When podcasts go sour: can shows like Reply All come back from scandal?

Gimlet’s smash hit podcast returns from an enforced hiatus this week ... minus one of its hosts. But its future, and that of other shows blighted by controversy, is now precarious

Last summer, Reply All’s reputation was at an all-time high. The long-running internet-themed podcast had recently released an episode about a man with a 90s pop song stuck in his head – a piece of music, it seemed, that nobody else on Earth could remember. The show’s hosts, PJ Vogt and Alex Goldman, gamely investigated, leaving no stone unturned and roping in some music heavyweights to help out. Expertly paced and impossible to second-guess, it combined a tantalising conceit with an incredible payoff. The Case of the Missing Hit was heralded by critics as one of the greatest podcast episodes of all time.

Mere months later, Reply All was in the headlines for all the wrong reasons. At the start of 2021, it launched a spin-off miniseries called The Test Kitchen, which focused on the allegedly toxic and racist workplace culture at the food magazine Bon Appétit. However, after only two episodes had been released, a former colleague accused the team behind The Test Kitchen of promulgating a similar environment at Gimlet Media, the company that makes Reply All.

Vogt and Sruthi Pinnamaneni, a Reply All producer and the host of The Test Kitchen, were singled out, alleged to have actively opposed attempts to diversify and unionise within the company. The pair were placed on leave from Gimlet (and subsequently left Reply All), The Test Kitchen was scrapped and production on Reply All paused.

Until now. This week, the podcast makes a tentative return, following a brief, uncomfortable explainer released in April. Presented by Emmanuel Dzotsi – who became the show’s third presenter in October 2020 and will now co-host with Goldman on a permanent basis – that episode outlined the podcast’s fall from grace, and asked existential questions about its future. The tone was pained and uncertain. “We don’t know if it’s going to work,” Dzotsi said of the show’s reboot. He is not alone in feeling that way.

Reply All is not the first podcast to try and restore its reputation after a media storm, but it is one of the most high-profile. However, it was unlikely that Spotify-owned Gimlet would give up the show without a fight: a beloved podcast brand is a big commodity these days. But maintaining that value means establishing the source of Reply All’s success. Is it its peerless dedication to internet ephemera? Distinctive storytelling? Or, perhaps, the genuine, longstanding friendship at the show’s core?

Gimlet will be hoping it is not the last one. Vogt and Goldman began the podcast as friends in 2014, having met early in their radio careers (in the April episode, Goldman revealed mournfully that he has never had a job in the industry that did not involve his former co-host). It is impossible to deny that Reply All’s appeal lay in the relationship between its presenters: the familiarity and camaraderie made their journalism seem refreshingly personal.

When that dynamic is disrupted, it can sour a podcast almost instantaneously. In September, Poppy Hillstead – hitherto one-third of the presenting lineup of the comedy series Gossipmongersclaimed on Twitter that she had been ousted by fellow hosts David Earl and Joe Wilkinson. Three series in, Hillstead said she was told she “lacked the experience needed” and was fired by two men she considered her friends.

Hillstead had the last laugh, though: her new podcast, Poppy Hillstead Has Entered the Chat, was nominated this month for best comedy podcast at the British Podcast awards. Wilkinson and Earl, meanwhile, never addressed the controversy; Gossipmongers’ iTunes page has been plagued by negative reviews lamenting Hillstead’s sudden departure.

Poppy Hillstead
Having the last laugh ... Poppy Hillstead. Photograph: PR HANDOUT

Vogt’s exit from Reply All could well dent the show’s appeal in a similar way. Not only has the central friendship been lost, but the allegations against him undermine the show’s nerdy-but-nice air. Equally, it could go on to thrive with Goldman and Dzotsi at the helm: building a relationship as you podcast is possible (see the brilliant myth-busting podcast You’re Wrong About, whose hosts met in person five months into remotely recording the show). Dzotsi’s previous work on the podcast means, presumably, that he and Goldman are already closer than that – but the on-air chemistry on which Reply All was built is by no means a given.

The Test Kitchen saga highlighted another problem that a wave of super-successful podcasts must contend with: that the unfiltered intimacy many trade in is delivered via huge companies (Spotify paid $230m for Gimlet in 2019). Drawing attention to the money and corporate greed involved can alienate fans. One show that suffered from a friendship breakdown and the public airing of a contractual dispute was Call Her Daddy, a sex and lifestyle podcast hosted by Sofia Franklyn and Alexandra Cooper. Bought by the digital media company Barstool Sports in 2018, Call Her Daddy was the fifth-most popular podcast on Spotify in 2020 – until it ended abruptly that spring, with no explanation.

Its demise was later revealed to have stemmed from the pair’s rejection of a salary offer of $500,000 plus bonuses, which led Barstool’s boss, David Portnoy, to call the women “unprofessional, disloyal and greedy”. Eventually, Cooper settled and Franklyn left amid a disagreement between the pair; the former continued to present Call Her Daddy alone, while the latter began her own podcast.

On social media, listeners expressed dismay at the size of the supposedly everywoman hosts’ potential paycheques; later, erstwhile fans expressed their dissatisfaction with the pair’s individual enterprises in online reviews. Neither has managed to recreate the popularity of their joint venture, although Call Her Daddy still places relatively high in the podcast charts, proving the value of an existing brand.

Although the Reply All reckoning focused on the behaviour of specific colleagues, it highlighted the fact that some workers at Gimlet felt disempowered and exploited. Podcasts, including Reply All, trade on a matey relatability that corporate unpleasantness can curdle. Whether Reply All’s reputation will remain overshadowed by such complaints will depend on the quality of Goldman and Dzotsi’s version – if it is full of showstopping yarns like The Case of the Missing Hit, listeners may overlook the association.

A good story is a precious commodity in the podcasting world. But they need to be able to tell great untold tales in valid ways. In the past few years, numerous podcasts have faced accusations of plagiarism and unreliability – perhaps the most newsworthy being the New York Times’s much-lauded Caliphate, from 2018, which relied on long segments of interview with a man who claimed to have been involved in Isis activities in Syria, including murder. When the authenticity of his claims were thrown into doubt, Caliphate handed back its Peabody award, while the New York Times admitted that some episodes did not meet its standards for accuracy.

While Reply All’s reporting was not in question – Goldman has explained that their investigations are externally fact-checked to ensure they are watertight – the alleged hypocrisy that belied The Test Kitchen story undermined the show in a more subtle way. Uncovering truth – especially when it comes to a subject such as racism in the workplace – requires a spotless reputation. Nothing invalidates an exposé quite like the sleuth becoming embroiled in a similar scandal.

Reply All became a hit because it had so many of podcasting’s best qualities: warm, relatable hosts with a real connection embarking on a voyage of discovery via scrupulous reportage. Its recovery will depend on how well Goldman and Dzotsi can recreate that DIY charm in a world where big podcasts mean business. Can it come back from the brink? If not, its days could be numbered.

Reply All returns on 10 June


Rachel Aroesti

The GuardianTramp

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