What Really Happened at ‘Reply All’?
What Really Happened at ‘Reply All’?
The first episode of “The Test Kitchen” was widely praised by podcast listeners who couldn’t wait for the next installment.
Released in February, it aimed to capture a critical decade inside the food magazine Bon Appétit. It was a story of top editors, most of them white; contract recipe developers, some of them people of color; and young, Black editorial employees trying to make changes.
That story had been told in strands on social media starting last spring, by former Bon Appétit employees and people who knew them. These people described tokenism and pay inequities, and they created a broad dialogue about appropriation in food media — all against the backdrop of widespread protests and a global conversation about racism and fairness.
Now in “The Test Kitchen,” the details would unfurl over four episodes, as a production of “Reply All,” a beloved podcast about the intersection of life and the internet that has drawn more than four million monthly listeners.
It turned out Bon Appétit’s history would be a little too instructive.
While seeking to illuminate what had gone wrong at one media company, Sruthi Pinnamaneni, the host of “The Test Kitchen,” and P.J. Vogt, her editor on the project, triggered a reckoning of their own.
This possibility was even something they had worried about.
“They were talking to each other and asking, ‘Should we be the ones to tell this story?’” said Ashley C. Ford, an outside journalist who was hired to review episode two with the podcast creators.
Ms. Ford said she told them: “Should ‘Reply All’ talk in depth about race and media and workplace relations and white supremacy in employer and employees? ‘Yes, please talk about it all!’ They have such a big audience and engaged listeners.”
In a Twitter thread a few days after the release of that second episode, Eric Eddings, a former colleague of the podcast’s creators, accused the project of hypocrisy. Ms. Pinnamaneni and Mr. Vogt had contributed to a “toxic dynamic” at Gimlet Media, the podcast’s parent company, themselves.
Both, he said, had been critical of unionization efforts at Gimlet, now owned by Spotify.
“Many POC’s felt that it was their last chance at creating an environment within Gimlet where they could succeed,” he wrote of the union efforts.
Mr. Eddings, who was a host of “The Nod,” a Gimlet podcast about Black culture, wrote in his thread that his intention was not to get people to stop listening to the show. But online, many railed against “The Test Kitchen.”
Days later, “Reply All” canceled the series, declining to run the two remaining episodes.
The company also announced that Ms. Pinnamaneni and Mr. Vogt would leave the show.
“The Test Kitchen” was meant to be Ms. Pinnamaneni’s final piece for “Reply All.” Now, she and Mr. Vogt shoulder the blame for a situation that was, many people said, ultimately created by Gimlet’s founders, Alex Blumberg, a former producer for “This American Life” and the co-creator of “Planet Money,” and Matthew Lieber, a former radio producer and management consultant.
“I think it is important for P.J. and Sruthi to be held accountable for their actions,” Mr. Eddings said in a recent interview, “but we are in this situation because of a failure of leadership. This all stems from choices made by Alex Blumberg and Matt Lieber.”
Now, former employees of Gimlet and subjects of the podcast said they regard “The Test Kitchen” as a wasted opportunity to share a sweeping, detailed portrait of racism in the American workplace.
How Transparent Is Too Transparent?
“The Test Kitchen” started as a story about curry.
Alison Roman, a cookbook author (and former columnist for The New York Times), was facing criticism for her popular turmeric-infused chickpea stew recipe, which hadn’t initially acknowledged the influence of South Asian curry dishes. Ms. Pinnamaneni, who came to the United States from India as a teenager, was interested in exploring curry as a lens into the complicated concept of appropriation in food.
Then, Adam Rapoport, the editor at Bon Appétit, Ms. Roman’s former employer, stepped down after a photo of him dressed in a stereotypical depiction of a Puerto Rican man was resurfaced on social media by Tammie Teclemariam, a food and wine writer. As other executives at the publishing company faced calls to resign over discriminatory practices, and stars from Bon Appétit’s popular YouTube channel announced their departures, Ms. Pinnamaneni saw a compelling subject for a podcast.
Gimlet had already told its own story in its popular first podcast, “StartUp,” created and originally hosted by Mr. Blumberg in 2014, the year the company was founded. In its first season, he grappled with many of the same issues Mr. Rapoport faced at Bon Appétit, including a lack of diversity, equity and inclusion. An episode from December 2015 revealed that of Gimlet’s 27 employees, 24 were white.
Mr. Blumberg’s hiring of Ngofeen Mputubwele, who came to podcasting from a career in corporate law, was touted in an episode that season as an example of the company’s commitment to diversity. But Mr. Mputubwele, in an interview, said he later felt exploited. He was a producer at Gimlet from 2016 to 2018, during which time he was shuffled between three managers who he said had little time to train him.
