Introduce Yourself To… Kelsey McKinney

Kelsey McKinney is a journalist, co-founder, devoted gossiper, and parent to the podcast Normal Gossip. Geared with a mission of delivering juicy, funny, and utterly banal gossip about strangers, her hit show offers its listeners a weekly hour of silliness and a one-way ticket to a priceless fizzy feeling. We sat down with Kelsey to talk about her passion for gossip, the origin of her show, and the importance of escapism.
Kelsey McKinney and producer Alex Sujong Laughlin.
Photo-Illustration: Vulture; Photos: Arin Sang-Urai

Hi Kelsey! Please introduce yourself and your podcast to our readers. 

I’m Kelsey McKinney. I’m a co-founder of Defector Media and I’m the host of a podcast called Normal Gossip where we dive into anonymous morsels of gossip that our listeners send us.

An introduction from Kelsey

Normal Gossip is a pandemic baby. Could you tell us the story of how the podcast came to be?

In 2020 the pandemic made it almost impossible to gossip. We were in lockdown for many months and even when we were able to leave that setting and meet people outside, every conversation I had was the same, you know? Each one was super boring or else incredibly serious and heightened. I wasn’t getting my regular fill of just like, funny inconsequential stories to tell bartenders or to repeat to friends. This made me sad because discovering those little stories is one of my favorite things about being a journalist and about being a person. 

One day towards the end of the pandemic I was talking to my mom on the phone and she told me this ridiculous story about my second cousins who live in Alabama. One of them had driven a four-wheeler at a bachelorette party – a detail which should tell you a lot about that family already – and flipped the vehicle over and lost her thumb. It was so dramatic and ridiculous. Every piece of it was obscene. 

Anyway, over the weeks that followed I shared that anecdote with literally every person I met. I also tweeted something like “Someone should just give me a show called Normal Gossip where I just tell other people’s gossip,” and immediately my co-founders at Defector called me up and were like “Kelsey, you have a media company. We can make this podcast,” and so we did. 

Tell us about your own love for gossip, where does that come from?

Well, I am an insufferable gossip. I have always been. I was raised in a very evangelical community in the South where I was taught that gossiping was a sin. The community preached that we should avoid engaging in gossip at all costs, but for me, that simply wasn’t an option. I could not stop. I vividly remember being in elementary school and trying to get crush gossip out of people. I loved it.

In my opinion, gossip gets an unfairly bad reputation. I really believe that the reason it is demonized is because it has the potential to be weaponized, right? The idea that you and I could meet and share details about our inappropriate boss and thereby get him fired is scary to people, particularly people in power. Those people don’t want us to gossip because they don’t want us to share information or create problems. However, it’s important that we do those things. If we don’t talk to each other, then we won’t realize we’re disenfranchised and we won’t be able to fight against those systems that are stifling us. 

“I was talking to my mom on the phone one day and she told me…”

You’ve enjoyed an incredibly impressive and far-reaching career as a journalist with stories published in The New York Times, GQ, and Vanity Fair to name but a few. What led you from editorial journalism to audio?

See it’s funny because I have always been a writer. I’ve done it professionally and non-professionally forever, however, my relationship with audio is quite different. My move to audio wasn’t an intentional pivot, it was kind of accidental. 

I remember for my first journalist job I had to do an NPR hit and I was so terrified that I vomited afterward. This experience, as you can imagine, didn’t exactly inspire me to dive into audio journalism, but during the pandemic, I began to consider pivoting. I feel like people sort of lost the ability to read over COVID, myself included. It was hard to focus on words because everything was in chaos, however, focusing on audio didn’t feel as taxing.

This realization spurred me and my team at Vectornator to start having conversations about podcasting because we wanted to create something that people actually enjoyed consuming. However, we wanted to create an audio show that still fit our profile and worked to our strengths. For example, I feel like most of the podcasts that became popular at the beginning of podcasting were these off-the-cuff, intellectual, rapidly responding to news-type shows and that’s not where my strengths lie. I thrive better in environments where I can be prepared. We knew we wanted to have a script, but we wanted to fasten that script in such a way that it hearing it made you feel like you’re just eavesdropping on me and a friend chatting at a bar. Something that’s visceral and comforting but also structured behind the scenes. 

The gossip in the podcast is in some sense voyeuristic in that neither you nor the audience knows the identities of the people involved in the gossip. What steps do you take to make the gossip anonymous? 

