The Best Gossip You’ve Never Heard

Kelsey McKinney and Alex Sujong Laughlin. Photo-Illustration: Vulture; Photos: Arin Sang-Urai

A good piece of gossip can reframe your world, destabilize the values you hold so dearly, and reveal the people around you to be far more strange and interesting than you might originally imagine. A great piece of gossip, meanwhile, can ruin your life.

Few things embody this idea more enthusiastically than Normal Gossip, one of the low-key breakout podcast hits of the year. Independently published by Defector Media, the show revolves around a simple premise that’s executed with impeccable precision: Each episode sees host Kelsey McKinney delivering a robust piece of gossip — stories that are both from and about perfectly ordinary strangers — to a guest, who’s made to react and hypothetically project themselves into the situation as the tale dips into twists and complications as the best gossip tends to do. The stories run the gamut, but they tend to be the kind of stuff that shines out in group chats everywhere: dating mishaps, social-scene meltdowns, inexplicable behavior.

The idea for Normal Gossip first percolated during the pandemic, when the physical separation from others caused McKinney to feel the stinging absence of mundane gossip that doesn’t involve, say, a celebrity. In a post introducing the show at the end of last year, she described the distinct thrill of hearing such banal, contained spectacles: “There is a tone that people use — a kind of rapid speak, like the words just can’t get out of their mouths fast enough, a voice that is both a scream and a whisper — that makes my little lizard brain dance,” McKinney wrote. “It’s the intimacy of collusion with no objective, a bond over nothing but drama. It’s gossip.”

Producing that energy is the governing principle of the show, and it’s proven to be infectious. Since its launch in January, Normal Gossip quickly broke through the noise purely organically. It consistently charts well, and as the team tells me, the show crossed four million downloads across eighteen episodes at the end of August.

Ahead of the third season’s debut this week, Vulture caught up with McKinney and producer Alex Sujong Laughlin to talk about how they make the show, whether anybody’s successfully recognized themselves in a story, and turning listeners into hungry little goblins for gossip.

Let’s talk process. To start, how do you source gossip for the show?

Kelsey McKinney: Well, the first season was different from what we’re doing now, in that we started producing that before we had any listeners. We were functioning in a little vacuum where Alex and I were going to our friends and saying, “Hi, do you have any gossip that we can have?” That was a more closed process than what we’re doing now. Since, I think, episode five of season one, all of our gossip has come from listeners. Because it’s normal gossip, we don’t want it to only come from people we know. We want it to come from everyone no matter where they live or what they do.

Our inbox is now a mess because it’s full of stories from everyone. And so, from a process perspective, there’s the boring stuff: Someone has to sort through all the emails and voicemails and say like, “Okay, which of these are fun enough for the pod and not depressing? Which of these has enough characters? Which of these can sustain an hour long story?” That alone is going to cut out most of your submissions.

We’ve seen such rapid growth in people listening to the show and enthusiasm to the point where we’re receiving heaps of gossip every week, which makes our job a little easier, because it’s simpler to find a great story in a giant pile than in one that has maybe only ten stories in it.

What do you look for in a piece of gossip?

Kelsey: You need plot. Most people don’t have stories —  they just have ideas, or a thing that happened that triggered a fallout. You need some kind of twist. There should never be one clear villain in the stories we’re telling. We don’t want a story where you’re gonna hate one person the whole way through, because that’s not fun. It doesn’t give you the breadth of conversation about, “Well, who’s right? And what should you do? In which circumstances is this behavior okay?” We’re looking for things that are morally complicated. We ask, “Is this going to be fun for us?” And we also look for things, you know, with a little oomph that I can’t really describe. You know it when you see it.

Alex Sujong Laughlin: You also need a dash of absurdity. When we were doing development conversations early on, I identified that what I was looking for was something that could help me and listeners marvel at how bonkers the world is. So that’s the squirrel hat. That’s what’s-her-name jumping into a Corvette and disappearing.

How do you vet a submission? And to what extent are you determining whether a story is true?

Alex: I would turn that question back and ask why it matters if your gossip is true.

