The Reply All Thing is Such a Bummer

A mea culpa about a rec

[Est. Reading time: 19 minutes. Reading time sponsored, as always, by Ashburton EHL Group. Adjustments suggested by the Bradley Hills Bureau of Corrections]

Well well well, Sternal Journalists.

A few weeks ago, in the recommendations section of this newsletter, I included this:


(Podcast) The Test Kitchen. Reply All is at it again with a four-part series from producer Sruthi Pinnamaneni about the reckoning over the toxic and racist workplace environment at Bon Appetit Magazine. It’s great reporting and urgent storytelling, and Sruthi makes a very specific choice in the way the story is told that blew my mind a little and feels like something everyone reporting stories like this will be doing soon. May write more about it in the future, but for now you’ll have to listen to find out!


Here we are in the future, and yessir am I writing about it again. Because on Wednesday of last week, Eric Eddings tweeted this:

Eric is the creator and co-host of The Nod and a producer on Mogul, both of which are “Gimlet shows.” More on why I’m putting that in quotes in a bit, but he also co-created For Colored Nerds with his The Nod partner Brittany Luse.

I don’t know exactly who I’m writing this for because if you’ve never heard of Gimlet, there’s perhaps a bunch of explaining to do. And if you have heard of Gimlet, you probably are or were a fan of Reply All, and therefore have most likely heard this news.

(Big shout-out however to long-time friend and Sternal Journalist Sara {I oscillate between sharing initials or first names of Sternal Journalists because I never know what I’m going to write and therefore never clear it with anyone to mention them. Let me know if you can think of a better system} for e-mailing me about this in the first place. I assume I would have heard about it, but maybe not! Maybe this Sternal Journal would have been “WhAt I tAlK AbOuT WHeN I taLk ABOut CLUbhoUse. LiSTen TO TEst kiTCheN” So again: huge shout out prayer hand emojis).

But anyway, even though I actually don’t quite know who this is for (like I ever finish a Sternal Journal and say, “Ah yes, I know exactly the audience for this one.”), I will do my best to thread the needle.

Either way, if you haven’t yet and you’re still reading, go click through the tweet and read Eric’s whole thread.

He details Reply All’s exceptionalism within Gimlet, PJ Vogt (one of Reply All’s creators and co-hosts, producer of The Test Kitchen mini-series) and Sruthi Pinnamaneni’s (producer at Reply All and host of The Test Kitchen mini-series) attempts at union-busting, and PJ’s unwillingness to use his real power within Gimlet to go to bat for diversity initiatives and people of color.

Again, though, read the whole thread. It’s not that long, and it’s the primary source. If you care about media and podcasting, or the intersection of art and commerce, or who gets to tell what stories, this is a story to familiarize yourself with.

The Very Specific Choice

In my original recommendation, I said, “Sruthi makes a very specific choice in the way the story is told that blew my mind a little and feels like something everyone reporting stories like this will be doing soon.

Early on, she explains that, though she interviewed the mostly white editorial team who was responsible for the racist and otherwise discriminatory hiring, assigning, and editing decisions at Bon Appétit, we the listeners would not be hearing their voices.

She doesn’t spend a long time belaboring it, but the intent is clear: in this story about oppression, we will only hear the voices of the oppressed. On the surface, that’s journalistically kinda wild. It feels kinda crazy to say, “We’re interviewing everyone, but you only get to hear from some of them.”

But my understanding of the choice (and I am now belaboring a thing the podcast did not belabor) is that, while a journalist should report in as balanced a way as possible, it’s actually imbalanced to continue to spread the literal voice of the oppressors.

Importantly, we’re still told what was said in those interviews. We just don’t hear it in the actual voice of Adam Rapaport, or any of the other BA leadership. Their voices are already out there and lifted up by the power of Condé Nast and systemic white supremacy.

I thought it was a big and potentially groundbreaking choice. There will eventually be a documentary about Harvey Poopstein. Do we need to see him and hear his Poopstein voice even if he’s willing to sit for an interview? We don’t!

So here’s why that really sucks!

Again, I loved that choice. I thought, at the time, that it had potential to ripple outward into the larger journalism and documentary worlds. But it kind of undermines the whole thing when it turns out the voice who made that choice…

was one of the oppressors in her own work place! Labor organizing is messy as hell, and it’s reasonable for people to have cold feet or second thoughts. But (according to Eric Eddings’ Twitter thread, which has been corroborated many times over by other Gimlet employees) Sruthi held a literal anti-union meeting.

And even though there is a big difference between union-busting and union-lukewarmness, people are technically allowed to do what they’re gonna do. I don’t think holding a meeting of interest in opposing your colleagues on a union is against labor laws. It’s against anti-shittiness clauses, but I don’t think it’s against labor laws.

But at that point, at the point that you are trying to convince lower-level employees at your media company, many of whom are people of color, to stop fighting for better treatment, it is time to absolutely 100% concede that you are not the person to tell a story about lower-level employees at a media company, many of whom are people of color, who are trying to fight for better treatment!

