EMMANUEL DZOTSI: From Gimlet, this is Reply All. I’m Emmanuel Dzotsi.
Around 10 p.m. on Tuesday, February 16th, I got a voice memo from a friend. It was pretty short and pretty direct. “None of this is your problem to fix,” my friend said. “Stay the fuck out of it.”
For those of you who don't know, uh, the event my friend was telling me to stay the fuck out of was a full-blown reckoning over race and work culture that took place on Twitter involving this show and a series we made called “The Test Kitchen”, which was about the systemic racism at a food magazine called Bon Appetit.
Not long after we published the second episode of that series, former colleagues of ours at Gimlet spoke publicly about their honestly really horrible experiences working as young Black people at our company, which is overwhelmingly white. Some of these allegations actually centered on this show, and how some members of our team, including PJ Vogt and Sruthi Pinnamenani, who were the editor and reporter on this series, opposed the Gimlet union, which was formed two years ago in large part by people of color.
In the aftermath of that online reckoning, PJ and Sruthi left the show.
I’ve been thinking about the message my friend sent me a lot lately, because what I’m doing literally right now, on the air, on video calls every day, is the exact opposite of staying out of it. Which is to say, after all of the tweet threads, after the New York Times articles, after the Notes app apologies, after everything that’s happened and all the people this show has let down, a very familiar course of events has transpired. The white leader guy has left the stage, and a Black guy is talking to you about it.
That fact doesn’t feel good to anyone. But it is what’s happening.
The truth is, despite my friend’s warnings, I have definitely not stayed the fuck out of things.
After PJ and Sruthi left the show, I was a part of trying to figure out exactly where we went wrong publishing this series, which we’ll get to later on in this episode. I jumped on the phone alongside my colleagues and called the former employees of Bon Appetit, who we’d failed, and I was there when we decided not to continue airing the series.
I did a lot of that stuff because I felt, and still feel, really awful about the way we failed so many people of color. But also, as I dug deep into what had happened, I was doing the work that I think some of you might be doing right now — learning about things that have happened on this show and at this company, thinking about all the people who’ve left; but also just thinking about who remains and about what remains. Like, what is left of this show that’s worth carrying on and being a part of?
What is Reply All now?
This isn’t a new question for me. It’s a question I had way before what happened with “The Test Kitchen” series, and it’s a question I’ve been asking since I first got offered this job as a host.
Last year, back in June, when PJ asked me if I wanted to become a host of this show, a bunch of questions came to mind. One, which we openly talked about as the summer progressed, was about the timing of this proposed promotion: just weeks after Derek Chauvin murdered George Floyd. I was worried about being seen as a way for this show to fake racial progress. Another question I asked PJ, the one I’m thinking of right now, was, “Are you quitting?” I asked that question because, I don’t know, Black ascendancy is often hard fought, right? It’s seldom just given. In my experience, white people often only cede control of something to Black people when it’s clear what they’re handing over is in crisis, or at some sort of end point.
PJ told me he wasn’t quitting. He told me he wanted me on the air more, that I was good at my job and deserved this. “I wanna make the show you want to make,” he said. So, we set out to do that.
The first step was an announcement about my promotion. You may have heard it when it aired. At the time, I didn’t think that much of it. Well, our whole staff listened to it again a couple weeks ago. And I’m gonna play it for you, because if you listen closely, underneath all of the joviality and camaraderie, you can actually hear us trying to answer a lot of complicated questions about ourselves in real time.
PJ VOGT: Alex Goldman.
ALEX GOLDMAN: PJ Vogt.
PJ: This sounds suspicious already. Uh, so, before we start the show, we have a big announcement that we are very excited about.
PJ: We are adding a third host. Uh, somebody you already know: uh, Emmanuel Dzotsi. Emmanuel, hello.
EMMANUEL: Hey, guys.
ALEX: And to be clear, adding a new host does not mean getting rid of one of the old ones.
PJ: Uh, I didn’t tell you about this part of the announcement. (laughs)
PJ: Uh, no. We are not getting rid of any of our existing hosts, but we are adding Emmanuel as a host at Reply All. Uh, and basically, the idea behind this move is like, we just want to give Emmanuel more space and support to do stories like the ones he’s done. Like, big, ambitious reported pieces, like his three-parter on Alabama Democrats from the winter, or his story this summer about white people sending Black people reparations on Venmo.
