AESTHETICS FOR BIRDS

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What Really Went Wrong at ‘Reply All’: Norms for a New Medium

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What follows is a guest post by Joshua Habgood-Coote, honorary research fellow at the University of Bristol.

Why are non-fiction podcasts so addictive? Why are their stories so persuasive? Part of the answer lies in the directness, intimacy, and richness of solely aural media. But even amongst purely aural media, podcasting seems to have a special grip on listeners. The seductive power of non-fiction podcasting means that when shows get things wrong, their mistakes tend to mislead a large part of their audience. However, because podcasting has yet to be institutionalized, exactly what journalistic norms podcast producers ought to be bound by is up for debate.

Two well-known podcasts—the New York Time’s Caliphate series and the Reply All mini-series on Bon Appétit—recently got into trouble for failures of reporting. The producers of both podcasts framed their responses by appeals to the norms of print journalism, chalking them up to “editorial failings“. But recycling journalistic norms from old media will not give us adequate standards for podcasting. To understand how Caliphate and Reply All have gone wrong, we need to understand how the conventions and function of podcasting have created distinctive forms of media.

Caliphate and Reply All are exemplary of an underappreciated genre, which I will call inquiry-driven narrative non-fiction podcasts. Inquiry-driven podcasts are distinctive because they use the magic of audio production to transform of a real-life journalistic inquiry into a dramatic narrative, bringing the audience along for the ride as the producers uncover the facts about a topic. To understand the norms for inquiry-driven podcasts, we need to recognize how they combine storytelling techniques from detective novels and mysteries with reporting of actual investigations and how they combine standards of objectivity with a concern for the subjectivity of the journalists who are reporting.

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Since the advent of audio streaming in the early 2000s, podcasting has occupied a strange position between new media and old media. It has somehow managed to function as the herald of a media revolution despite encapsulating many of the conventions of traditional media practices.

Seen from one angle, podcasting is radio with radio frequencies replaced by an RSS feed. Many shows are just streamable versions of radio shows (the BBC started streaming ‘In Our Time’ back in 2004), and it is possible to discern podcast genres corresponding to commercial, public-interest, and amateur radio. Many shows retain the ‘radiogenic’ features and genre distinctions of traditional radio. There are interview shows, news shows, politics shows, and so on. And like radio, podcasting is an intimate medium: what BBC radio was to lonely housewives, podcasts are to socially isolated millennials.  The ownership of podcasts increasingly resembles traditional media. Increasingly, shows are owned and produced by large organizations (see, Gimlet, IHeartRadio, Radiotopia), and many legacy media institutions have moved into podcasting (see the Guardian, New York Times, and Times Radio).

Looking back before radio, podcasts—and audio books more generally—have some surprising connections to early phonograph technology. In the 1880s plans emerged for portable whispering machines which would allow listeners to consume books while they went about their quotidian activities in a description that has uncanny echoes of the way we use podcasts to relieve the tedium of doing the washing up.

Seen from another angle, podcasting is the new media par excellence. Without gatekeepers, and with relatively low entry costs, podcasting democratises audio media, creating space for special interest shows, for weird shows that wouldn’t be possible on traditional radio (see Welcome to Night Vale, Comedy Bang Bang, Athletico Mince), and for shows for minority audiences that are not well-served by traditional media (see The Nod, The Receipts, Nancy). If you squint right, podcasting can look like an audio version of 2000s-era blogging. In this way, podcasting is a denizen of the old internet, although the advent of audio-only platforms like Clubhouse and Twitter spaces might change things. The parasocial relationships which we form with podcast hosts are a very online phenomena. Shows can go viral, developing huge audiences from unpromising pitches (e.g., “son does dramatic reading of his father’s self-published pornography”). The superlative viral podcast is season 1 of Serial, and it would be difficult to overstate the influence of Serial’s production and narrative style on the contemporary podcasting landscape.

The fact that podcasting spans new and old media creates a puzzle for theorists of podcasting: should we be thinking about podcasting using the conceptual tools of old or new media? Should we be trying to analyze the conventions and aesthetics of podcasting using the concepts that we use to understand plays, radio, and television, or the concepts that we apply to memes, social media, and internet art? Should we hold podcasting to the standards of newspapers, radio shows, and playwrights, or should we hold them to the same standards as people tweeting about politics or posting images on Tumblr?

