Fans of the Gimlet Media podcast, Reply All, know the voices of PJ Vogt and Alex Goldman. But, recognizing a podcast host’s voice doesn’t prepare you for the moment when they pick up your call and say “Hello?”
When PJ and Alex got the idea to let fans call their cell phones, they expected they’d get around 10,000 calls. They logged over 105,000.
There’s difference between estimating the fervor of your fanbase, and truly experiencing it when they all call your cell phone at once — for 48 hours straight.
Making The Internet Feel Like A Neighborhood
In the first minute of Reply All’s 48-hour, all calls accepted run, PJ and Alex received 162 calls. Around 6 hours in, PJ tweeted “this is more difficult than I would have thought.”
Building an intimate rapport with hundreds of thousands of fans is difficult, but it’s something Reply All naturally excels at. The show, which is “about the internet,” has developed it’s own lingua franca. Listeners know the bits: Yes, Yes, No – a segment devoted to unpacking the meaning of a tweet. Goldman’s Gripes – a website built to memorialize and celebrate the things host Alex Goldman finds irritating.
The intimacy and humor of the podcast garnered Reply All a loyal following. Allowing fans to reach PJ and Alex directly, albeit for 48 hours, seemed like a natural extension of the show’s personality.
Still, the Reply All team had to find a way to build a bridge connecting listener to podcast host. If Reply All tweeted out Alex and PJ’s personal cell phone numbers, the hosts would be fielding calls well past the 48 hour call-in period, up until the instant they changed their numbers. The Reply All team needed another option. More accurately, they needed an engineer to help them build a another option.
The Dress Rehearsal
Adam Quinn (right) saw an email sent to the NYU’s Interactive Telecommunications Program’s listserv. The sender mentioned something about needing help with a project combining storytelling with technology, requiring some telecom engineering. It piqued Adam’s interest, but it took him two days to agree to the project.
Before he accepted, he had to make sure he could build the hack Reply All wanted. He spent those two days crafting prototypes for Reply All’s Twilio-powered call in line.
Adam wired up a Python & Flask app deployed on a Heroku server and had Reply All staff load test the number. This was a small scale dress rehearsal anticipating the moment when #ReplyAllCall goes live, and calls come in droves. He instructed the Reply All staff to all call one phone number at once. This was their best chance at simulating their highest expected call volume.
The Reply All team called. The line held up. They were ready to deploy.
Happy Accidents and Other Lessons Learned While Taking Thousands of Calls
On Monday October 10th at 7am EST, the Twilio phone number forwarding calls to PJ and Alex’s cell phones went live. The team immediately realized the all-office call-in test underestimated the amount of calls coming in.
“Things were running fairly smooth in the beginning. Then the call volume got so high that I had to do some ninja practices on the server to do some error handling,” says Adam.
Here’s how Adam’s app worked. Reply All’s Twilio number forwarded calls to two conference lines. Adam and PJ each had their own. The maximum number of callers for the conference line is two – one host and one caller. When a fan calls in, Adam’s app checks if either PJ or Alex’s conference line has a vacancy for that fan. If there’s an opening, that fan gets connected. If not, they have to call back and keep trying.
Three’s A Party
When the call volume rose above the Reply All team’s expectations, Adam encountered an edge case — two callers calling at the exact same moment, at the exact second there’s a vacancy, and both being piped into one conference line. Call it a bug, or call it a “happy accident.” PJ and Alex met the outlier with pleasant surprise.
Our handmade phone system is sometimes connecting strangers to each other instead of us. Not a feature, a bug!
— PJ Vogt (@PJVogt) October 10, 2016
(Although a good bug that we like)
— PJ Vogt (@PJVogt) October 10, 2016
When two callers were dropped in a conference with Alex, the callers helped each other with the problems they were going to air to Alex. “They totally ignored me and just commiserated with each other. A happy accident,” Alex told The Washington Post’s Julia Carpenter.
Meanwhile, while Adam turned to Twitter for some assistance.
Reply All’s fanbase extends deep into the developer pool. Twilio employees and community members — who also happen to be Reply All fans — jumped at the opportunity to help Adam with the edge case. Within a few hours, the bug/happy accident was fixed. The line was holding up to some heroic call volume, and so were PJ and Alex.
A Love/Hate Relationship
“When it first started, they were like ‘Oh shit. What did we get ourselves into?’” says Kevin Turner, Director of Communications at Gimlet Media. Reading through the two hosts’ Twitter timeline during those 48 hours, you can see the emotional roller coaster rise and fall.
On Twitter, the hosts’ excitement morphs into bewilderment at the sheer volume of calls, which then leads them to reconsider how long 48 hours actually is, and how many conversations they can have in that amount of time.
On Monday, the first day of the call-in period, PJ and Alex received 20,000 calls. Tuesday, they received 55,000. On the final day of the stint, they received 27,000. The calls ran the gamut from expletive-laden surprise to intimate searches for advice. “They had some really amazing conversations and really amazing moments of levity,” says Turner.
Talking All Night
PJ and Alex switched locations frequently, taking calls from a bowling alley, a cemetery, the back of NYC taxi cabs, and Reply All headquarters. At one point during the wee hours of the night, as PJ took a nap on the office couch, Alex and Gimlet co-founder and President, Matt Lieber, helped a listener through a dilemma. The listener confided in Alex and Matt, telling them he had a crush on his best friend and didn’t know how to tell her his true feelings. The listener gave Matt and Alex the relationship rundown, and the three of them sussed out a game plan.
When you’re logging an average of 34,000 fan calls a day, it’s statistically probable one of them might involve a listener experiencing a total eclipse of the heart. Those odds didn’t surprise the Reply All team, but the intimacy of the conversations did. After 48 hours of non-stop calls, you learn you can’t use data to accurately account for the relationship between a person and a podcast.
After it was all over, Matt Lieber looked at the numbers and saw an outlier. One fan in Colorado had called over 2,000 times in a 24 hour period. The producers at Reply All were convinced it was a bot. Matt thought otherwise. He punched in the number, and was greeted with a warm, flabbergasted welcome from one die-hard Reply All fan on the other end of the line.