EMMANUEL: You mean the story about, like, white people trying to, like, give Black people what they deserve?
PJ: Yes! That story.
EMMANUEL: But just to say, that is not what this is.
PJ: Um, yes, this promotion is not reparations in action. Um, it’s just a reflection of the fact that we have a super talented reporter on our staff who is gonna get a little more stage to tell stories on.
EMMANUEL: Oh, thank you, PJ.
PJ: Yeah! Um, basically what you need to know as a listener is that the show is still gonna be the show. Me and Alex are still gonna be here, telling each other stories, laughing at dumb jokes. You shouldn’t necessarily expect Emmanuel in every single story. He probably isn’t swooping into Yes-Yes-No unless he really wants to. We just want him to have the space to do more ambitious work.
Um, I really hope people are even half as excited as Alex and I are about this. Any time we’ve made any change to the show, some people have freaked out. Literally after our second episode, there were people telling us that we’d changed too much and the old stuff was better.
ALEX: Is that true?
PJ: Yes. Yeah. They said that becau— we were doing stories about apps now and we’d sold out. Um.
ALEX: Oh yeah, that’s right. “This used to be a really creative show. Now they just do stories about apps.”
PJ: Stories about apps. Um, basically, the main thing I wanted to say is our show is gonna keep changing. And while we hope that you like these changes, they are not totally for you. Making the show is a privilege. It is a pleasure. But for us, it is only worth it to the extent that we can keep it interesting, keep it different, and keep it challenging. We’d rather stop than repeat ourselves.
EMMANUEL: Okay, let’s, let’s just stop it there, shall we, because there’s a lot going on in that. Alex jokingly asks if he’s being replaced. PJ says very nice things about me and says the show is gonna be great, even though it isn’t clear exactly how the show is going to change, right? Like, where I fit in that change, or who the hell this show is for besides ourselves.
The other thing that happens, of course, which I am not gonna gloss over, is that my only real contribution to the announcement is to cringe-ly wink at the thing I felt like we were tiptoeing around saying, which was, “Dear listener, a Black guy is gonna be on the air from now on. He’s good. Don’t be mean. Don’t be racist. And PS: Maybe more change is coming”.
The thing we don’t say, in my opinion, is why we felt the need to say all of this.
To me, it felt like we were doing all of this work in our announcement, uh, in part because we thought listeners might be freaked out at the idea of a third host in addition to Alex and PJ, but also in part because any time I had even referenced the mere existence of race or racism on the show, I’d gotten some weirdass shit from some of our listeners. Like, one white woman actually once emailed me a 17-minute voice memo complaining that everywhere she turned, there were Black people making her feel bad about race, and she wanted it to stop. When I brought these subjects up, it felt like some listeners acted like I was coming into their perfectly clean house, dancing around in muddy shoes, like, shoving stuff they didn’t wanna think about in their face. I was that guy to some people. And we were trying to tell those people to get over their feelings and give me a chance.
I appreciated the stance we took at the time, but looking back on it now, that new host announcement feels emblematic of a major blindspot on our show.
EMMANUEL: We often had conversations about how we didn’t like that our listeners had negative reactions to the sorts of stories I was interested in, stories about race and identity, even though we were the ones who made a show that so often ignored race and identity.
We never asked a crucial question: What was it about what we were previously making that required us to lecture our listeners?
If I’m honest, the internet criticism of my work on the show that always felt the worst wasn’t racist or bad faith stuff people said about me. It was something they said about my stories that always felt pretty true — that my reporting just didn’t sound like something that belonged on the version of Reply All that so many listeners had come to all know and love.
The thing that excited me about becoming a host on this show, and excited my colleagues, was that my stories might not feel out of place on the show anymore, and that by proxy, other kinds of stories other people wanted to do wouldn’t feel out of place — that the show might actually change.
But that didn’t really end up happening.
We did do some work to try and internally change how the show functioned, tried to figure out my new role, tried to make some of our processes at the show better.