That’s fair. Do you think it’s important?

Alex: It’s not. Not for us, at least. Gossip serves many functions, obviously, but in the world we’re creating with the show — one of entertainment — our core goal is to simply have fun. We’re using our skills as reporters and storytellers to create a world for listeners that’s fun. That doesn’t mean that we’re doing journalism, which to be extremely clear, we are not.

The vetting that we do is about, like, “Does this feel emotionally true?” Because of that, we prefer not to take stories submitted by people who that story happened to, because it can be hard to get an unbiased accounting of the shittiness on both sides of a story.  We prefer stories from a bystander, or if the person is submitting their own story, they have to be willing to cop to how they might have been shitty in the situation too. Then Kelsey and I will go back and forth with them and ask them a bunch of questions, mostly just to flush out the relationship dynamics in the story.

Kelsey: You can think about vetting as a process of what you don’t wanna do, right? Like, one, we would prefer not to get sued in general. Telling you a fully true story with everyone’s names is a recipe for disaster. Two, because we’re working with gossip that happens to normal people who are not celebrities and have not opted into some kind of position of power, we really don’t want to create another West Elm Caleb, another Couch Guy, right? We’re not in the business of hurting normal people. What that means is that it’s less important to us that the facts in the story are exactly accurate than it is to make sure that stories cannot be traced back to the people they’re about.

On that note, how do you anonymize these stories?

Kelsey: We change names, locations. Those are the easy ones, and then there’s the complicated stuff. So, back in the pilot episode, which was just a trial run to see whether the concept would work, we were sent a story about a children’s sports league. If I remember correctly, the parents were acting up: They were sleeping together, creating chaos. Today, that’s not a story we would choose, because there are several elements to it we just wouldn’t use, but the way you’d anonymize it is, say, the kids in the original story played baseball, they can’t play baseball anymore. Maybe they play volleyball, soccer, whatever.

Where the process becomes fun for me, as the person who writes all these scripts, is when we get to ask, “So, if the skill the children are learning in the baseball story is bunting, what is the equivalent skill in volleyball?” To figure out how you can move those things into a second reality, but in a way that the story still has all the emotional truth to it. All the very real beats are there, but it’s just fractured. It’s going through a prism, and coming out the other side a little more colorful.

Has a listener ever successfully identified themselves in a story and reached out about it?

Kelsey: We’ve gotten this question a lot, and the truly funny thing is the number of people who have ID-ed themselves in stories not about them. I’m thinking specifically about the knitting episode. People emailed us after that and said, “Oh, is this about my knitting group in this community?” And we were like, “No, but what’s happening over there that you’re convinced that this frankly insane story is about you?”

That’s what we’re trying to do. We’re trying to anonymize it perfectly so that the people in the type of story we tell think it’s about them. That people think it’s their story because it’s so good and so true.

What do you think that says about people if lots of folks seem to recognize themselves in these stories?

Alex: That people have a lot of shit they’re processing and dealing with on a day-to-day basis. So many of our submissions in our inbox are of people who are like, “You don’t need to use this in the podcast, I just had to tell somebody.” That is second to infidelity stories, which is probably the most common type of email that we get.

I think it speaks, again, to how gossip is so deeply human in that what we’re actually doing is looking at the behaviors of others and measuring it against our own moral yardstick and then drawing judgments about ourselves and others. That’s why we have the “What would you do?” prompts throughout the episode, because it invites that projection into the situation that is core to all gossip.

I wonder if there’s a confessional aspect to your submission inbox. Like, in the sense that people are reaching out because they had this story in their lives they feel nobody will believe them.

Kelsey: I’m not sure if it’s that they don’t feel like the people around them believe them as much as it is that they want us to hear it — which is a kind of beautiful thing that we have created this show, basically by accident. The enthusiasm around the show has essentially turned people into hungry little goblins for gossip. It’s so fun to get a call at three in the morning from a girl who has clearly had like four shots of tequila at a bar and is like, “You can’t play this, but …” And I’m like, “great!”

What makes a good guest?

Alex: Bitchiness? [Laughs.]

