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The Problem with the Inconsequential Quest

Nobody likes to feel like they’re missing out and I’m no exception. In one very podcast specific way, though, I’ve been sitting with this feeling since early March, when Reply All released their now-famous episode “The Case of the Missing Hit.” It was quickly acclaimed by outlets like the Guardian and Rolling Stone as maybe “the best podcast episode ever.” [Nick’s note: I called it “instantly legendary.”]

In the first couple of weeks of lockdowns in the US and the UK, reporters were (virtually) queuing up to interview the hosts about how it was made, a level of mainstream media attention that a single podcast episode rarely receives. Since I also write a daily podcast recommendation newsletter that invites readers to submit their favourite episodes, I still get semi-regular emails from strangers about how great this piece of audio is.

I have now listened to this episode seven times — not because I can’t get enough of this quirky investigation into one song from 1999 that a filmmaker from California could only partially remember, but because I just can’t understand why everyone loves it so much and the critic in me really wants to know what it is I’m missing. I can recognise the craft that has gone into making it, but I can’t feel whatever it is that seemed to make so many others want to evangelise so hard for this one podcast episode. I think I’ve listened to almost every episode of Reply All and I really like some of what the podcast has put out over the years. But “The Case of the Missing Hit” wouldn’t be in my personal top five of the show’s episodes. It probably wouldn’t even be in the top thirty.

As I’ve tried to analyse this preference further, I’ve come to realise that this issue of mine is much bigger than with this one single podcast episode. This Reply All jaunt is just the latest and now the highest profile example of a technique and approach that has been present in podcasting for years now. I call this format “The Inconsequential Quest.” I’m sure readers will be very familiar with the form: a host chooses something that is of seemingly little importance and investigates it with a thoroughness and journalistic rigour that seems completely out of proportion to the original question. The resulting episode or series documents this journey in detail and ultimately reveals a conclusion that surprises and delights listeners.

“The Case of the Missing Hit” fits this rubric precisely. Other examples of inconsequential quests include Dead Eyes, in which the actor Connor Ratliff tries to find out why Tom Hanks had him fired from a small role in the 2001 HBO mini-series Band Of Brothers, and Missing Richard Simmons, in which Dan Taberski tried to work out why the fitness guru had retreated from public life. And, of course, there’s Starlee Kine’s six episode run of Mystery Show, which is perhaps the purest example of this form.

Also worth mentioning in this bracket is Whatever Happened to Pizza at McDonald’s?, an inconsequential quest, for sure, but one that is much more alive to the absurdity of what is being undertaken than most, and some episodes of Heavyweight, a show that investigates moments of emotional pivot and consequence. The award-winning 2016 episode “Gregor” is a classic of this subgenre. Gregor is a guy who once lent an acquaintance — the musician Moby — a box of CDs, samples from which then became the basis of some hit songs. Twenty years later, Gregor would like his CDs back so that he can get some closure on the whole thing, and host Jonathan Goldstein helps him achieve this.

Mystery Show came out in 2015 and had a big influence on the post-Serial podcasting landscape, especially when you consider that it only had a six episode run. I took part in an in conversation event in London with Kine three years later and I’ve never experienced the kind of fan fervour that there was in that audience before or since. Inevitably, when something in pop culture is visibly and perhaps surprisingly successful, others line up to plough the same furrow. Inconsequential quests are no longer rare or serendipitous; in some ways, they are a tried and tested route to a podcasting hit. There’s also something uniquely perfect about podcasting as a vehicle for the quests, not least because it used to be the case that listening to podcasts at all was a quirky, fringe activity, which in turn heightened the thrill when the host actually found the answer to the question.

With a very few exceptions — mostly the “Belt Buckle” episode of Mystery Show — I’ve come to realise that I have a fundamental problem with this subgenre that goes far beyond one Reply All episode. It’s this: who gets to go on an inconsequential quest? Podcasting is already a far from level playing field, and even within that this prestigious little niche of it is closed off to almost everybody. It frustrates me that so many of these shows come from the perspective of well-off white American men, but I understand why that is.

The resources required to make a really high quality show of this kind make independent production very difficult. You might have to work for six months on an idea only to find that there isn’t really a satisfying answer, so it’s risky. Most networks or funders are unlikely to take a financial risk on a quest creator unless they have a demonstrable track record, are a celebrity, or are celebrity adjacent in some way. Then unless you can afford to do almost all of the work beforehand — typically unpaid, or expending crucial resources — the pitch for an inconsequential quest series is always going to be “I don’t know the answer yet but just trust me!” And we all know where companies are more likely to bestow that trust: executives tend to be disproportionately white, straight and male, and that’s the kind of talent that too often gets to take risks with big budgets.

Celebrity access, by the way, has proved to be somewhat important to the inconsequential quest genre. I think part of why people responded to “The Case of the Missing Hit” like they did was the sheer audacity of PJ Vogt calling up the former Barenaked Ladies frontman Steven Page and just… asking him if he knew what the mystery song was. See also: Moby’s involvement in the Gregor episode, and Starlee Kine getting Jake Gyllenhaal to confirm his real height. The contrast between all that mundane legwork and the glamour of a real famous person is exciting in a semi-salacious way.

When I listen to “The Case of the Missing Hit”, then, or many of the other examples I’ve cited here, I’m constantly reminded of who isn’t getting to make this stuff. Who doesn’t have the chance to throw time and money at a weird little problem and see what sticks. Which is arguably a reaction that could apply to pretty much any audio genre, but because these quests are personal and idiosyncratic and usually rely heavily on the creator’s existing personal relationships, I think I notice it more readily.

For me, the best inconsequential quests turn out not to be inconsequential at all. What starts out as an attempt to give a belt buckle back or find some lost CDs turns out to be a process that can teach us something about our flaws, our blind spots and our inner assumptions. But to find those stories, you have to spend a long time looking. And not everybody has that luxury.