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When things go wrong, podcast producers often deploy the norms of old media, and we can start to see why podcasts are a distinctive medium by understanding why these norms are a bad fit.

The Caliphate podcast is a narrative series in which journalist Rukmini Callimachi set out to understand the backgrounds and motivations of ISIS fighters, using a combination of interviews with former ISIS fighters and on-the-ground reportage from just after the fall of Mosul. The show was anchored around a series of sensational interviews with Abu Huzayfah—a Canadian resident and putatively a former ISIS fighter—who described the psychology of online radicalisation, and his part in several atrocities. The series was published in 2018 to extremely positive reviews, and went on to receive several awards, including a Peabody award.

In September 2020 Abu Huzayfah (whose legal name is Shehroze Chaudhry) was arrested by the Canadian government and charged with perpetuating a terrorist hoax. The NYT responded to these revelations much as they would to a problem in their newspaper reporting (which might say more about the NYT than it does about podcasting). They launched two separate internal investigations run by a senior editors, which concluded that “the episodes of ‘Caliphate’ that presented Mr. Chaudhry’s claims did not meet our standards for accuracy,” and laid the blame on a combination of a lack of specialist editorial oversight, and “the ‘Caliphate’ team’s lack of skepticism and rigor in its reporting on Mr. Chaudhry.” The awards were either retracted or returned, Callimachi was moved onto a different beat, and the show was edited, adding warnings at the beginning of each episode and a mea culpa episode from the editorial team.

The NYT’s editorial line makes it out that Caliphate‘s failure was of a failure of reporting: the podcast team repeated a bunch of false claims based on unreliable and uncorroborated testimony, betraying the trust that their listeners had placed in them (for a discussion sympathetic to this line, see Beba Cibralic’s recent article). I think that things aren’t quite so simple. For starters, the podcast producers didn’t report Huzayfah’s claims: they simply broadcast interview tape of him making claims about his time with ISIS. But the more interesting problem with this diagnosis of Caliphate’s failures is that it fails to reckon with the distinctive conventions of podcasts.

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We find a similar appeal to the norms of traditional media in the recent Reply All debacle over a mini-series on structural racism at the food magazine Bon Appétit. Reply All is a technology and internet culture show that mixes technological mysteries and meme cryptography with more straightforward journalism. The miniseries was an unpacking of the history of racism and exclusion at Bon Appétit magazine which came to a head in June 2020 with the resignation of the editor-in-chief and many of the staff who appeared on the test kitchen’s popular YouTube channel. The series was presented by Sruthi Pinnamaneni (who is a first-generation immigrant from India), and drew heavily from interviews with former employees at Bon Appétit who had suffered under the “toxic” culture of microaggressions. Importantly, the show presented the magazine’s culture as illustrative of more general problems with workplace culture:

It was an ugly snapshot of an ugly place. […] And I feel like now I’ve seen a whole movie of everything that led up to that one snapshot. And once you hear that whole story, that snapshot itself feels quite different. It feels like the view of an office that is strangely familiar. Like a place you might have worked in. I have certainly recognized my own experiences in it.

As someone who has worked and studied in Anglo philosophy departments, the mix of a culture of genius and entitlement, bizarre racialized norms about who can write about what, and the use of precarity as a mask for racial discrimination certainly felt familiar.

The miniseries hit the rocks when a former Gimlet employee Eric Eddings (Gimlet is the production company behind Reply Allposted a thread which claimed that Pinnamaneni and PJ Vogt (one of the producers of the series) contributed to a similarly toxic work culture at Gimlet, and worked against unionization efforts which were part of an effort by people of color to diversify the workplace. In the aftermath, both Pinnamaneni and Vogt resigned from the show, the miniseries was cancelled, and ‘Reply All’ released a mini-episode owning up to what they describe as “a systemic editorial failure,” and apologizing to both listeners, and the Bon Appétit staff who contributed to the series. What is a little unclear (at least to me) is how to fit the problems with anti-union efforts into the mold of editorial responsibilities, at least as they are standardly presented for news media.

