Finding Humanity Online With Reply All

PJ Vogt and Alex Goldman of Reply All, Photo Courtesy of Spotify /  Daniel Seung Lee
PJ Vogt and Alex Goldman of Reply All, Photo Courtesy of Spotify / Daniel Seung Lee

The “podcast about the internet” digs deep in search of weird, fascinating, and touching stories.

Reply All calls itself a “podcast about the internet,” but that doesn’t mean its episodes are about the latest gadgets or how to find ultra-fast Wi-Fi. Instead, its stories look at internet-connected life, digging deep in order to find the interesting people and stories behind the digital universe.

Hosted by Alex Goldman and PJ Vogt, Reply All finds its subjects through a combination of journalistic tenacity and the sort of rabbit-hole-digging that often results in long and winding searches through the internet’s most out-there corners. “One of the things I love about the show is that everybody on the show was a producer or reporter,” says senior reporter Sruthi Pinnamaneni. “Even though they have different roles, it gives us a common base and a common language.”

“The things that we look for are not academic at all,” says executive producer Tim Howard. "It's more that [we’re looking for] any moment when somebody's telling us about a thing, and we realize, ‘This breaks the rules of what I thought this kind of thing could do.’ It’s where you get the sense of real people doing things that you find really surprising, and that matter to them and it's not just about how many followers they have. Unless that’s the thing that matters to them.”

Digging in and discovering gold

More often than not, the Reply All team’s combination of persistence, curiosity, and reporting chops results in the simplest-seeming stories veering into unexpected places. “When you look at the collection of stories that get published,” says Pinnamaneni, “it is like a series of whims. Some whims have worked out, but there are a lot of whims that don't work out. There's so much stuff that just dies.”

"The Woman in the Air Conditioner" initially seemed like it could end up that way; it began as a request to Super Tech Support, Reply All’s department for solving its listeners’ oddest hardware and software problems, from a man whose home assistant’s relaxation sounds—specifically, one meant to replicate a droning air conditioner—had odd noises lurking within. For a relatively simple audio file that's magically beamed into homes via the internet, following the trail upstream to explain a small anomaly might not have seemed worthwhile.

“We all thought, ‘It can't be that big—it must be a little thing,’” Pinnamaneni recalls about the initial request. “But on a whim we called the guy [who made the relaxation sounds]. I was the producer on that in the beginning, and I just remember really liking the first guy. So then we decided, ‘OK. Well, let's just go to the next step.’ It was a really tiny, tiny idea [at first]: ‘Oh, people are stressed out by the wrong relaxation sounds.’ But there was something in there for me personally where I said, ‘I just to go to the next step.’ I wanted to see this one through.”

Other members of the Reply All team were doubtful that Pinnamaneni would find an answer compelling enough to fill a whole episode. “I was super-skeptical that it would go anywhere. It seemed to me like, ‘This is the world's easiest-to-answer problem, so unfortunately we're going to answer it in one step,’” recalls Howard. But the show’s overall attitude toward curiosity allowed Pinnamaneni and the show’s hosts to keep on searching for a hard-and-fast answer about the noise’s true source.

Solving a mystery, uncovering a story

The question of why a supposed “air conditioner” noise had what sounded like a high-heel-clad woman lurking inside wound up being answered. (As it turned out, the sound was recorded in a Prague alleyway.) But, perhaps more importantly, it also led to Reply All introducing its listeners to Michael Dressel, a photographer who used to work in sound recording. He had a fascinating life story that included a childhood in East Germany and a two-year stint in prison for trying to climb the Berlin Wall. “We met such an amazing person at the end of the story,” says Howard, “and that's really what made the story work—the idea that asking this question about this air-conditioner sound could bring us to the doorstep of this absolutely wonderful, magnanimous person.”

Episodes like “The Woman in the Air Conditioner” and “The Flower Child” show that Reply All’s true strength is the way it’s less about the internet as an object and more about the people who interact with the world through online means, whether they’re receiving mysterious Domino's orders for Cokes, ordering watches off Instagram, finding odd photos online, or rewriting Billy Joel's "We Didn't Start the Fire" with more current lyrics.

“We do the show because we absolutely love getting the opportunity to discover people that we never would have met otherwise,” says Howard. “When you find somebody, and you really get to spend time with them and understand how they think and why they do what they do—it's just so exciting when that opportunity arises. In life, unless you get really drunk with somebody or you spend a long time becoming their friend or maybe dating, those opportunities are super hard to come across.”

—Maura Johnston