But we weren’t honest with ourselves about the work we needed to do to tell the stories we wanted.
And that was especially true when it came to telling a very complicated story about race in the workplace: ”The Test Kitchen”.
SRUTHI PINNAMANENI: So I'm going to tell you that story in four parts
A story about Bon Appetit.
SRUTHI PINNAMENENI: It all started a decade ago when the man in charge would build that place with a fundamental flaw
Obviously, there’s a lot that happened there. There are some things that I can talk about and that we're gonna talk about in just a second… but there are also some things that we just can’t get into. I don’t speak for Gimlet as a company, and there are really private interpersonal matters, the kind you’ll find in varying degrees at any workplace, that I can’t explore.
I will say though, you’re not gonna hear me explain what happened by myself.
Because honestly, everyone on staff has been mulling this over, including my colleague and co-host Alex Goldman.
EMMANUEL: So, I don't know, I think probably a lot of listeners have listened to this episode so far, and have just, probably been wondering where you’ve been in all of this? Right?
ALEX: Well, I mean, like you said earlier, we’ve all been spending a lot of time reflecting on the making of The Test Kitchen... And more than anything, what we want to do is apologize. We really hurt a lot of people. We hurt people from Bon Appetit, we hurt our colleagues, and we hurt our listeners. We are very very sorry.
For the past couple of months, we’ve been working to pinpoint where exactly our process failed. Like, choices that we could have made very differently. And from the start, it's been important to us that we're not just doing this alone — um, we‘re also going to be working with folks outside of our show to identify problems in our process.
And we get that it’s weird to hear us reporting on ourselves, and we don’t presume that this is a complete picture of everything that went wrong. But for now, here’s what we think we messed up.
So, as a show, Reply All has always been incredibly focused on making sure our stories are accurate. We have fact checkers, we bring in outside editors. And all those processes are meant to protect the work we do, make sure that we’re characterizing people’s opinions correctly, that we’re getting stuff right—
ALEX: —that we’re not making factual mistakes.
But there's another very basic initial step that you do when you work on a story, which is that you ask yourself the question, like, “What am I bringing to this story? Like, what effect do my life experiences, my biases, have on the story?” And after answering those questions, what you’re supposed to do is ask yourself, “am I, the reporter, the right person to be doing this story?”
EMMANUEL: Right. And, you know, the whole point of reporting a story about someone else is to understand that person’s experiences, right? You, you don't want your own experience or bias to end up harming the person’s story that you’re telling, or even overshadowing it.
And I think what's tricky about all this is that, at the beginning of this series, like, we did ask ourselves those questions, although the story we were making was actually different. Like, what became “The Test Kitchen” initially started out as a story about, um, the complicated history of curry and how that played out in a fight over a viral recipe last year.
And in that context, there were conversations about what Sruthi, as someone who grew up in India, was bringing to the table for the story.
ALEX: But the problem was that the story changed in scope and ambition, like, pretty dramatically, um, and it became the Bon Appetit series.
EMMANUEL: Yeah, like a four-part thing.
ALEX: And, you know, along the way, we just didn’t keep asking ourselves those questions hard enough, or in the way we should have. Because if we had, we would never have framed the series in the way we did, and, you know, given the nature of the mistakes that Sruthi, PJ, and our team made, we might never have published this story at all.
EMMANUEL: Wh-what did happen, though, um, is that late in the process, people on our team and people outside of Gimlet, they started sort of identifying the dissonance in, in what we were doing.
EMMANUEL: Um, and, as has been reported, and you might have read about in The New York Times, just after the first episode came out, PJ and Sruthi, like, reached out to people who used to work at Gimlet and, and — or still work at Gimlet — uh, and reached out to them to have conversations that I have to say, like, they probably should have had outside the context of this story.
Sruthi and PJ’s voices, of course, are absent from what we've just told you. What we do have from them are the following two statements. And I’m going to start by reading the statement that Sruthi sent us. Quote:
My reporting on Bon Appetit helped me recognize my own mistakes in the workplace, but not clearly enough and not soon enough to fully reckon with them. I want to apologize to my former colleagues and especially to the people at Bon Appetit who felt let down by me.
