Search Engine, the new podcast series from PJ Vogt, has a premise so simple and familiar that it’s almost generic. Each episode sets out to find an answer to a question, one that has either caught his interest or comes in from a listener. However, as with a pop song, you may have heard the shape and hooks before, but the result can still feel very much different — and fresh — all the same.
The questions run the gamut. They can be big, small, newsy, evergreen, heavy, or light, but they all share one trait: being damn good questions. Is it safe to drink airplane coffee? How do animals at the zoo really feel about their captivity? What is it like to slowly go blind? Meanwhile, there’s a real thrill to the hunt for answers, evoking the rabbit-hole tumbling of other shows like Decoder Ring and, way back when, Mystery Show. If there is an ethos driving Search Engine’s methodology, it’s the notion that it’s never the first question that matters but rather all the ones that come after. An inquiry into why we can’t just convert unused corporate real estate into residential properties to alleviate the housing shortage swiftly becomes a sprawling survey of urban development and then zoning policy and then YIMBY-NIMBY politics and then the nihilistic potential of generational turnover.
This, of course, is the natural arc of any halfway-decent journalistic or documentary endeavor. You’re supposed to ask the next question, to tumble deeper into the rabbit hole. But Search Engine’s particular spark comes from the way the team injects a sense of genuine discovery into the act of unspooling. This is a show that works to give you a good time, always hustling for your attention as it peels back layer after layer.
Of course, there are plenty of other things to note about Search Engine beyond its text — like how the podcast marks Vogt’s full return to the medium post–Reply All and, relatedly, L’affaire Test Kitchen. His reentry had already been mediated by Crypto Island, the looser, more experimental, and thoroughly excellent limited series he released independently last summer, but there’s an institutional quality to Search Engine. The podcast is being distributed via a partnership between Jigsaw Productions, Alex Gibney’s documentary shingle, and Audacy, the radio company formerly known as Entercom. (Audacy remains interesting around these parts both for its ownership of two notable podcast companies — Pineapple Street and Cadence13 — and the fact that it was recently delisted from the New York Stock Exchange following a precipitous decline in its stock price. Quirky little detail there.) Constructed as a weekly show, it has a sturdy feel. There’s intent toward longevity.
To say it out loud, I’ve missed Vogt’s narrative voice. You’ll find a whole lot of it in Search Engine, perhaps to a point where episodes can feel a little overwritten, but the energetic profundity fans may have loved from Reply All very much carries over into this series. I’d also be remiss if I didn’t note the voyeuristic appeal of observing how a person who has gone through the tar-and-feathering experience comes out the other side and starts to make stuff again — especially stuff from the position of wonder that so defines the sensibility of Search Engine. Past examples suggest that the likelier outcome would’ve been an effort to make a show about “cancel culture,” or something like that. Not here. The show’s aperture remains wide. “Very few of the things other human beings do in life are actually senseless,” Vogt narrates at one point in a two-parter about the fentanyl crisis. “What can look insane or evil or random is often someone following the rules of a world that are just different than yours.”
Aside from all that, perhaps the most interesting thing to me about the show is its weekly construction. Search Engine is a bit of the past and the future blended into a distinctly 2023 podcast: a persistently published program that could’ve been a radio show if it weren’t for the deep longform-narrative sensibility emerging from podcast roots. As I’ve written a lot about before, narrative podcasts are currently going through a rough existential period. The problem is simple: Existing business models don’t work very well for entrants in the format. Add to that the prevailing hurdle of theoretically infinite competition and a still-turbulent ad market and you have an ecosystem whose economics naturally trends toward cheaper “always on” chat shows. Such shows have a better capacity to reach more people and burrow into their listening habits because they’re more consistently present in a feed.
Search Engine’s solution is equally simple: Go “always on” yourself. The result is a podcast with an old-school quality. It’s a show in the classic sense, in that you can feel it working to earn your attention, even down to the way it thinks about the constant availability of fresh episodes. Between elaborate installments — like two-parters on the fentanyl crisis and deep dives into airplane coffee — are brisker, slimmer episodes that are essentially spruced-up one-on-one interviews. The (relatable) installment titled “How Do I Find New Music Now That I’m Old and Irrelevant?” is fundamentally a long, extensive conversation with the journalist and music critic Kelefa Sanneh. Another slim episode, exploring the current crazy state of Elon Musk, is similarly a long sit-down with Hard Fork’s Casey Newton. You could consider them “filler” episodes, but only if you’re being uncharitable; they’re as meaty as anything else the show is putting out.
Search Engine isn’t alone in going full circle with the weekly narrative format, which recalls public-radio-originated stalwarts like This American Life and Snap Judgment. LAist Studios’ audio-documentary shingle, Imperfect Paradise, is relaunching in the fall as a podcast feed that’s working to persistently publish serialized nonfiction pieces one after the other. Elsewhere, in another version of this solution, it’s been interesting to see the Ringer distribute narrative projects through feeds of its popular conversational podcasts; the Spotify division is currently publishing a limited Brian Raftery series on Hollywood’s obsession with the Vietnam War, Do We Get to Win This Time?, through The Big Picture feed.
