Reply All’s Brilliant Roman Mars Episode Messes With the Podcasting Industry

Photo: Vulture

It can be pretty hard to describe Reply All, inarguably the best podcast on Gimlet Media’s roster. To call it a “podcast about the internet” is far too limited, but calling it “a podcast that tells rich and fascinating stories about people using the internet” doesn’t quite cut it either, in part because that phrasing isn’t able to account for the distinct weirdness of last week’s episode — itself difficult to describe. However you’d want to describe it, though, you should definitely check the episode out. It’s peak, pure Reply All: incredibly fun, wildly inventive, absolutely ludicrous.

Titled “The Roman Mars Mazda Virus,” the episode also embodies, I think, what I hope will survive in an industry environment where $500 million worth of podcast companies, including Reply All’s publisher Gimlet Media, has been ingested by Spotify. Specifically: podcasting as driven by a sense of chaos and the sheer possibility that simply anything can happen. “The Roman Mars Mazda Virus” carries these qualities wholeheartedly … though the fact that it does might itself be a potent bit of meta-absurdity, given Reply All’s unambiguously corporate context. What, exactly, are we looking at here?

The episode’s hook comes from a Houston-area gentleman named Ben. Ben is the kind of person who listens to hundreds of hours of podcasts, and who has a podcast of his own. But Ben has a problem: He bought a new car recently, a 2016 Mazda 6, and he finds that its entertainment system can play all the podcasts of his choosing except for one in particular: 99% Invisible, the beloved podcast about design hosted by Roman Mars. Every time Ben tries to play an episode over the car radio, it simply refuses to comply and automatically shuts down. Rude.

This Roman Mars–rejecting Mazda becomes the latest subject of Reply All’s recurring “Super Tech Support” segment. For the unfamiliar, the segment follows co-host Alex Goldman and the rest of the team as they try to solve a strange technology problem for a listener. And things can get quite strange indeed, whether it’s tracking down a Snapchat hacker, figuring out the origins of strange phone calls that seem to offer glimpses into the lives of others, or finding a mysterious warehouse in New Jersey that sucks in hijacked online purchases like a void.

Oftentimes, the internet being what it is, these adventures touch the surface of something much darker, perhaps even dangerous. Not so with the case of Ben’s malfunctioning Mazda, which instead leads Goldman & Co. into a journey of pure whimsy. In their bid to figure out why the car so vehemently rejects 99% Invisible — is it Mars’s voice? Is it a virus? — they call up the famed podcaster, leading to an unexpectedly pleasant piece of Avengers-esque crossover action. Mars offers up that this isn’t the first time he’s heard of this problem, but is stumped and bummed that it happens nonetheless. Goldman eventually lands on the theory that the shutdowns might have something to do with the percent symbol in the podcast’s title, and how that could mess up car computing systems.

Here’s where the episode gets really out there: To test the theory, Goldman wrangles the rest of the team to make a collection of fake podcasts that feature symbol-filled titles to challenge the limits of Ben’s car radio. Those test podcasts include: ^space^, which mostly consists of Blade Runner–esque synth music; 100% Related?, in which Goldman’s father, a judge, helps adjudicate whether he and Alex are, indeed, 100 percent related; (Less Than, Approximately, Greater Than), in which food writer Samin Nosrat teaches Goldman how to bake a berry clafouti; and 88% Parentheticals, which features, preposterously, Sarah Koenig telling a story that, well, mostly trails off in parentheticals.

Again, these shows aren’t real — no matter how much I wish they were — but you can absolutely find them as actual podcasts out in the world that you can rate, review, and subscribe to. Many of them are floating around the Apple Podcast charts, which themselves are erroneously considered by many in the podcast biz to be valuable real estate, where placement confers audience achievement. (It’s a hotness meter above anything else, and has more in common with the eminently game-able music streaming charts than Nielsen ratings.)

Much like Reply All, podcasting itself can be pretty hard to describe. It’s a newish technology, it’s an emerging culture, it’s a formal oddity, it’s a nascent industry, and it’s yet another artifact of a culture that’s on the verge of corporatization and losing its cool (if indeed it was ever cool at all). And so the meta-joke of seeing those fake podcasts floating around the Apple Podcast charts is amusing, but also a callback: It’s a testament to the medium’s famously low barriers to publishing, and a reminder that, despite the money flowing in, it still can be anybody’s game.

Reply All’s hijinks really emphasize the surreality of podcasting’s past few capitalistic months. Despite being a baby industry that’s increasingly capable of bringing in hundreds of millions of advertising dollars — so much so that it has prompted corporations like Spotify to spend gobs of money gobbling up podcast firms, including Gimlet Media — podcasting remains the kind of business where stunts like this can easily take up valuable real estate, at least for a moment. That 88% Parenthetical happens to be made by a team whose company now belongs to Spotify the corporation (and that’s currently going through a union battle) only adds to the absurdity of the whole scene. I’m sure there’s some element of irony to be identified and unpacked here, but there’s also a high probability that I don’t really know who the joke is actually on.

Is any of this real? Is podcasting, and its supposedly booming business that we’ve been hearing so much about, actually real? How real can it become when it’s still so hard to tell what’s actually big and what isn’t, when a joke one-off podcast can give so much more joy than so many other podcasts with actual budgets? Maybe those are the wrong questions; maybe I’m not supposed to be able to answer them.

Anyway, I won’t spoil the conclusion to the mystery of Ben’s malfunctioning Mazda, other than to say it gets resolved in a manner that you’d think it would: simply, but not without some trouble.

Reply All’s Latest Episode Messes With the Podcast Industry