You know, this is actually something that I am interested in maybe writing more about. So there’s this concept in audio about, like, “What does a good radio voice sound like? Who’s a good talker?” All of these questions can be really sexist and racist and all of the things, because they’re often just code for a middle-aged white man with a deep voice that has a lot of presence.

So, it can be tempting to think that the people who would be the most fun guests are super outgoing comedians. We’ve had comedians on, and they’ve been delightful, total pros. But there’s this whole range of presence on mic that I think is less visible. I started thinking about it when B.A. Parker was hired as one of the Code Switch hosts, because she has a presence on mic that’s really gentle. Which isn’t to say she’s not charismatic, because she is, but it’s not the sort of Audie Cornish, Ari Shapiro–style radio voice. I’ve been delighted that we’ve had so many different kinds of guests, especially those who have gentler energies but who still show up and have a great rapport with Kelsey and are willing to go to those bitchy places with us without overpowering the mic.

Kelsey: I mean, we tell everyone at the start of recording: “Be bitchy.” Better to go hard in the paint and regret it later than to hold back. You can try a joke and fail and it’s fine. It doesn’t matter.

Alex is exactly right that the gentleness factor of some of our guests has paid off really well. I think about someone like Brian [Park] or Tobin [Low], who both were great guests and who were not that enthusiastic until we got to a twist that broke them, right?

Alex: Yes.

Kelsey: That satisfaction of making your quiet friend scream. That’s fun, I think, as a listener too.

The new season comes out this week. What’s your ambition with the show? How big are you hoping this will get? 

Alex: Well, our primary goal is to not overwork ourselves. We are two ambitious people who are also very prone to burnout. We have big dreams for what this show could be, what additional projects we could make together whether through Normal Gossip or not, but none of it will come at the expense of our mental health. Kelsey and I are also both writers. We have other things we’re working on. So the hope is that this project will always work in conversation with our other passions.

What makes Normal Gossip so great, I think, is that we have time and space to really give it what it needs. I give all of that credit to Defector when I came on board to produce this show. They were like, “Okay, what do you think? What schedule do you need? As the only person here who has ever produced a podcast, we want your opinion.” I’ve worked in audio for years and I have never had a client be like, “We’ll follow your lead.”

Kelsey: That’s also a huge brag on you, Alex, because a lot of this show is your instinct. You’re saying that Defector gave you the ability to do this, but you had the right answers for this show, and that matters.

You asked how big we’d want to get. That’s an interesting question because, one, we don’t control it. When we launched, my goal was for each episode to get 10,000 listens, because no one would accept this podcast otherwise. We went to a bunch of people and we’re like, “Hi, would you like to buy this podcast we’re gonna make called Normal Gossip?” And they were all like, “It’s not a proven concept. We don’t know what to do with it.” The one company that allowed us to try was AudioBoom, and they said, “If you get to 10,000 listens, you can start making money on the podcast.”

We’re now at 50,000 listens by noon the day a new episode is released. Just today, right before this call, we hit 4 million listens. We’re at a place now that’s far beyond what I thought would happen. And what Alex said is absolutely correct. We love doing this because it’s fun for us, and we won’t make the podcast bad for growth.

We would like to grow. We would like to have more space and better equipment and all sorts of stuff, but I’m not gonna turn in a terrible product that people don’t like so that we can make fifty mediocre episodes a year. The goal here is to make something good, and because we were given the space to make something good, we did.

Alex: People all over the industry have told us we’re idiots if we don’t go to a weekly show because we would be throwing away listeners. But we took two months off between our first season and second season, and when we came back, our day-one downloads quadrupled. So I’m willing to believe that maybe these people aren’t right. And if we’re leaving money on the table by not going weekly, that’s fine. I’d rather not have a mental break.

Last question. Do you have a dream guest?

Kelsey: Between the two of us, we’ve sent Quinta Brunson’s people like four emails to try and get her to come on. She’s probably my dream guest.

Alex: We sent an email to Harry Styles once. He did not respond. And then like my slightly more attainable dream guest would be Bowen Yang.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

The Best Gossip You’ve Never Heard