In the first four seasons of Normal Gossip, Kelsey McKinney asked some 40 guests the same question: “What’s your relationship with gossip?” When I turn the question back on her, she doesn’t hesitate. “My current relationship with gossip is that it’s my entire life and my entire job,” she says. In the wildly popular podcast, McKinney narrates real-life dramas submitted by anonymous readers. Her guests are hearing the story for the first time, and they respond to every twist, turn, and passive-aggressive email with audible gasps and speculation on what’s coming next. The listening experience is, by design, like hearing your dishiest friend share a bonkers rumor about a distant mutual acquaintance.
Technically speaking, the podcast may have become a bit less intimate. Normal Gossip racked up 10 million listens by the end of the third season and made its way into several “Best of 2022” lists. McKinney and her co-creator, Alex Sujong Laughlin, did a live rendition of the show on a national tour this summer that sold out multiple venues. Now they’re airing season five, where the sagas are both juicier and more delightfully niche than ever: Out-of-control camp-counselor beef, private-school moms feuding over a musical production, a bachelorette trip gone haywire.
McKinney isn’t surprised by the podcast’s runaway success. She’s one of the 19 writers and editors who quit their jobs at Deadspin en masse after G/O Media — the same parent company that recently sold Jezebel — acquired the blog and told its writers to stick to sports-related news. A few months after they resigned, Deadspin’s former staff launched Defector, an employee-owned, subscription-based publication that places transparency and staffers’ well-being above all — a welcome respite from media’s notoriously bleak job landscape. McKinney loves that the crown jewel of a sports-oriented website run by a mostly male staff is a podcast about gossip. She shepherds each episode to fruition from her Queen Village home in Philadelphia, where she lives with her dog and partner. On top of her podcast work, she has found time to blog (about sports but also pop culture and Zillow deep dives), publish a novel, and pick up piano. Here’s how she gets it done.
On her morning routine:
My alarm goes off at 8:30 a.m. and I snooze it, like, three times. Usually I’m up by 9 on a weekday. I open my computer while I drink several cups of coffee, respond to anything pressing, and walk my dog. She’s ten years old but still demands to be walked three times a day for at least a mile. I have a smoothie for breakfast because I try to reduce any choice in the morning, when I’m very sleepy and grumpy. Then I move to my desk. Unlike the first ten years of my career, my office is now a separate room from my bedroom, so things are really changing.
On being organized:
I’m a Virgo, which means I believe in supreme organization over almost everything. My dream is to sit down at my desk at 9 a.m. and be done at 6 p.m., and I have to be extremely organized for that to happen. The first thing I do when I sit down is I look at the list of things that need to be done for the week and I sort them into hour-and-a-half blocks. Then I block out my calendar so that everyone knows what I’m doing at all times. Right now we’re in what we call Hell Week — which is actually a month long — where episodes are coming out, but we’re still writing, reporting, and editing first and second cuts of episodes that have already been recorded. There are so many more moving pieces to my job than I expected there to be.
On pushing through writer’s block:
I have a very specific system for when I don’t feel inspired and don’t want to write, but it’s my job, so I have to. You’re going to hate this. I get a lot of Buc-ee’s sour strawberry belts, though any sour candy will do. Then I put on the Gone Girl soundtrack: Produced by Trent Reznor, very high tension. It’s an hour and 26 minutes long. I start the soundtrack, and I have to type the whole time that it’s playing. If I’m not typing, I have to eat sour candy. This works because the sour candy gives me a sugar high, so I have adrenaline to write. Once I have, like, four pieces of candy, my mouth hurts and I don’t want to eat it anymore. So I have to type.
On the importance of hobbies:
I started taking piano lessons in January because a friend asked me what my creative goal for the year was, which I thought was very rude because I didn’t have creative goals at the time. We talked about it, and I was, like, Oh, this is a really smart question: How are you planning to give yourself more space to be creative in the next year? Especially when your job is creative work, it’s hard to find time and energy to be creative outside your job. I needed to do something that cannot be turned into a job and cannot become productive for me. I go to piano lessons one night a week. It’s all children and me.
On launching Defector and working for an employee-led company:
I got hired at Deadspin in the spring of 2019, and everything was bad the whole time. We all quit together Halloween week of 2019. We had conversations about how, if you quit this job, there probably isn’t another one for you. When we launched Defector in September 2020, it was scary, but it also felt pretty low risk because there was nowhere else to go. It’s not like I was turning down job offers left and right.
Defector is the best place I’ve worked at by a nautical mile. It’s so much better to work for yourself, even on the most difficult days, than it is to work for someone who makes money from you. But at the same time, we’re constantly learning how to run a business. Lately, we’ve been talking about how to make our process more structured. How do you make things easier for people through structure, without becoming a news desk that works everyone to the bone?
On starting Normal Gossip:
This is my first podcast, so I had almost no experience on mic. We began working on season one in September 2021, and I knew in my gut that it would be very popular. I was very afraid of that because I thought I would get trapped. I had to be talked out of killing it twice. Working at a place like Defector makes it easier to do things like this, because the people I worked with were always saying, “If you get to the point where you don’t like it, you can stop. It doesn’t matter if it will lose money for us. We don’t want you to do something that you don’t like.” You can hear in the podcast that we’re having fun doing it. Working on this podcast is the longest I’ve done anything in my career!
On gossiping as work:
I grew up Evangelical, and I was taught that gossip was a sin — specifically a women’s sin and one that I was very good at doing. It took me a long time to realize that wasn’t true. When we started the podcast, we had all been through a terrible few years with the pandemic. There was a true dearth of gossip. I wanted to start it mainly because I missed hearing stories from my friends about their friends. None of the plot lines I had been following in people I didn’t know were having any kind of resolution, which was terrible. So my co-creator, Alex, and I want the show to be something that is positive and feels like escapism. At the same time, we’re doing a little bit of work to say, Why do we gossip? What do we do it for? In what context is it productive and unproductive? We’re implicitly wrestling with those questions.
On taking creative liberties:
There’s something in the human reaction to gossip that makes you feel like I HAVE to know which parts are true. We anonymize our stories — change things like names, locations, dates, and identifying nouns — because we do not want to create another West Elm Caleb. If it’s dramatic enough on its own, we don’t amplify it. We think about the way we iterate the story as a game of telephone where $5 becomes $10 becomes $50. We are going to play things up, but $5 will never become $5,000. If we think $50 is funnier than $5, and that fits within the magnitude of the story, we’ll use it.
On her relationship to money:
My relationship with money is very tenuous. I’m afraid of it but also want it. I grew up in a family that didn’t have enough money to do all the things we wanted to do, and very early in my career, I made no money and had to move to a very expensive city, so I was in a good deal of credit-card debt. Then I went freelance, which doesn’t pay well. Last year was the first year I felt financially secure in this career. Defector’s base salary is $70,000 plus quarterly payouts when the company is profitable, and I get a profit share from the podcast, which is a good amount of money. I also have a book deal that’s paying me this year.