Crypto Island and the Return of PJ Vogt

Photo: PJ Vogt

Before launching into its first story, Crypto Island opens with a deep breath. There’s subtext to the exhalation: The podcast, which explores stories from the wild west that is the crypto world, is a new project from PJ Vogt, marking his first steps back into podcasting since his departure from Reply All, the popular Gimlet Media show he once co-hosted.

It’s been a little over a year since the “Test Kitchen” scandal at Reply All, an episode that saw Vogt, along with senior reporter Sruthi Pinnamaneni, aired out in public for producing a miniseries revisiting the recent reckoning around Bon Appetit’s workplace culture that was alleged to be deeply unequal, especially with respect to its employees of color. “The Test Kitchen,” as the miniseries was known, drove positive attention at the outset for what it intended to do, but everything quickly imploded after former Gimlet Media staffers accused the studio — and in particular, Vogt and Pinnamaneni — of perpetuating similar inequities in their own professional house.

A lot has happened in the intervening period. Vogt and Pinnamaneni no longer work at the company. Reply All went on hiatus and returned to regular publication earlier this year. Gimlet Media is still around, though the Spotify-owned division appears to have lost much of its gloss these days, and it recently saw the departure of its managing director, Lydia Polgreen, who held the role for about two years. Meanwhile, Spotify has gone on to bigger and grander controversies, mostly involving Joe Rogan. Elsewhere, the podcast business carried on consolidating, mostly for the worse, and Bon Appetit went through another fiasco, though that one seems to have drawn much less attention, and involves botulism.

But memory of the “Test Kitchen” scandal lingers. Every once in a while, I’ll get a note from a reader or see someone publicly wonder about the story. What happened to Vogt? To Pinnamaneni? What’s actually going on at Reply All and Gimlet these days? Why didn’t they release the rest of the investigation into Bon Appetit? Most of the questions will likely persist, but with the release of Crypto Island, one of those queries is getting a clear answer.

The series has had a curious rollout. It started to appear on podcast directories last month, almost out of the blue, and it was primarily promoted through Vogt’s sparse personal Substack, which feels appropriate. Spiritually, the podcast feels like your prototypical Substack: loose, scrappy, somewhat experimental, probably in need of more editing, made almost single-handedly. (In the comments of the newsletter, where Vogt is active, he explained that he produces the stories by himself, but pays for an external fact-checker and a firm that provides scoring and mixing services.) The podcast also feels Substackian in the sense that it’s the product of a creator who, for one reason or another, couldn’t stay at the conventional institution they were previously.

The initial quietness of Crypto Island’s arrival was interrupted shortly thereafter by a Deadline announcement which bore the bombastic claim that the “team” behind the podcast are “already planning to supersize it with TV extensions, both in the documentary realm and scripted arena.” The report was peculiar. This is partly because it appeared to quote lines from Vogt’s introductory Substack post and pass it off as if he actually gave an interview to Deadline. But it’s weird mostly because Vogt is giving off a sense that he’s hoping to keep Crypto Island an under-the-radar affair, presumably for the benefit of himself and those who continue to feel negatively toward him in the wake of the “Test Kitchen” scandal.

Yeah, I don’t know about that. Given the circumstances, and not to mention Vogt’s profile in the podcast world, such a plan was probably never going to be feasible in the first place. In any case, the show was recently featured on Apple Podcasts’ “New & Noteworthy” section, which means the cat’s really out of the bag now.

So what to make of Crypto Island? On the one hand, it’s unmistakably good. The early Reply All vibes are strong in this show, particularly with its enterprise sense of curiosity about the weirder corners of the crypto world (which is to say, almost all of it). That world seems all but unavoidable these days, and Crypto Island really captures the fundamental feeling of strangeness and disorientation embedded in the crypto phenomenon as well as its noxious appeal. The introductory episode, “Welcome to Crypto Island,” kicks things off with a bemused accounting of a crazy scam-adjacent effort to sell plots of an actual island to the cryptocurrency elite, a postcard from the chaos of crypto culture. “ConstitutionDAO” walks listeners through a failed effort to leverage the new tools and structures of the crypto movement to buy a copy of the U.S. Constitution, a tale that illustrates the stumbling, painfully juvenile, and wholly enthusiastic nature of these aspiring tech revolutionaries. “The Skeptic” offers an interview with someone who’s come out the other side of crypto’s roller-coaster experience.