But those still feel like relative work-arounds compared to the scope of Search Engine’s production ambitions. Vogt and his new team mean to make a worthy addition to your listening diet, one that evokes the original promise of narrative podcasts around the advent of the mid-2010s boom. In theory, this is a show that can last for decades. It’s hard not to get excited about that.
News and Notes
➽ We are deep into the thick of hot strike summer, and the song of hot strike summer is seemingly Bethenny Frankel using her podcast to keep the momentum going for both the “reality reckoning” and the nascent labor movement among reality stars. A very 2023 sentence, near unthinkable to write just a few years ago.
➽ It didn’t occur to me until reading the press release that Hallmark would indeed be an outstanding purveyor of fine scripted podcast products. Wild that it’s taken them this long! According to the official description, their first project, Crimson Hearts Collide, tells the story of a driven New York City lawyer named Sonora Williams who receives an inheritance out of nowhere from a newly deceased uncle — including a farm in Alabama. So of course she heads out to the farm, because Sonora’s backstory includes the fact she grew up in foster care without knowledge that she’s had any family left. Oh, and there’s a handsome cowboy in the mix. Listen, here’s the trailer. If you’re a Hallmark-head, you’d be into this. It’s out August 24.
➽ While we’re on the subject of scripted podcasts: Imagine Entertainment is trying their hand at the genre with an “improvised comedy” show where listeners will “learn about the news of the day through the colorful characters that make up the employees from the break room of fictional retail giant, Buywell.” What that means exactly, who knows, but it sounds very Superstore, I guess. It’s called Employees Only, and the first episode dropped last Thursday.
➽ Blowback, Brendan James and Noah Kulwin’s leftist audio docuseries reexamining key moments in modern American imperialism, returns for a fourth season on August 25. After seasons on the Korean War, the Cuban Revolution, and the Iraq War, the latest excursion focuses on Afghanistan, which would bring the show as close to the present as it possibly can, given the American troop withdrawal two summers ago. There’s a nifty video trailer out, featuring animation by Ben Clarkson and narration by H. Jon Benjamin, who’s popped up frequently through the podcast’s entire run. Note, as well, the freemium subscription model approach, in which fans pay $24.99 for access to all ten main narrative episodes and ten bonus episodes. That’s accessible through the show’s website, which sports a distinctly Metal Gear Solid-flavored look.
➽ Dr. Gameshow’s Jo Firestone wrote a sexy, murdery mystery novel, appropriately titled Murder on Sex Island, which she’s now distributing in audiobook/podcast installments. You bet your ass I’m subscribing to this.
➽ The past few weeks have been the most I’ve thought about the country music genre in a while, what with the Wallen-Aldean-Combs-Anthony cluster of narrative threads. If you’re unfamiliar with the whole thing, check out this episode of Into It, which came out before the Oliver Anthony development. But really, I bring all this up just so I can rec the “Fast Car” episode on the BBC’s always-lovely Soul Music podcast. Check that out too.
➽ After a four-year-long hiatus, the CBC’s satirical/fake news/news? radio show and podcast This is That has made its triumphant Canadian return. Just in time for the year climate change finally gets us.
➽ How common is the podcast agent to podcast studio chief pipeline? I have no idea. In any case, former UTA Jed Baker is now the founder and parent of a new kids-focused audio studio called Starglow Media. Here’s the Hollywood Reporter write-up on the matter.
➽ An end of an era: Anya Grundmann, NPR’s podcast and programming chief, is leaving after three decades at the public radio mothership. In addition to leading the organization’s push into pods, and among a whole bunch of other things, Grundmann is credited with helping to get the Tiny Desk concerts off the ground.
➽ The Puck-Ringer podcast axis has launched an election podcast, Somebody’s Gotta Win, with Tara Palmieri in the hosting chair. Election season is starting back up again, but election season never really ends.
➽ I do not have a child, but rest assured, if I did, I would’ve come up with an appropriately timely reference to flag the fact that Disney is releasing… I guess we can call it an “interquel” Frozen podcast series, set between the events of the second and the upcoming third movie. Further ammunition for the parents.
➽ This is so fucking funny. Bloomberg reports that Spotify once considered — perhaps tried, and is still potentially trying depending on who you believe — to suppress white noise podcasts on its platform because the (lucrative) category’s growing presence, inadvertently boosted by the algorithm, is eating into potential profit. From the piece: “Once Spotify realized how much attention was going to white noise podcasts, the company considered removing these shows from the talk feed and prohibiting future uploads while redirecting the audience toward comparable programming that was more economical for Spotify.” What a strange, strange situation.