To be clear, this kind of shit happens allllllll the time and it is predominantly perpetrated by white people. Gimlet, Reply All, PJ, and most certainly Sruthi are not acting alone. They are acting within a system. It just sucks that this very important story has been tainted by now this other very important story.

And it’s avoidable! If you’re a journalist, you are ostensibly on the front line of the search for the truth. And even though you don’t have to find all of the truth, you’re responsible to some degree for all of the truth you’re aware of. And you are aware of your own truths.

When you’re making specific choices about literally whose voice to include in your story, you have to investigate what it means that your own voice is goin to be there.

A lot of Gimlet employees are tweeting threads in support of Eric Eddings and each other in this, and I really liked this one from Every Little Thing Associate Producer Aaron Reiss. I’ll reference it a couple more times, but these two speak to what I’m speaking to now:

A thing about Unions

Gimlet’s union has now been recognized, but they’ve been bargaining for over a year and a half. Unions take a long time and, from what I’ve heard and experienced, are always messy.

But a workplace only tries to unionize when a commanding number of the employees have asked for basic things for a long time and not been granted them. Workers should always have bargaining power, but they don’t get it unless they demand it. If people around you are demanding it, know that (a) they’re putting in a lot of thankless work to do it, and (b) they have very legitimate reasons to be demanding it.

Listen to them to find out what those reasons are. If you don’t get it, listen harder.

(Another thing about Unions is that it sounds like so much of the fear of unionizing from higher-ups and/or long-time employees was their impending buyout from Spotify. The buyout happened. Some people made a lot of money.

You might root for the money when you think of them as the little This American Life WNYC nerdy-flurfs who can make sniffle using only ProTools and an interview with like a random birdwatcher who has a rare genetic disorder where they can’t see feathers.

But it’s a little harder to root for those dweebs when you realize they opted to protect their own payday over the equal rights of their employees and colleagues.)

A thing about Intellectual Property

You can read more about the many things the Gimlet Union (along with the Ringer and Parcast Union) are demanding from Spotify, but I wanted to highlight intellectual property.

Brittany Luse, Eric Eddings’ co-host and co-creator of The Nod, tweeted this last summer, but it bumped back into the zeitfeed this week:

Again, read the whole thread. But Luse goes on to explain that, when they then developed The Nod while working at the company, “Gimlet loved it. But now this show that still led with our voices, with the same perspective and relative structure, was a NEW idea that Gimlet now owned 100%.”

(That’s why I described The Nod and Mogul as “Gimlet shows” in quotes. I realize that even describing them by their production company perpetuates this ownership-shadiness.)

She explains that this is typical of the industry, and that you can only really push back on it if you have a large enough platform to leverage. They did not have such a platform, so now they have to get permission from Spotify/Gimlet to reuse material from a show that they created whose cover art, as Luse puts it, “bears our faces.”

Specifically in the podcasting realm, holding IP means holding the keys to the RSS feed, which means access to the entire built audience. If you create a podcast while at a company, and then leave the company, you can tweet for people to come check you out on this other podcast. But the RSS feed, which is how a podcast gets pushed to Spotify or Apple Podcasts or Stitcher or “wherever podcasts are downloaded,” is what contains your actual one-to-one audience. And you lose that. If that sounds crazy, read more in this Verge article.

If that doesn’t sound crazy, you probably think, “Welp, that’s how it is! They gave you the distribution. They get to keep the distribution.” But is it that simple? A lot of things go into what makes a podcast profitable: certainly the work, ideas, taste, and voices of the creators, hosts, and producers. And yes, also the distribution and marketing of a podcast network. But also the distribution and marketing of the creative team’s own following.

If you work and make a podcast for Podcast Company X, and they make some partnership deal that exposes the company to 25K more people, some portion of those people will listen to Podcast Company X podcasts, and Podcast Company X will make more money off of ad dollars, but you won’t. Maybe that feels okay because it was their work that raised the profile and the listenership.

On the flip side, if you as an individual suddenly gain 25K Twitter followers, you will ostensibly tweet about your podcast, giving PCX once again distribution to 25K more people, but this time it’s completely your own doing and completely free to PCX. And because some portion of that following will listen to your podcast, once again PCX will make more money off ads.

When you don’t own the intellectual property, it doesn’t matter whether your company gains the listeners or you do: they are the ones who pocket the cash.

This is how the industry works, yes. It is also a bad deal. And THAT is why employees want the ability to collectively bargain. If existing industries weren’t replete with “the way business works” being pretty fucking bad for the little guys, then unions wouldn’t be as necessary.

AND FURTHERMORE, Dave Chappelle just turned a lot of this on its head by going up against Viacom and telling his global audience to boycott until they gave him a better deal on Chappelle’s Show, which he admitted to taking a really bad deal on.

Could that all have been a publicity stunt to relaunch Chappelle’s Show on Netflix? Sure. But I hope it wasn’t, and either way, it did a lot of illuminating about the prevalence of predatory contracts in the entertainment industry.