We always say that we put each story through a process of telephone. This is the idea that as a story gets told over and over again key details get shifted slightly to make the story more dramatic and heightened, but less true and easy to trace. The stories in the show are true in their hearts, but not in all of their details. The process is basically the opposite of what a journalist would normally do.

For example, let’s say we had a piece of gossip about a pianist called Melissa in Los Angeles who wasn’t actually playing live, right? What we would do is say, ok, people will probably recognize a Melissa so let’s change her name to Melinda or Kimberly. Let’s keep that she’s scamming, but move her to New York and change her instrument from a piano to a guitar. These slight shifts mean we can keep the essence of the story but make it hard for people to track the actual individuals concerned down. 

And how integral is the gossip being voyeuristic to the foundation of the show?  

Super important. The goal of the podcast isn’t to hurt anyone or punch people down, it’s to create something that’s fun and enjoyable to listen to. We want to make sure that the stories we’re choosing are a specific kind of rumor and that when people are misbehaving in them, they’re not doing so out of malice or evil. 

Do you think that the fact that the gossip is harmless is part of the reason for the show’s success in that it gives people an outlet where they can dissociate from the outside world? 

If you’re asking if the podcast is possible and popular because everyone in America is miserable, then the answer is yes. It is overwhelmingly true. People always tell me that they enjoy the podcast because it serves as a route for them to escape and I love that. I love thinking that the show gives people the space to leave the news and enter an hour of peace. 

Right now, everyone is exhausted. Globally we’ve had a terrible few years and especially for people our age, the world just feels like we’re totally screwed. With all this impending doom constantly weighing on us, it’s important that we have outlets where we can escape and be silly. We should be able to think about nothing but someone kissing someone’s boyfriend at a wedding or something equally unimportant from time to time and not feel guilty about it.

And what do you see those spaces looking like? Where do you envisage people listening to your podcast? 

I have no idea. I’ve actually never thought about that before. Personally, I tend to listen to podcasts while walking my dog or at the grocery store, times when I am doing something I don’t want to do and I want to make doing it easier. 

I often joke that if I could have a superpower I would choose to know what everyone around me is listening to on their phones, but after this question, I might change that to incorporate when people were listening to the podcast. That would be cool.

“…my ideal is that it makes something you don’t wanna do a little easier”

You create the podcast with Alex, your friend and producer, but you also regularly have guests on the show. In your opinion, what makes a good gossip partner? 

That’s something we’re actually still figuring out. I mean we would never ask anyone to come on the show who wasn’t a good sport and equally, a guest who doesn’t like to gossip would probably not agree to come on, however, nailing the right vibe is still a tricky one because there are different ways to gossip, right?

Some people put their own spin on gossip and throw out input while others are simply active listeners. We try to preemptively guess how a guest would respond to gossip and then assign them a story that suits their gossiping habits. We want to match them with stories that provoke them to absurdity but not to anger. It’s a real skill. 

How do you feel when you hear a great piece of gossip?

I think good gossip feels fizzy, you know? Like when you shake a bottle of coke and then open it up – that kind of energy that just explodes and overflows – that’s the kind of energy we’re trying to generate on the podcast. We work really hard to stimulate that feeling you get when you’re friend texts you and is like “We have to have a drink. You won’t believe what has happened.” That jolt of bubbling energy that makes you want to create some chaos. That’s what we want to bottle up. 

And when you’re working in editorial journalism, do you get that same feeling when you’ve cracked a great story or nailed a great interview? 

Actually no. When I’m writing something and it’s good I enter this kind of zone. It feels like I have horse blinders on. That feeling lets me know that I’m onto something good and it feels different from collecting a piece of great gossip. 

You see, in my writing, I don’t always want to make people feel fizzy. Sometimes I want to make them feel sad, outraged, or even empowered, however I don’t necessarily feel those feelings myself when I am writing to spur them in others. I’m more intent on analytically fastening an article that sustains the story and tactically summons them in others. That’s not the same as gossiping.

And to finish, what is your favorite sound?

Hmm… It’s actually ironic that I’m an audio journalist because I am completely deaf in my right ear so I think my awareness of sounds is probably much lower than the majority of people. However, the first thing that popped into my mind when you asked the question is the sound that the steamer makes at the coffee shop. This is probably a very mundane answer, but I always get myself a coffee when I’m sad and so it reminds me of getting myself little treats. I’m a big fan of little treat culture.

Kelsey on her favourite sound

Check out Normal Gossip here and dive into Kelsey’s website here. 

interview by Alice O’Brien, for Bear Radio

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