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To understand ways in which Caliphate and Reply All have gone wrong, we need to understand what kinds of things they are. Both podcasts are exemplary of what we might call the inquiry-driven narrative non-fiction genre. This genre is distinctive because it centers on a narrativized real-life inquiry. Much like a detective novel transforms a fictional inquiry into an aesthetic object, creating tension from impossible crimes and the underdetermination of guilt by available evidence, inquiry-driven podcasts transform real inquiries into an aesthetic object, using storytelling techniques, creative editing, and immersive audio techniques to construct a dramatic story out of the podcast’s producers trying to figure out some complex topic.

The narrative structure of these podcasts is the structure of inquiry: we start with a difficult or insoluble question, and a reporter who is driven by a deep curiosity about what the answer to that question is. The reporter goes out into the world to collective evidence (and audio), generates a set of possible answers, and gathers up evidence that bears on those answers. In simple cases, they might progress smoothly through different sub-questions to resolve the big question. Or, they might encounter a crux, where the evidence peters out, and the problem looks insoluble, only for some new evidence or insight to emerge at the last minute, resolving the issue, and allowing the evidence to fall into place. They might come up against a brick wall and end up with a set of evidence that supports multiple incompatible answers to the question being investigated. This is what happened in the first series of Serial, which concluded with an admirably complicated presentation of the ambivalent evidence about the guilt of Adnan Syed. 

The inquiry-driven narrative structure is a good fit for true crime stories, but it is surprisingly versatile. One of the clearest examples of the genre is the Reply All episode “The Case of the Missing Hit,” which focuses on trying to track down a song that one man can remember but that seems to have vanished from history.

In The Philosophy of Horror Noël Carroll discusses a similar idea about the way aesthetic properties can be overlaid over the structure of inquiry. He proposes that horror narratives are built out of a basic onset-discovery-confirmation-confrontation structure that mirrors the structure of inquiry, and argues that horror generates drama from our relation to the unknown, suspense from the withholding of answers to questions, and its cognitive pleasure from mirroring the structure of inquiry (which he charmingly calls the play of ratiocination). The connection to horror might come as no surprise to Reply All listeners: many of their stories are presented as technological ghost stories (see “The Snapchat Thief” and “In the Desert“), and their sister podcast The Scaredy Cats Horror Show centers on PJ Vogt’s inability to watch horror movies.

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Getting clear on the aesthetic properties of inquiry-driven podcasts helps us get a grip on the epistemologically distinctive features of this genre. In turn, this can help us to understand why Caliphate and Reply All’s Bon Appétit series have gone wrong in such dramatic fashion.

Part of the reason why detective stories are so popular is that detectives are heroes who model intellectual virtues by performing inquisitive tasks beyond the ken of ordinary folk. Although the presenters of inquiry-driven podcasts are not heroes, their dramatized inquiries do still function as exemplary inquiries. Inquiry-driven podcasts open up and display the backstage work of journalism that is so carefully hidden in print journalism and traditional factual radio. This mean that when podcast presenters make mistakes, it is important not just to correct the error but also to understand and contextualize them as mistakes or manifestations of intellectual vice. When Radiolab’s Robert Krulwich aggressively questioned two interviewees for a story about whether the ‘yellow rain’ that fell on Hmong refugees in Laos and north Vietnam in 1981 was a chemical weapon or bee feces (genuinely, real episode), the focus of his apology centered not on a factual error, but on a failure to be an appropriately receptive listener

Caliphate certainly presents Callimachi displays a remarkably credulous attitude towards Huzayfah. Even after the reporting team uncovered serious problems with Huzayfah’s story in Episode 6 of the podcast, which appear to demonstrate that parts of the story are simply false, when Callimachi returned to interview him in episode 10, she responds to him as if he were a reliable narrator and gives his story fairly wholesale credence.

The narrative structure of inquiry-driven podcasts means that unlike more traditional journalistic mediums, these shows are primarily vehicles for narratives rather than testimony. A show like Radiolab or Serial doesn’t simply present us with an itemized list of facts about some subject matter; it dramatizes an investigation that transforms it into a story with a narrative structure. In fact, inquiry-driven podcasts typically present two narratives simultaneously: a primary narrative about the subject-matter being investigated, and a secondary narrative about the presenters investigating that subject-matter. Some podcasts shift the dramatic focus onto one or other of these narratives. The question being investigated in “The Case of the Missing Hit” is a fairly simple one (why does this man remember a hit song whose existence there is no trace of?), and so the drama is generated by the secondary narrative about the investigation. In contrast, You’re Wrong About is based on inquiries that are effectively desk research, and so their dramatic focus is on complex primary narratives (What is the real story about the life of Princess DianaWhat happened in the Stanford Prison Experiments?).