The Movie-Television-Music arm of the entertainment industry is way older and way more set in its ways than the luhl baby teeny-weeny podcasting arm, so it should ostensibly be easier to course correct. And if the course is corrected in podcasting, then at least the big bad classically sleazy studio execs won’t be able to point at podcasting and say “Look, even the little headphone jockeys are fucking over their people. What do you expect us to do?”

Because I do actually believe in podcasting

I was at a comedy show in Silver Lake once and the comedian whose show it was said “We got A24 in the house?” and a table of people “Wooed” because they were in fact from cool, progressive production company A24.

This was fun for all of us because the comedian was making fun of himself and his perceived audience, and then was 100% correct about it. It was surprising, but not surprising. And I think it was more surprising to the comedian to the audience. That is to say that maybe everyone else’s perception of your vibe is stronger than your knowledge of the truth of it.

That was a wild sentence, so let me say it more explicitly: Gimlet is the type of media company that others expect to tell the most amount of truth, and the most honest truth possible. And on one level, that implies a responsibility to themselves. A responsibility to do the best reporting and tightest storytelling and curate the most emotive breakthroughs possible.

However, it also implies a responsibility to the rest of the fucking media landscape. Because they are looking at you, and saying “Well, we don’t have to be Gimlet.” I don’t think people think about that enough. I think a lot of people break into a creative field and they hang on for dear life and they tell themselves they’ll pick the next battle because they aren’t established enough or this story is too important or look at all the other good we’re doing.

But if you’re at The Satellite for a comedy show, sometimes fucking A24 is gonna show up. You can’t just rely on the idea that they could. You have to own who you are.

7 Questions from Bethel Habte

I did a bunch of Twitter deep-dives for this, for my own fascination and to try to parse what was additive versus what was just me cutting and pasting. The most additive thing I saw on Twitter because I think it’s the most universally useful tool I saw in all that, and also because it has the opportunity to be the most overlooked, was Gimlet reporter/producer Bethel Habte’s thread, The 7 Questions for People in Narrative Radio Who Truly Want to Be Better.

I think the 7 questions definitely apply to any media or entertainment job, but really apply to any workplace. This is a great tool. Click through now and read the whole thread:

Final thoughts about institutions and projects

I, as a 32 year old, have applied to the Reply All internship three times in the past two years. I’ve applied to countless other Gimlet jobs. Gimlet has always been up there for me with Chipotle, DJ Khaled, and Rush Hour 2.

Rush Hour 2 is obviously long-disgraced mainly because of but not limited to Brett Ratner, but what I’m saying is it’s always been one of those things I just fucking love, and I would happily have transcribed their interviews for free just to be around them and watch them make decisions (I think a lot of people in media and even more people in entertainment are dumb and pointless, so this is not a feeling I have all the time).

Now, that feeling has passed. Could I still work there one day? Maybe! But it won’t have the same magic as it would have a week ago or prior.

And that’s not a new experience for me, but it is very okay. I champion myself as this Lord of Rejection. I would love to not hold the title forever, but one of the many tough-but-awesome lessons I’ve learned during my reign is how to make peace with the passing of my untainted love for a company that might have given me a job.

It’s tainted now! And that’s how it is! The alternative is that a company, brand, or person you love does something shitty, and you refuse to let them be tainted! A number of people were all in Eric Eddings' replies saying he’s trying to take down Reply All.

Fuck that and fuck those people! It’s a fucking podcast. I loved it, I maybe still love it, I don’t know. But it’s one piece of culture in a world that has thousands of years of it. Get the fuck over it.

I’m getting over it! It sucks. I wanted to love Gimlet forever and maybe step into their shiny offices as an employee one day, and think “This is a dream come true.” Now, if I were to step into their shiny offices, I’d think “Okay, I like this place kinda still, but I’m immediately gonna look around and see who is being a fuckface to whom, and try to help stop that.”

And that’s how I want it. Because I truly believe that not giving in to the taint (what the hell, Julian?) is how bullshit like this happens.

(You just ended that whole self-righteous thing with the phrase “not giving in to the taint?”) (It’s still the goddamned Sternal Journal, isn’t it?)

Recommendations

Just a bunch more tweets:

Aaron Reiss’ whole thread I referenced before, but especially this tweet (re: Eric Eddings. be like Eric Eddings.):

This thread from PJ Vogt’s ex-girlfriend I found very late in writing this or I would have tried to incorporate it more:

These two tweets from Brittany Luse summed it all up and made me laugh:

This reply from a random listener to someone highlighting Brittany’s tweets just made me laugh:

And last, but absolutely not least, scroll through the last week of Starlee Kine’s feed:

She was, years ago, the first time I heard of public weirdness around Gimlet. I wasn’t a listener to her show Mystery Show at the time, but loved it since. She also now writes for Search Party and co-hosts Election Profitmakers, which I will start listening to tomorrow.

Matt Lieber, from what I now understand, is a piece of shit stuck inside a doodyhole.

Much love,

Julian