maciej łebkowski
Maciej Łebkowski

Reply all

in Personal , Reviews

I want to write reviews for multiple reasons, but the one that stands out is to introduce you to some fine pieces of media, culture, etc. Is for me to recommend them to you. And there isn’t a podcast I want to recommend more than Reply All. This is not only a great show, standing on its own, but it also represents a period of my life, so it has a sentimental value for me. It’s obviously a period of change, uncertainty, but also excitement. And it all started with one spark.

Long distance

I can’t remember when or how, except for that it was on reddit, someone mentioned the long distance episode. It was about a guy befriending a scammer that called him to sell an anti-virus software or something in that court. Without spoilers, it’s a three-act epic story. Similar to other topics covered in the show, it’s not so much ground-breaking (I have some of those podcasts to review in the queue too), but instead just an interesting story. It describes a niche piece of our world. Do I have any emotional connections with indian scammers? Do I have any vested interests in them? No on both accounts.

And this is a recurring theme with Reply All. It all comes out of curiosity. From Alex’s curious mind. From him staying on the phone. Digging deeper. There will be more stories that start out of nothing, out of seemingly boring beginnings: but then, the deeper we go, the more we learn, the more fascinating it becomes to the listener.

Let’s go down the rabbit hole, starting with two parts of the original Long Distance story, followed by a third installment, recorded 3 years later.

Negative Mount Pleasant

I remember sitting in a car in a parking lot, listening to this one. It must’ve been before the pandemic, right after I started driving to work in January 2020, and before March the same year when we were all sent for involuntary home office.

This is also one of the first episodes by Sruthi I remember. Yes, Alex and PJ are the hosts, but there are a bunch of guests on the show, and most notably the producers often take over the wheel and do their own stories. That’s a nice touch. Negative Mount Pleasant didn’t need Alexes or PJ’s energy, it required Sruthi’s authenticity.

More great reporting from Sruthi:

  • The real enemy is an episode I wrote two paragraphs about a little further down
  • On the inside — a 4 part take about a person writing a blog, being in a prison for crimes they claim they didn’t commit
  • Exit & Return

Crime machine

I remember talking about this episode to everyone (so there is a chance you actually already heard about it from me). It’s a great story with multiple twists and turns, about CompStat — a program used by the New York police in the 1990s to effectively reduce crime, and later became synonymous with aimlessly pursuing the numbers, instead of doing useful police work.

As usual, the most memorable stories come in more than one part:

Americas Hottest Talkline

That was an especially fun one for me, because at the time I listened to it (and still while I’m writing this review too) I was building a product in the telco market. So hearing a fun story about the early days of the industry was an exciting experience. The actual plot as it unfolded was fascinating.

The story starts when one of Reply All’s listener calls some kind of national covid helpline, but is instead connected to the „Americas Hottest Talkline”, a phone-sex line. It was not a typo in the number, it was a quirk of how the telephone industry is built.

And it’s not even that rare. When building Docplanner Phone we also encountered a bizarre situation. When calling one of our numbers we just bought, instead of our automated response, we received a weird, recorded message in a foreign language. After some digging (thanks stepinrazor!) we discovered, that we got in fact connected to the Turkish National Lottery information line. Yeah, the number we were dialing was from Spain, or Mexico as far as I remember. Wicked.

More telco related episodes:

The case of the missing hit

This is a fan favourite. It wouldn’t reach my shortlist, but since it’s quite popular with the audience, I decided to leave it here. In their own words:

A man in California is haunted by the memory of a pop song from his youth. He can remember the lyrics and the melody. But the song itself has vanished, completely scrubbed from the internet. PJ takes on the Super Tech Support case.

A story about the music industry with a happy ending. But the most gratifying part is when they — while looking hard for any sources of the song — resort to… Nah, I won’t spoil it for you, you have to listen for yourself! Let me just say they got really creative. Literally. „Long before I had you in my dreams…”

Pizzagate — Yes Yes No segment

This is a fun format: the hosts try to explain some tweets to their internet-illiterate boss. It’s hard to explain, you need to listen to it, and this is the perfect episode: it touches the soul of the internet, conspiracy theories, qanon, fake news, free speech.

