Formats Unpacked: Reply All

How a podcast uses playfulness to unlock deep investigative stories

Hi All,

No need to check your calendars - it’s Thursday and this is a day late. Sorry.

In search of forgiveness, I bring you hot URL news. Substack now lets you add custom domains to your newsletter, so we’re now officially FormatsUnpacked.com. Told you it was hot news. Go share it with all those friends of yours who want to know the secret ingredients for some of the world’s most successful formats.

Today’s unpacker needs no introduction…because it’s me!

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What’s it called?

Reply All (Podcast)

What’s the format?

It’s a podcast by Gimlet Media about the internet. Each episode sees the team investigate internet-related questions such as Who is the boy in this meme? What happened to all those Bitcoins I bought six years ago? and Who is behind all these telephone scam calls I keep getting? Their recent Case of the Missing Hit episode was described by the Guardian as "perhaps the best-ever episode of any podcast".

What’s the magic that makes it special?

The juxtaposition between playfulness and deep investigative journalism. 

Each episode of Reply All starts with the smart and whimsical feature leading the listener into an investigation that becomes much bigger, more emotive, or shocking than they could have imagined at the outset. 

These rotating features include "Yes, Yes, No", in which Alex Blumberg, co-founder of Gimlet, brings a confusing tweet or meme to the studio. He asks hosts PJ Vogt and Alex Goldman if they know what it means and if so can they explain it to him (and the listeners). 

An example of this would be the episode from 2016 in which a silly tweet attempting to make a joke about a misprinted flyer for a pizza restaurant unlocks the story of Pizzagate and the birth of QAnon. 

In "Super Tech Support" they investigate complex tech issues that members of the team (or listeners) are having. The setup is that Alex Goldman previously worked in tech support so naturally he’s going to be able to get to the bottom of whatever problem is thrown at him. 

For a taster of what this sounds like you may want to listen to the episode in which Alex wanted to know who was behind a 1-800 scam call he received...and went all the way to India to meet his scammer face to face.  

These devices are smart for two reasons: 

The team member that wants the problem solving is acting as a proxy for the audience. The listener gets to hear them laugh, gasp, and ask all the questions they might want to ask. This makes them feel included, like they’re a part of the gang. It draws them into the storytelling. 

The second reason is that these features are designed to create an illusion of smallness at the beginning of that story. In doing so they’re giving it room to grow. It's a bit like how asking TV talent show contestants to dress down for their audition creates a juxtaposition between how they look and how they sound. Remember how you felt when you first heard Susan Boyle sing? The smallness also makes the ridiculous lengths the team go to get an answer seem completely out of proportion to the original question. Journalist Caroline Crampton recently described these kinds of investigative journeys as Inconsequential Quests and pointed out that they a long time and a lot of money and not everyone has that luxury.

But time and money is not something Gimlet are short of and the team that makes Reply All are incredible storytellers and the shows genius is more than the juxtaposition. They spin out incredibly deep and meaningful stories from slim pieces of trivia and use the tropes of investigative journalism from podcasts like Serial to make it compelling. Using the narrator as a detective who occasionally hits dead ends, they layer their stories revealing perfectly timed new pieces of evidence, a trick that keeps listeners gripped until the end. 

Favourite episode?

Whilst The Case of the Missing Hit is good it’s not my favourite. Those mentioned above are excellent listens. But if I had to pin it down to one I’d say it’s Man of the People, the story of a radio pioneer and medical salesman whose self-proclaimed miracle cures ranged from impotence to infertility. The episode has been optioned for a movie with Richard Linklater directing and Robert Downey, Jr. as producer and star. 

Similar formats:

Mystery Show

Missing: Richard Simmons

Heavyweight


That’s it from me this week.

Thanks for reading and if you’d like to unpack a format yourself just send me a message telling me what the format is and what you think the magic is.

Take it easy.

Hugh