'I hate it!' PJ Vogt of the Reply All podcast reveals his top five radio pet peeves
"I hate radio, it's so bad!," PJ Vogt says to me laughing. "Nothing ever functions, ever, at all." This is how we begin our interview, struggling to establish a studio connection.
As the co-host of the podcast Reply All, it's PJ's job to try and make sense of what drives people nuts about the internet. That means he's got lots to say about what can go wrong when we try to tell those stories.
And at 30-years-old, PJ will be the first to point to his own issues. Like how he thinks he's got a horrible radio voice. "I sound like a child. Constantly giggling. And a millennial. And I swallow all my words. And I use the word 'like' constantly."
When it comes to PJ's top pet peeves he admits, "pretty much across the board, these are things that I have done and do wrong." So what drives PJ crazy when he hears it? And how can we avoid making these mistakes ourselves? PJ takes us through his list of top five radio pet peeves.
#1. 'Yes' is not an emotion
One of my big pet peeves is when people ask non-open questions. You'll say like: 'When that happened, did you feel scared?' It's bad tape and it can feel like you're prompting them, like you're leading the witness emotionally.
It's not just that you do open ended questions all the time. When someone is telling you their story, after everything that happens that they could have a feeling about, you literally just have to say: 'How did you feel? How'd that feel? What was that like? What do you make of that? What were you thinking to yourself? What were you saying to yourself?'
It's like seven questions that are actually the same question. But whenever you veer from them, you will get yourself in trouble. Often the simple questions are better.
#2. Let them defend themselves!
A huge pet peeve of mine is not pushing back against your subject in the story itself. So somebody says something you disagree with, you know you disagree with it, and you don't say it to them in the tape, in that moment! And then you give yourself the last word immediately after.
I did a story where I interviewed a woman who was the star of the longest running continuous play in New York City and she'd been doing the same role for 30 years. The play had horrible reviews and I wanted to know why she'd want to be in a play that nobody liked.
But I didn't really directly ask her about that. So I had this piece where I was like: 'How do you feel about the play?' And she's like 'I like being in the play.' And then in voiceover I'm like: 'The play is very bad. No one likes it.' And my editor Alex Blumberg was like: 'You can't do that!' And it makes for bad tape. The most interesting thing about the story is how she feels about that. And so I had to go back.
Here's how the piece turned out (and PJ still thinks he could have pushed harder).
If somebody does something that doesn't make sense to you, understanding that makes for a good radio story. And if somebody does something that you think is ethically bad, they don't usually think it's ethically bad, usually they have a reason. And giving them the chance to justify that is really good. It doesn't have to be your opinion. [When you challenge them] you can say 'some people would say ...' or base it on objective information. It's also about not letting a person just come across as bad or not human. Because our job is to understand people, particularly people who seem unusual.
#3. You're not a good actor
I hate, I hate, I hate fake surprise in radio stories. Particularly in stories that involve a reporter telling a story to another reporter or host. I hate when the person who's not supposed to have a lot of information, is just astounded by everything and asks all the appropriate questions that move the story along. And it just feels fake. I am just such an unconvincing performer. Obvious. Leading. Fake questions. I hate it!
Listen to one of PJ's self-described cringe-worthy performances.
At Reply All, if someone's working on a story, they keep that story away from the person who they want to tell it to on-air. So then we genuinely have the conversation. And we'll do it early [in the process] because then the person asking questions has genuine questions.
If I was telling a story, I know there are certain questions my co-host Alex Goldman would like me to ask him. And for the most part, I'll ask those questions like I'm not a sociopath and I'm not an idiot. But you can hear when someone doesn't know versus when they're trying to. If radio reporters were fantastic actors they'd be actors.
But what happens when one of the co-hosts is cranky and decides not to play nice? (i.e. PJ had too much caffeine and was in a bit of a "mood".)
Or when reporter Lynn Levy pulls a role reversal and spontaneously asks the hosts a question.
If you're working on a daily news show where it's your job to keep your host fully in the loop, try to keep at least one piece of information hidden away in your back pocket. So that there's still an opportunity for genuine discovery on-air.
#4. Don't be lazy!
There's this whole class of radio writing that to me signals that the reporter/writer/editor has not thought through their story entirely. One example of this is the phrase "kind of." Like when someone says: "And I talked to so and so and they were kind of upset about the whole thing." A lot of times there's a built-in hedgy imprecision, which is the reporter signaling to themselves "I don't know if I'm right about this" and so I'm going to use some weasel language to just muddy it a little bit.
See if you can catch PJ's slip.
If you call something "kind of boring" — well, is it boring or not boring? Or when something is important and a reporter clearly has not completely decided for themselves why it's important. They'll say, "There's just something about x." Where x is the thing they're covering.
As a listener I'm always like: 'What, what is the thing about it?!' You should know and you should tell me. There are phrases that you will use that should say to you that at this point in your script you have stopped thinking. That you have not thought about this topic or idea carefully enough to refine it. Be alive to that.
#5. If you're pitching internet stories, a word of caution ...
I tend to really not like stories about the internet where there's an implication that because something is happening online that used to happen not online, that on its face that's interesting.
My rule with myself is, could you replace internet in that sentence with 'people'? For example, internet dating is bad because it's cold and alienating. But well, dating people can be bad because it's cold and alienating! The internet didn't do that, people did that! Don't assume that because something happens online it's cheap or bad or not real.
And one last piece of advice ...
Every rule is breakable and you should not worry that you've made something bad, ever. I like to listen [to my work] on a six-month delay. The recent stuff hurts too much! For me, six months out I can hear it like a story and give myself feedback in a more useful way.
There are so many constraints on a radio piece for it to work well. Like audio quality and the availability of somebody. Or like doing a story that takes place in somebody's mind. One of things we try to do with Reply All is always take stories we don't think we can tell, and try to tell them. And that's really fun (but it also makes me constantly mad at radio for being hard!).
The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
About PJ Vogt
PJ Vogt co-hosts the podcast Reply All, alongside Alex Goldman. It's a show about the internet and the people who make it interesting. The podcast launched in the fall of 2014 as part of award-winning journalist Alex Blumberg's new digital company Gimlet Media. PJ (a.k.a. Peter Junior) first made a name for himself at NPR co-hosting the podcast TLDR, an offshoot of WNYC's On The Media. His work has appeared on This American Life and All Things Considered. He says radio is "one of the most fun ways to tell and be told a story," adding that, "I like that with radio you like somebody before you know who they are."
According to PJ, leaving NPR for a full-time podcasting gig has given him more freedom in the types of stories he gets to work on. For example, he doesn't have to worry about offending anyone. But PJ also acknowledges that he now faces new constraints (like a higher volume of episodes, accommodating mid-show ad breaks ... and, on one of the days I tried reaching him, working a 24-hour production day that ran 6 a.m.- 6 a.m.!).
Check out some classic episodes of Reply All. Or listen to PJ's story about a guy who posts songs about poop online (the piece won The Little Mermaid Award at the 2014 Third Coast International Audio Festival; it was produced with Alex).
If PJ wasn't making radio, he says he'd likely be a college dropout.