Alex Goldman and PJ Vogt are the hosts behind the incredibly popular podcast “Reply All,” a show about Internet culture. So Goldman and Vogt are used to playing with far-out story ideas. They’ve interviewed Internet creators like Jennicam, explained memes to the uninitiated, explored Internet phenomena and even, in one of their most unusual episodes, trashed their traditional format in favor of an all-day adventure across New York City.
And now, this week, they’re trying out a new experiment: asking people to call a phone number and talk to them. Goldman and Vogt are stationing themselves on the other end of the phone, available any time, day or night, for 48 hours.
Reply All opened the line on the morning of Oct. 10, and reported Oct. 11 that more than 34,000 people had called in. Try calling when there’s a call in progress and you get this chirpy response: “There is a conference in progress. Try again in a few minutes.”
We ARE still taking calls. We're just getting a lot of them.— Reply All (@replyall) October 10, 2016
On Tuesday, though, Goldman said his “brain is pretty much mush.” In one call that afternoon, he and Vogt were talking about child care with a woman living in France. Why child care? Why the “terrible 2s?” Because, the hosts told the stranger, they were trying to find some kind of ultimate meaning in their conversations with random people. And maybe that was in asking people about child-care advice, and learning more about the stages of parenthood.
“We were just talking about having children because this whole thing is feeling really painful,” Goldman said. “Maybe there’s a reason for it. And the theory is, maybe if we keep going, the reason will appear.”
Below is our Q&A with Goldman on Oct. 11, halfway through their experiment. Responses below have been edited for length and clarity.
Q: So … how is it going?
A: PJ didn’t make it through last night. He fell asleep. I made it to 4 a.m. then I crapped out, too. It’s going well. People are calling many, many times in a row. So like the line is really, really backed up. But according to the app that we’re using to route calls properly, we have something like 67,000 calls.
Q: And how many would you say you’ve answered?
A: In the hundreds.
Q: Any universal themes? Common topics?
A: I’ve got to tell you, my brain is pretty much mush right now. What I’ve been doing is writing down every call as I take it. It’s hard to remember which call is which. It’s unbelievable at this point. My throat is hoarse. It feels like giving a 48-hour book report, basically.
There is a universal curiosity about why we are doing this. And then there are people calling us for advice. Which seems weird because we feel unequipped to give advice. But a lot of people are not super happy with their jobs. And we’ve gotten a lot of calls on that subject.
I would say, surprisingly, it’s a function of being two white guys and how difficult it is to reach us — we’ve gotten no trolls at all. No one is harassing us. We are definitely in a position to avoid that because the Internet is not super interested in harassing white guys. But some people are saying they’ve called 100 to 200 times to reach us. That’s enough of a wall.
Q: What was your motivation to keep going?
A: At 4 yesterday we had this weird reckoning. PJ was like, “Is there a way to stop this?” I was like: “We can lie. We can say the system is broken.” And he was like, “No, we can’t do that.”
There’s two ways we’re taking calls right now. One is in the studio and the other is we’re wiring ourselves with lapel mics and walking around. So we took calls on the street and in the bowling alley, in a Chinese restaurant and at home. I was taking calls on the train this morning.
Q: Is it turning out? I mean, I guess what I’m asking is, “Is this what you wanted?”
A: “Are you satisfied, Alex? Is this what you wanted?” I didn’t know what to expect. We just wanted to see what would happen.
And sometimes it’s a horrible failure and sometimes it’s a dramatic success. What has been amazing is the system that we had set up for us — it’s just not designed to handle the call volume. Sometimes accidentally, more than one person is getting on a call. And I had a great call last night after PJ went to bed, with a woman in college who felt like her friends were stabbing her in the back and another woman who had just had a guy tell her he wasn’t ready for a serious commitment. And they totally ignored me and just commiserated with each other. A happy accident.
The experiment ends at 9 a.m. Wednesday, so if you’re reading this before then, feel free to call 646-490-1847.
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