Boy in photo

Another fan favourite. Alex & PJ try to find Wayne, the boy in a funny photo circulating the internet. As they learn more about him, they also discover that they are not the only ones searching. And then they got played.

The real enemy

I don’t think there are any two people that had the same experience with Reply All. Depending on how you approach it, you take something different out, and you see the show through a specific lens. And after I listened to the Long Distance a few years back I haven’t continued with the show. I only returned around late 2019. At that time „The real enemy” was airing.

This is why my first impression of the show was not about those funny Yes Yes No episodes, or Tech Support, or some interesting and obscure internet trivia. Instead the show presented me with real, in-depth reporting. In this case about a political struggle between two factions of a Democratic party in Alabama.

30-50 feral hogs

I’ll quote part of the transcript:

(…) he said something about how there’s no reason that anybody should own an assault rifle. But then, this random person showed up with a counterargument that did not feel familiar. It felt like it had been beamed in from outer space (…) “Legit question for rural Americans - how do I kill the 30-50 feral hogs that run into my yard within 3-5 min while my small kids play.”

This is a story about businesses in Texas renting helicopters to allow people to hunt pigs using them (like, with rifles, not with helicopter guns, but it’s a great story nonetheless). And more, obviously. This is one of those — I saw something weird on the internet and went down the rabbit hole — episodes.

The woman in the air conditioner

Halen had just moved in to his apartment when one night he hears footsteps coming into his room. Alex investigates.

Super tech support is a segment on the show where Alex tries to solve their listeners’ hard problems. And this part is the best showcase: great backstory, weird outcomes, niche industry, and a deep, deep rabbit hole to go into, with the mystery solved in the end.

This time he had a tough nut to crack: a man expected to hear relaxing sounds / music from an app, and heard weird whispers and footsteps that freaked him out (because he thought they were irl). A story about the sound samples industry.

Similar tech support episodes you might find interesting

The Snapchat Thief is about people that steal social media accounts for a living.

Adam Pisces orders a $2 Coke — across America, a plague of weird pick-up orders flood Domino’s Pizza stores. Damiano and the team try to solve the mystery.

This one podcast will just not play in this particular car’s stereo system. Learn why in „Roman Mars versus a 2016 Mazda sedan”:

A sad story about ad business, clickbait sites, with a guy’s tragedy in the background: An ad for the worst day of your life

Shipped to Timbuktu

I need to close this list. There are almost 200 episodes listed on the Reply All website, and it’s actually best to use spotify or wherever you get your podcast from, since not all the links on the site work. There is plenty more to choose from. What I mentioned above was what stayed in my memory, and what I wanted to use to build up your curiosity about the show. There are hours of content, and with a moderate speed of listening, that will last you for months. If you decide to hop in, it will be the beginning of a new era for you. I honestly recommend that you do.

I listened to it every day when going to work. I remember a lot of times getting back from work, stuck in traffic, having Reply All on. I remember listening to America’s Hottest Talkline while playing with my kid in the playground. I remember roadtrips, when I tried hard to understand what the hosts were saying over the omnipresent noise of the car going the speed limit on a highway. It was my go-to for nearly two years, and then, in April of 2021 „Test Kitchen” happened — the beginning of an end. A little over a year later, on Jun 23th 2022, Reply All published its last episode. The show is done.

But what about the Timbuktu episode? This again captures the essence and the reason I love the show. Curiosity. It starts with a person with a popular name that gets a lot of emails on his gmail account by mistake. I get those too, but only once every other month or so, and that guy got them constantly. And since he is a funny guy, he occasionally replies making fun of people. Until that time his message was met with a different response than he was expecting.

A Guide smiles and sings under all difficulties

I’m having a hard time making up my mind, but I guess it is a cheerful story, but it does have a dark background. I think it is a fitting one to close this list. Stay cheerful, stay curious.

P.S. Remember about email debt forgiveness day and find someone to reconnect with this month.

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About the author

My name is Maciej Łebkowski. I’m a full stack software engineer, a writer, a leader, and I play board games in my spare time. I’m currently in charge of the technical side of a new project called Docplanner Phone.

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