The show is at its most effective when it puts the spotlight on the actual people who are part of this growing culture and seriously considers them as human beings, separate and apart from the distortive nature of their online personas. That said, there are times when Vogt seems to flicker between credulity and skepticism. In moments, the podcast raises the question of whether we’re witnessing a host become increasingly crypto-pilled.

Flashes of what made Vogt’s work on Reply All so effective are abundant. “It was like somebody invented a new product that let you gamble on subprime mortgages while setting trees on fire so they can mint new Mark Zuckerbergs who are richer but also less charismatic than the original,” he narrates, expounding on his curiosity about blockchain technologies like cryptocurrency and NFTs. “What could you say about that other than, ‘It’s a shame it was ever invented.’ A lot of people I knew felt that way. But every now and then, somebody, sometimes a close friend, would get hoovered up.’” (So, it seems, has Vogt.)

On the other hand, there remains the “Test Kitchen” of it all. It isn’t hard to plug Crypto Island into the ongoing question about what should happen after someone gets so publicly taken to task for a wrong. In Vogt’s case, it was a situation in which he had placed his professional needs in front of those of others, a stance that resulted in him opposing an effort within Gimlet to unionize and improve conditions for co-workers who did not have the same power, privileges, and security that he did. It was the hypocrisy of subsequently trying to make a journalistic work dissecting similar injustices in another workplace, seemingly before having accounted for his own actions, that sparked the brouhaha which ultimately led to Vogt’s departure.

There are layers, of course, to the question of what happens to the ousted after something like this, and we rarely get good opportunities to process this question with the appropriate sense of proportion or nuance. Now that we have one such opportunity, I’m struggling with the tension. I don’t think someone in Vogt’s position should necessarily be side-eyed from making things or working again. At the same time, the straightforwardness of his return gives me pause.

Others share this feeling. In the comments to the first Crypto Island dispatch, someone wrote: “To be completely honest, I’m wracking my brain looking for a reason to keep supporting you after what happened at Gimlet. What do you say to all of the people that feel the same way that I do? Why should I believe you changed at all? I’m glad you apologised, but honestly you need to do more work publicly addressing the shit you were apart [sic] of to show that you have learned something — anything — from what happened.”

“I get what you’re saying,” Vogt wrote back. “I’ve very much felt the same way about people whose work I respected who let me down.” He talked about how it’s impossible to be unchanged by what happened to him last year, though he’s still processing how best to publicly address the matter. “I’m not there yet though, and so for now, I am doing the thing I know how to do, which is to report stories,” he wrote. “I understand there are going to be people who don’t want to listen to my work.”

From there, he shifted to make a broader point:

I think the thing you’re asking for — proof that I’ve learned something and changed, is a very human thing to want, but a very difficult thing for me to provide to someone who isn’t in my life. The hard thing about making a mistake in public is that the human impulse is to run out and prove to people that you’re better, or different, or that you have been misunderstood. But while I am sure that the experience has changed me, I think trying to prove that is just not going to be good for anybody.

In many ways, the pairing of Vogt and his new subject matter is fitting. Still subterranean in nature, the crypto world is a space that continues to be governed by a kind of unconvention, a resolute messiness. This is, after all, the culture that pumped concepts like NFTs, DAOs, and meme stocks into the world; that tends to hide its supposed revolutionary ambitions under the guise of chaos (or is it the other way around?); that seems to speak in the language of the underdog despite being co-opted by the already powerful; that’s dancing on the line between a scam and an interesting idea.

I suppose that’s the thing about the wild west. Until it is tamed, anything goes and almost anybody can get in there. The only proviso is that you’re able to hang. In this manner, crypto is a ripe space for reinvention, and as it turns out, this can be as true for the people who participate in that world as it is for the people who tell stories about it.

Crypto Island and the Return of PJ Vogt