Shifting the focus from reporting accurate facts to developing compelling narratives changes how we think about the aim of inquiry-driven podcasts, making clear that they are responsible not just for presenting isolated truths, but also for presenting a narrative that reflects a deeper understanding of the subject matter. Interestingly, the primary narratives in Caliphate and the Reply All mini-series do not seem to have been the issue. Caliphate used Huzayfah’s story to illustrate broader points about the trajectory of ISIS fighters, but there appears to be good evidence for that general narrative, and current and former Bon Appétit employees haven’t challenged the primary narrative about the problems at the magazine.

A final feature of inquiry-driven podcasts is their method for persuasion. Typically, an episode or show in this genre will start by building up curiosity, confusion, or wonder about some question (often by one presenter playing the role of audience surrogate). The response to the listener’s curiosity is not to give them the answer, but rather to invite them in to a vicarious inquiry in which they follow along with the presenter’s steps. Serial sometimes makes this invitation explicit. In Season 1, Episode 4, Sarah Koenig says “If you want to figure out this case with me, now is the time to start paying close attention. Because we have arrived, along with the detectives, at the heart of the thing.” This structure means that there is something peculiarly seductive about inquiry-driven podcasting: there is a kind of inertia associated with the narrative which the presenters build, and the way that evidence and interpretation are presented at the same time makes it difficult for the listener to distinguish between the presenters’ narratives and her own thoughts.

I think this seductive power explains why certain podcasts have been so effective at shaping public opinion. If two people have listened to the same episode of You’re Wrong About, the odds are that they will share a pretty close interpretation of events. There aren’t many people who can come away from the first series of Serial convinced about Syed’s guilt. On top of the general intimacy of the podcast as a headphone medium, the seductive power of inquiry-driven podcasts means that these podcasts have special responsibilities to their listeners. Inquiry-driven podcasts operate not just under journalistic norms of accuracy, but also under story-telling norms to tell a responsible and dramatic narrative.

The journalist Lorraine Ali nicely illustrates this point in an article on Caliphate. Applying the media critic’s mode of analysis to the podcast, she points out the extent to which the podcast’s narrative structure relied on tropes from fictional narratives about Muslim extremism that contribute to the construction of Muslims as a fearsome enemy, just at the point where the online radicalization of white men was posing a real and present danger. For Ali, Caliphate went wrong not merely as a piece of reporting, but as a piece of storytelling which over-relied on problematic tropes about Muslims and extremism.

Inquiry-driven podcasts occupy a similar genre niche to reportage and gonzo journalism.  These genres write their narrators into the story, sometimes denying clear distinctions between the reporter’s story and the story being reported on. They operate at the intersection of journalistic norms of objectivity, and dramatic requirements for subjectivity. And they run the risk of writing their narrator’s quirks and biases into the story being told. 

From the details that have come out thus far, it seems that the central problem with Reply All’s Bon Appétit series is that they used the story of Bon Appétit’s racist workplace as an opportunity to tell an inaccurate story about their own work environment. At the beginning of the first podcast, Pinnamaneni is presented as a neutral curious inquirer who was working out her own views about workplace racism (“So the first time someone in my life used the phrase “person of color” to describe me—that was about six years ago”). Given the evidence we now have about Pinnamaneni’s and Vogt’s resistance to unionization efforts, the way that they told Bon Appétit’s story was problematic because it was an inaccurate way to tell their own story.

We started with the question of whether we should view podcasting through the conventions of new or old media. I want to suggest that we should do both. The inquiry-based narrative structure of some podcasts has connections to detective stories, and tells twin narratives in a similar way to reportage and gonzo journalism. But the way that podcasts tell the stories of real inquiries depends importantly on the intimacy of audio streaming, and the way we respond to producers who mess up is a very online phenomenon.


Joshua Habgood-Coote (@impractknow) is a philosopher, and is currently an honorary research fellow at the University of Bristol. He works on epistemology, and the philosophy of language. He has written for Aeon, Real Life, and the Guardian.

Edited by C. Thi Nguyen

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