Mr. Mputubwele took his education into his own hands and reported an international, character-driven story for an episode of a podcast about the World Cup called “We Came to Win.” In the spring of 2018, the episode was featured in a Gimlet promotional video, narrated by Mr. Blumberg, promising “New shows new worlds new voices.”
Shortly after, Mr. Mputubwele was fired. His superiors said he had shown insufficient growth, a critique he felt was disingenuous.
“You promised to develop me, that’s why you said you brought me here,” said Mr. Mputubwele, who now works for “The New Yorker Radio Hour.” “It’s like they thought that they could do diversity without actually doing the work that diversity requires.”
Mr. Mputubwele, echoing other Black former Gimlet employees interviewed for this story, was galled by what he felt was insufficient self-reflection in “The Test Kitchen.”
“I was rolling my eyes,” he said. “I was just like, ‘This is Gimlet. We do all understand that we’re just describing Gimlet, right?’”
Gimlet, like Bon Appétit, operated on a star system. Hosts of the popular shows, like “Reply All,” held particular sway.
“There is a saying about something being the ‘tent pole show,’” a former Gimlet employee said. “‘Reply All’ wasn’t the tent pole, it was the whole tent.”
Podcasts were released and, if they didn’t find an audience, discarded, leaving staff members to attach themselves to other projects. The uncertainty was greater for contract workers, many of whom were people of color. Long-term freelancers received no paid time off or equity. (Starting in 2017, some were granted health benefits.)
Mr. Blumberg never mentioned any of this on “StartUp.” But the visceral reaction to “The Test Kitchen” by Mr. Eddings and other Black former Gimlet workers, who shared personal stories online, challenged the company’s self-mythologizing.
“If you’re really honest and ethical and you want to talk about this experiment in starting a business, you’ve got to talk about all the parts of the experiment, the ugly parts,” said Chenjerai Kumanyika, a friend of Mr. Blumberg’s who co-hosted and executive produced the Peabody-winning Gimlet podcast “Uncivil.” “You’ve got to talk about the experiment when it goes wrong.”
The Union Drive and the Sale
In the second episode of “The Test Kitchen,” Ms. Pinnamaneni broke from the Bon Appétit narrative.
“The company where I work, Gimlet, had its own version of these problems,” she said at the end of the episode. “The white people who ran the place hired people of color, and promised them change that never quite seemed to materialize.” A union drive came next, she told listeners. “Plenty of people joined that fight. I did not.”
“I wish I’d made different choices,” she said.
Mr. Vogt expressed a similar sentiment on Feb. 9, between the release of the first and second chapters of “The Test Kitchen.” In a note to current and former members of Gimlet’s union, he wrote that his work on the series had caused him to reflect on the union drive. (Both Mr. Vogt and Ms. Pinnamaneni declined to speak for this article.)
“I was vocally skeptical of that effort,” he wrote. “That was a big deal. I was the host of Gimlet’s biggest show. I was widely (and correctly) seen as someone close to the people who started the company. I had all kinds of power, official and unofficial. I know my lack of support and solidarity hurt people and hindered the creation of the union. I’m sorry for that. If you want to talk about white privilege, I think this is a pretty clean example.”
The union was meant to address the company’s treatment of freelancers, job security and promotion opportunities for producers, as well as what many felt was an inequitable environment for employees of color.
In the summer of 2018, Nazanin Rafsanjani, Mr. Blumberg’s wife, who also worked at Gimlet, had started a New Show Development committee. She brought in an all-white group of people from senior management and Mr. Vogt.
Brittany Luse, Mr. Eddings’s co-host on “The Nod,” a podcast about Black culture, went to Ms. Rafsanjani to object to the makeup of the committee. It often fell to Mr. Eddings and Ms. Luse, two of the longest tenured Black employees at Gimlet, to address these issues with management.
“There needs to be at least a few people of color,” Ms. Luse said to her. Ms. Rafsanjani responded by later asking her to join the committee. (By the end of 2019, Mr. Eddings and Ms. Luse announced they would be leaving the company for Quibi, the short-lived mobile video entertainment company which had optioned “The Nod” from Gimlet.)
When quiet talks of unionizing began, employees at “Reply All” and “Heavyweight” were kept out of those discussions, as the organizers feared leaks to management. When those employees learned they had been kept in the dark for months, some, including Ms. Pinnamaneni and Mr. Vogt, were distrustful of the organizers.
Mr. Blumberg said he felt personally “bullied” by the union efforts, according to two former employees. On Jan. 10, 2019, he gave members of the union organizing committee another reason to reconsider: Gimlet was in the process of being acquired by Spotify.
