breaking down crying on a talk show when he was seven. Jonathan really wanted to know why that had happened, and he had all these theories about why. He tried them out on him, and Mason was just like, “Nope. Nope. Nope,” which is kind of the good thing about radio. The person’s perspective is, by default, kind of going to be included more because everything has to happen in tape.
So, it was sort of nice. [Jonathan]’s trying to guess his motivations. And it felt like he stayed with him until he got a reasonable theory about what they might have been.
And, also, sometimes I guess just hearing a person say “No” and their hesitation as they mull it over can help a lot too for the listener making up their own mind.
Yeah, and what’s nice about radio is there’s room for that ambiguity. Like, if that happened in print you’d say, “They said, ‘No,’ but then there was a considered pause.” You’re kind of forcing your perspective a little bit harder. I think our perspective is pretty strongly in our pieces, but there’s at least a little bit of room to say, “Here’s what I saw, and here’s what I thought about it; but [you], the listener, can make up your own mind about what [you’re] hearing.”
I like pieces like that. I’m trying to learn how to let the tape talk more and me talk a little bit less.
You just mentioned that you guys have a strong perspective. Sometimes the episodes seem to end with a lesson or a moral that kind of wraps it up. Is that something you think about and try to do, or is it that sometimes they just seem obvious?
I remember the episode with the guy who does all the Wikipedia edits, and you guys kind of come in and say, like, “It’s easy to make this assumption about this guy, or have this image of him, but keep this in mind.” I forget exactly how it ended, but it seemed like that was one where you guys tried to put a lesson at the end of it.
I think where it comes out of is, usually, the thing that makes me want to do a story is that we’ve got a question about it. It’s interesting that this person is doing this thing, but what makes us want to do a story is knowing why they do it. That big piece of writing, or sometimes it’s a big piece of tape, but the thing at the end where it’s like, “and this is what it all meant,” I think that’s us trying to work it out.
For me, a lot of that was I wanted to know why he did it. I wanted to know what he felt about it. But also, I’m not a person whose instincts run towards correction. Like, I’m not a grammar person. I’m not a precise person. I like trying to understand the perspective of the people that we’re profiling. And so, for me, I think some of the writing was me trying to put myself in his shoes from my shoes to be like, “There’s a part of me that can not stand this kind of behavior, but if you talk to him long enough it’s very understandable. And I can kind of see how somebody like him would see somebody like me.” So, sometimes that writing is like, “We went into this with a question, and here’s what we think the answer is at this point.”
Do you think that the show has helped you make sense of the internet and how people interact and stuff?
It seems like that’s kind of the biggest overarching question: “How does technology affect the way that we interact with each other and find meaning and friendship?” You know, there are all these petty things, but also all this room room for all these small, great moments. Do you think that you have a better handle on that now from doing the show?
I feel like doing the show forces us to learn a lot, and [learn] quickly, about technology. Both in the mechanical sense – “There’s a new thing, what does it do?” – and also the larger questions about how we feel about all the various ways the internet is making us feel as a culture.
Sometimes I’ll look back at our episodes and I’ll see that the topics we were picking, or the stories we were choosing, or the way we were covering the stories, really reflected stuff we were working on as humans.
It’s funny because it’s a show about people, but it’s not a confessional show by any stretch. But you’ll see that you sure wanted to ask people about falling in love at that point. You really wanted to ask people about taking a risk, or having anxiety about work.
You’d think doing a show about one thing would feel limiting, and maybe one day it will, but it’s strange how much of non-internet life actually ends up getting filtered into talking about the internet.
Yeah, it seems like since we do everything on it now it’s like a lens for all action, kind of. Like, I lost a friend recently, and I was listening to the episode where the guy was looking for information about his brother inventing email. That was super relevant to me just because of the idea of all this mystery around other people and how much of somebody’s life goes on outside of your perception. They could be a completely different person, or have sides of themselves that you never really imagined, or problems much deeper than you knew.
I think it’s impossible for that not to come out in a technology show. As long as there are people around, human problems find their way in.
Yeah, some technology reporting, I think more like the mainstream than in the nerdier stuff that we tend to consume, will be like, “Is Twitter making us lonely?” “Is ‘Some Service’ making us hornier?” Obviously, we are who we are, and when someone dies we miss them and wonder about them. And it just sort of gives us these different places to act out the human things we were going to do anyway, but maybe those things are like a little bit changed, or a little bit heightened because of the tools we’ve been given. I think that stays interesting.
A lot of what people do on the internet, because a lot of it’s private, they think it’s weirder than it is. One of the nice things about doing this sort of reporting is you’re like, “No, no. Pretty much everyone’s doing a version of this.” It’s nice to be able to talk about it.
Have you ever been the subject of a show like yours?
I’ve been interviewed, but I’ve never had somebody spend a bunch of time with me and then write down how my life looked to them. I don’t know if I’d be great at it. I think it would be really hard for me to relax and not try to kind of manage it.
Like not try to edit it yourself for them?
Exactly. Like, you have this story you kind of want them to walk away with. Also, I talk too much. I would end up saying something that I wouldn’t want in there. Ooof, it would be an uncomfortable thing.
Alex would be a lot better at it. He’s just, I think, a more functional person in that kind of environment.
If you had to pick what you thought someone would come to you with like, “I think this is like a representative moment, rich for interpretation about you,” what do you think it would be?
So, last night we were crashing on the episode and we were in a studio that John Delore, [Gimlet’s] technical director, and Matt Lieber, [Gimlet’s] co-founder, built. It’s just, like, a white box in a warehouse. It’s almost like a shipping container. It’s nicer than a shipping container, but it is a lot like a shipping container. There were five or six of us at one point, and a dog, crammed into this box just listening very closely to the episode.
By Wednesday night the kinds of edits you’re making are like, “I think this silence is a millisecond too long, and I think that clip needs to come up a half second faster, and I think we should change this word to that word.” I sort of felt like if you wanted to understand our show, that was the room to understand it in. The suggestions people were making, and the way that they were with each other – I think if you were trying to write this place, and if you were trying to write our show, the way to understand it would be in that room.
But somebody could write that I was, like, a shitty tyrant or a whiny baby. I don’t know what somebody would go into that room and come out with, but I would be terrified whatever it was.
Like, I don’t think, “shitty tyrant,” but maybe, “whiny baby.”
They come out and they’re just like, “Why won’t he meet Alex’s baby?!”
Hahahah, that baby lives in New Jersey!