ReplyAll and the Battle for Storytelling About the Net

Even if you love the internet, it's hard not to be overwhelmed by its scale. The sheer volume of content can give you anxiety, while headlines about the latest online craze are quickly surpassed by breaking news about the next superfast whirly gizmo. One hundred hours of video are uploaded to YouTube every single minute. Listicles on Gawker and Buzzfeed can of course provide some succor, but it's as ephemeral as a shot of cane sugar. That's why author Joshua Ferris called the net "a hall of mirrors with diminishing returns."

I was thrilled, then, to discover the podcast TLDR on New York's WNYC last year. On TLDR (short for "Too long; didn't read") co-hosts PJ Vogt and Alex Goldman provided thoughtful and tightly produced stories about the internet. The first piece that struck me was about a security guard named Sean Smith who worked as an IT manager at the U.S. embassy in Bengazi, Libya. That's right the Bengazi. Smith was one of the four staff members killed in the embassy in September 2012 but his personal story had largely gone unreported. In his free time, he played a multiple massive online role playing game called Eve Online and he acted as chief diplomat of its largest star alliance. It was an extraordinary tale. In the piece on TLDR, the realpolitik of the Arab spring collided, in some respects, with the imagined politik of the online world. Republicans and Democrats were tussling over who was at fault for the attack on the embassy, while TLDR cut through the bluster to reveal a touching relationship between one of the victims and his online friends.

There were many more episodes like this. TLDR featured a musician named Matt Farley who has become the most prolific songwriter on Spotify, with some 14,000 original songs.

During its WNYC tenure, a typical show ran somewhere between six and ten minutes, and it would occasionally be stitched onto WNYC's popular program On the Media.

"We taught them journalism and they brought us a rich new source of stories," explained On the Media's Executive Producer Katya Rogers. "They introduced me to this parallel, online universe."

Combined with a blog, On the Media's web traffic increased by about 80 percent and co-hosts Alex Goldman and PJ Vogt went on to produce 40 episodes.

Then Goldman and Vogt disappeared from WNYC altogether. Worried, I immediately stalked TLDR's Twitter feed until I discovered this stray Tweet:

This is me & @pjvogt's last ep of @TLDR But we will still be making radio about the internet!

What did this mean? Surely, these experts on internet trends would do more than send one Tweet that only 22 people shared? I later found out that they did announce over the air that they were leaving the show, but they couldn't direct people to their new project because it didn't yet have a name.

I tracked down the co-hosts in downtown Brooklyn to find out more about what had happened. Located on Flatbush Avenue, their new headquarters is actually a few desks at a co-working facility. When I arrived it was unclear who worked on their team, and a dog trotted lazily between the mish-mash of old tables. We settled into some lounge chairs and a couch by the window where everyone in the room could clearly hear us but didn't seem to care what we were saying.

It turns out Vogt and Goldman had left WNYC--and secure, prestigious positions as NPR producers--to join the new podcast company Gimlet Media. Gimlet was founded by a former producer of This American Life and Planet Money named Alex Blumberg. He had raised $1.5 million in seed funding and lured the hosts away from WNYC to launch Gimlet's second show, ReplyAll.

As we talked, I quickly learned how unlikely it was for the two co-hosts to end up running their own for-profit podcast at a hot new media company. Alex Goldman took his time coming to radio. He had stints working at a Subway sandwich shop, a catering company, and an institution for the mentally disabled in Texas before settling into a career in IT. After five years, he quit his IT job to intern at WNYC. That's where he met PJ Vogt, who had left studies at McGill University in Montreal for an internship at the station and who was then working as a temp at On the Media. It didn't take them long to strike up a friendship that endures today.

"We became office husbands," Goldman said. "We speak twin language." Goldman balanced his strong organizational skills with Vogt's creativity. "Part of the reason we became close is he helped me do my job and not fuck up constantly," Vogt explained.

TLDR had emerged from an internal contest at WNYC for a new show. Although Vogt and Goldman didn't win, or even place in the top three, their proposal was original enough that it caught the eye of producer Katya Rogers, who greenlighted them for a short segment on On the Media, albeit one without a budget. Together they developed the structure that made the show successful.

"The internet should be a factor in the story," Vogt said, "but it should take something that exists about human beings, and change the scale, the volume, or the frequency. People should be doing what people do."

They are determined to continue this formula at ReplyAll, but now have more editorial control over the length and depth of the content. They plan to focus heavily on storytelling and deliberately avoid pieces on what they call 'weird news of the internet.' "I think some of our stories come from not finding a perfect narrative," Vogt clarified, "but just being curious and asking questions." Rather than interjecting with strong opinions, they invite their interview subjects to comfortably explain themselves.

Their new show ReplyAll has so far featured similar stories to TLDR: short, well-produced pieces that are complex and interesting enough for you to think about long after they conclude. Each show ends with a few thoughtful closing words by the host that week (they often swap roles from one week to the next.) A recent episode exposed a disturbing explosion of online racism on the Colgate college campus that was carried out on the anonymous chat tool called YikYak.

"I don't think of the internet as utopic," Goldman said, "or perfect, or even particularly nice."

It's their ability to balance a passion for technology with healthy skepticism that also distinguishes the show.

But as compelling as the stories on ReplyAll are, it's still unclear whether the show can make money. At WNYC, Vogt and Goldman enjoyed steady salaries and the protective shell of an established NPR affiliate. It might come down to good timing.

"We can see a real economic flowering of audience, and radio, and podcasts coming together," explained Jeff Jarvis, author of Geeks Bearing Gifts: Imagining New Futures for News and Director of the Tow-Knight Center for Entrepreneurial Journalism at CUNY Graduate School. Last year's outrageously popular podcast Serial has already proven that audience members will tune in to long-form shows--and that advertisers will pay for them.

Meanwhile, the old TLDR lives on at WNYC with new host Meredith Haggerty. "The way to continue their work but on a parallel track," producer Katya Rogers said, "was to have a woman host the show." Haggerty has been given the freedom to push the show in a new direction and, hopefully, to include different perspectives. Haggerty could be a welcome addition to tech reporting, I think, and bring needed diversity to the conversation.

It's too early to tell whether people will support both TLDR and ReplyAll. When listening to podcasts, you become as invested in the intangibles of the show--the feel, the tone, the humor--as much as the actual content. Vogt and Goldman excelled at creating an honest, intimate listening experience for geeks. It seems natural for ReplyAll to take their audience with them, but it may prove more challenging for TLDR to cultivate a new one under Haggerty or another host.

"There was some experimentation happening already on podcasts, but we're seeing people begin to experiment even more with form," said Jeff Jarvis. "Hopefully people will discover more shows and all boats will rise with the tide."

Deji Bryce Olukotun is the author of Nigerians in Space, a novel out now from Unnamed Press. He fights for digital rights at the organization Access.