PJ Vogt’s Crypto Island Podcast Explores the Wild Wild World of Digital Currency
By its name alone, the podcast Crypto Island stands to entice just as many people as it’s likely to turn off. Don’t be fooled, though. The series isn’t some well-trod, suspect attempt to proselytize the word of virtual money and its messenger, the blockchain. Nor is it several sustained hours of handwringing at the wastefulness of it all. Instead, it is sociological in bent, and an almost heroic attempt to withhold judgment while investigating one of the most divisive topics out there: cryptocurrency, and the puzzling culture it spawned.
Equally divisive is the show’s creator and host, PJ Vogt, the main attraction and the elephant in the room. He cemented his status in the podcast world by helping put Gimlet Media’s internet-culture podcast Reply All on the map, in the mid-2010s. The show went through a reckoning, in early 2021, following the launch of its Test Kitchen series, a multi-episode exposé edited by Vogt and hosted by reporter Sruthi Pinnamaneni that looked into the ways Bon Appétit fostered a toxic company culture by routinely undervaluing the work and ideas created by people of color. Shortly after the series began, former Gimlet staffer Eric Eddings called out his previous employer, as well as Vogt and Pinnamaneni, for practicing the same behaviors they were criticizing.
The Test Kitchen series was canceled two episodes into its intended six, while Vogt and Pinnamaneni resigned with apologies to those they let down. Whether Vogt has done enough in the interim to justify his return to the mic remains an open question—one that he addresses in the comment section of his Substack (which is also called Crypto Island, and features expanded show notes and images for each episode), and that lurks in the corners of certain asides in his current show. (There is a certain ring, for example, to how Vogt describes crypto skeptic Cas Piancey in one episode as “empathetic in a way that’s honestly not that fashionable right now.”)
Unambiguous, though, is the talent Vogt brings as a host and reporter. He has an eye for drawing out the absurd, describing billionaire Crypto advocates as attempting their version of smashing a guitar by trying, and failing, to throw hundred dollar bills into a convention crowd. He still knows his way around a simile, painting an auctioneer bidding on the U.S. constitution as someone who looks “like a stylish villain from a movie about bankers who hide the vaccine for money.” And he does it all with a kind of offhand rhythm that gives the episodes a compelling veneer of spontaneity. With only seven episodes out, it’s difficult to say where the series will go (though it appears there are plans for adding a TV extension). As of now, its guiding star seems to be skillfully straddling the line between the surreal and the all-too-human.
To date, the series finds Vogt reporting on everything from two Spanish hustlers trying to sell people on living in a crypto island paradise, to a group of mostly twentysomethings running a multimillion-dollar DOA to bid for the U.S. Constitution and a fever dream Miami Bitcoin convention, which stars shockingly high-profile athletes and street preachers pushing their preferred digital currencies. He routinely makes these chaotic, mind-boggling situations more approachable by focusing on the singular stories of the people in, or on the fringes of, these phenomenons.
What’s interesting is that, for the most part, Vogt avoids the low-hanging fruit of talking to die-hard crypto fanatics. Instead, he caters toward the people who’ve fallen into the world primarily out of a general curiosity—which, it turns out, are often the type who might be open to talking about the people they’ve met and the projects they’ve started through crypto, but aren’t about to suggest pawning a kidney for Ethereum.
These portions of the podcast are admittedly not as exciting as the high-octane absurdity that otherwise stuffs each episode, but they serve a purpose in humanizing a subject that constantly runs the risk of being too obnoxious to tolerate. They reveal an underemphasized part of crypto’s draw—one that, like the show itself, is rooted in a genuine desire to explore the befuddling new.