The issue I hoped “The Test Kitchen” would explore — systemic racism, and the damage it does — the conversation around that is urgent and unignorable. I know that conversation will continue, because it has to.
ALEX: That was Sruthi’s statement and this is PJ’s statement, quote:
I didn’t support the Gimlet Union. At the time, I didn’t believe it was the best choice for me personally. That was the wrong call, and I’m sorry for it. What I didn’t consider then, and I wish I had, was what the union represented to people of color at the company.
Seeing how much hurt and disappointment people felt about my choice, I decided the best way to hold myself accountable was to step down.
It was a great and rare privilege to work with the Reply All team. I’m excited to see what they do next. I will be rooting for them.
EMMANUEL: So that’s what PJ and Sruthi had to say about the mistakes that they’ve made. And you know, on our end, after looking through a lot of these mistakes we made the decision not to air the last two episodes of the Test Kitchen series. And we made that decision for a number of reasons.
ALEX: Right. And I mean, the fact is that when Sruthi and PJ left the show, the last two episodes of this series just weren’t finished. Like, they weren’t built. And I mean, one option would have been to hire an outside reporter to complete the series, but that would mean that person would have to, you know, redo dozens of interviews with people who had already entrusted us to tell this story and been disappointed by us. It’s just like, an impossible position for any reporter. And we created that situation!
EMMANUEL: Yeah. I mean, it’s just like, what’s frustrating for, for me personally, and I’m sure it’s frustrating for you as a listener, is just like, so many of the mistakes we made are just like, so obvious. Um. And you know, I know there’s nuance there, and I know not everyone may agree with that. But I think for me, looking back at all of those mistakes, I was just like, we shouldn’t be custodians of this thing. The story we told was really important, and like, I really hope that someone else tells it. But I think, like, we just lost the right to do that as a show.
So those are mistakes that I feel like we’ve been marinating in and really looking at for like, the last two months. Um, one of the other things we’ve been trying to figure out is just also how, how we move forward. Um, you know, I talked at the beginning of this show about what is Reply All now? Um, and it’s a very present question for us. I mean, Sruthi and PJ leaving the show is like a significant change.
ALEX: Uh, uh, a lot of people have asked, I think rightly, like, what is Reply All without PJ? And I can only say for myself, uh, I don’t know the answer to that. I have never had a job in radio that PJ wasn’t also at. Um.
ALEX: Yeah. (laughs) January 4, 2010. My first day in radio as an intern was the day I met PJ.
EMMANUEL: Wow. Literally, when you and PJ, like, weren’t working together, I was a minor.
ALEX: (laughing) Jeez.
But what I can say about the past two months is, uh, sort of the bright spot amid all the sort of dark stuff we’ve been working through, has been that, you know, the eight people that remain on this show, the same people who made all the stories that we made before, they all have, like, really fantastic ideas for stories, for directions to take this show. And like, that is very exciting to me.
EMMANUEL: Yeah. It’s like, the thing we have now that two people are gone is just like, space, right? Just like, space for other ideas and like, space for a different type of show. I think, like, there is a lot to be excited about. And, you know, it’s not lost on me that six months ago, we made a similar announcement on this show, which I played in this episode, right? We were basically like, “Things are changing! Things are gonna be great!” And then they weren’t. And I think what I want to say right now, that I hope makes this feel different to some of you, is just, like, to be honest with you guys and say, we don’t know if it’s gonna work. There are, like, a lot of things we need to do to actually make the show that we want to make.
All that we can promise is that we’re gonna try. We’re gonna try to make this a better show. And if that interests you in any way, like, what we could be making, stay with us.
ALEX: Our first episode back in our regular schedule will be June 10th. See you then.
Reply All is made by Phia Bennin, Emmanuel Dzotsi, Anna Foley, Tim Howard, Damiano Marchetti, Navani Otero, Lisa Wang, Jessica Yung, and me, Alex Goldman.
We were mixed by Rick Kwan. This episode was fact checked by Isabel Cristo. Music in this episode by Marianna Romano, and the mysterious Breakmaster Cylinder.
Special thanks to Reyhan Harmanci, and Lydia Polgreen.
You can listen to our show on Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts. Thank you so much for listening. We’ll see you on June 10th.