According to three people who attended, Mr. Blumberg and Mr. Lieber said in a meeting that Gimlet was running out of money and that a Spotify acquisition was in its final stages. The acquisition would benefit the full-time employees, all of whom had Gimlet stock — a group that included all but one member of the union organizing committee.
But, the founders warned, a “substantial” change at Gimlet before the deal was closed could give Spotify the right to walk away, according to the three attendees. Union organizers agreed to pause their efforts.
In early February 2019, Spotify’s acquisition of Gimlet for $230 million in cash and incentives was announced. Then came the checks.
Mr. Vogt had 6,000 shares, according to someone involved in the transaction. Ms. Pinnamaneni, hired in 2015, had 2,000 shares, as did Ms. Luse. Mr. Eddings, hired in 2016, had 1,500 shares. Early employees earned between $100 and $150 per share. Mr. Lieber and Mr. Blumberg each made more than $20 million.
By March, some employees were beginning to wonder whether unionizing was the right move, especially if contract workers would not be eligible for membership. But there was fear that expressing uncertainty would bring with it a label of being anti-diversity, said one former employee who was not on the “Reply All” staff and did vote to unionize. “There was a lot of good faith skepticism,” that person said.
On April 12, 2019, Ms. Pinnamaneni posted a public message in a companywide Slack channel calling for what Mr. Eddings referred to on Twitter as an “anti-union meeting.” (A screenshot of the message was provided to The Times by a former employee who did not work with Ms. Pinnamaneni on “Reply All.”)
“Popping in here with an unorthodox idea,” she wrote in part, laying out that she felt “some concerns” and heard from others who had not felt comfortable speaking up at union meetings about their worries. “If you feel this way and want to talk candidly as a group — without the OC or union reps or management there — please DM me.”
“The goal is not to derail any part of the process (we’re all happy the negotiations are almost done and the vote is near), but I think it’s important that everyone, even the shy and anxious among us, feels like they have a voice.”
The union vote passed by an overwhelming majority.
The Uses of Public Pressure and the ‘Cancel-Adjacent’
In July, Mr. Eddings interviewed the journalist Wesley Lowery on “The Nod,” and asked: “Can you talk to us about how social media and the ability for Black journalists to speak directly to the public has changed almost the power dynamic between Black journalists and white media gatekeepers?”
“Unfortunately,” Mr. Lowery answered, “the culture of so many of our newsrooms is such that our newsrooms only respond to public pressure and public embarrassment.”
Ms. Teclemariam, who led many of the conversations about Bon Appétit on social media, understood that dynamic well. And so, this winter she awaited her moment on “The Test Kitchen,” where she would finally get proper credit for cracking open a conversation about food media and power.
She was preparing to share a book proposal with publishers and even considering a possible entry into the world of audio journalism. But hers was among the stories that won’t be heard, making her, she said, “collateral damage.” (The final two chapters of “The Test Kitchen” were to focus on Bon Appétit’s video department and a path forward for the industry. Journalists from The New York Times Food section were among those interviewed by Ms. Pinnamaneni.)
“Being ‘cancel-adjacent’ is exhausting,” Ms. Teclemariam said. It’s especially enervating, she said, when you’re adjacent to people being canceled for their coverage of other people who have been canceled. “There is a word for this, but I’m not sure what it is. ‘Irony’ is insufficient.”
“If we cancel everyone,” she said, “who will be left?”
Rick Martinez, a Mexican-American chef and former Bon Appétit employee who was featured in the first episode of “The Test Kitchen,” said that he agreed to speak to “Reply All” to help empower other people of color to speak out.
And that is exactly what happened, if not exactly as he first imagined.
“I am very happy that this was all exposed,” he said.
Lydia Polgreen, Gimlet’s managing director who reviewed drafts of the episodes of the “Test Kitchen” before they aired, declined through the Spotify spokesman to comment. Dawn Ostroff, the former president of Condé Nast Entertainment, the division responsible for Bon Appétit’s videos, is now the chief content and advertising business officer at Spotify. She also declined to comment through a representative. Mr. Blumberg and Mr. Lieber, Gimlet’s founders, declined to comment. This account is drawn from interviews with 16 current and former Gimlet employees and people who spoke with Ms. Pinnamaneni as she reported “The Test Kitchen.”
In that second — now, apparently, final — episode of “The Test Kitchen,” Ms. Pinnamaneni noted the ubiquity of companies, including her employer, saying they want to become more inclusive and failing to deliver. “If you work in media, and frankly in a lot of other industries, you’ve either seen this story or been a part of it,” she said.
“If you haven’t seen it,” she said, “you were definitely a part of it.”