Trends in Podcasting: Cults and Cult Leaders

This is a sort-of follow up to yesterday’s piece on daily news podcasts. It may become an occasional series.

In March this year, Netflix launched a documentary series called Wild Wild Country. It’s a six part series exploring an Indian guru and his followers in a county in deepest Oregon.

There’s no obvious way to see how successful the series was, but like Making A Murderer before it, it definitely caught the cultural zeitgeist. A popular documentary series exploring one story in great detail.

Now I’m sure it’s coincidence, but there have since been something of a string of podcasts based around cult leaders that have since come along. Of course, the cult subject matter is fascinating to any kind of documentary maker. Why would people follow a cult leader and their sometimes devastating belief systems?

Fairly soon after Wild Wild Country launched, ESPN’s 30 for 30 podcast series launched a 5 part series on Bikram Choudhrey – he of Bikram yoga fame. Not quite the same thing as Wild Wild Country, but there are definitely similarities. Both were gurus originating in India. The series launched in May, and its production pre-dated Wild, Wild Country. Indeed in an episode on the making of the series they talked about the issues surrounding two similarly themed programmes coming out at the same time. It was simply a coincidence.

Last week, as the BBC launched its new Sounds app, they also launched a new podcast from the Five Live team that had previously made Beyond Reasonable Doubt. That previous podcast was about the murder of Kathleen Peterson, and told the story of Michael Peterson who was charged with her murder. This is the same story that had been told in a TV documentary series, The Staircase, a series recently continued by Netflix.

The same radio team has now made End of Days, an eight episode series about David Koresh, the cult leader in Waco, Texas and the tragic siege in 1993. Specifically, it looks at the 30 Britons who were part of his group.

The podcast is initially a BBC Sounds exclusive – so strictly speaking, it’s not actually a podcast just yet. The BBC says that it will be made available on all other podcasting platforms at the end of the month, after a period of exclusivity on BBC Sounds. All eight episodes are available to listen to now for UK audiences.

I suspect that, again, this podcast has been long in the making, and it’s just coincidence that it followed so swiftly on the heals of Wild Wild Country.

But then, another new podcast has just launched from Slate. Standoff is a podcast about the Ruby Ridge siege in 1992. This wasn’t of the same scale as the Waco siege a year later, but it’s no doubt an interesting story. Slate is releasing this podcast on a weekly schedule.

As I say, it’s quite probably an accident that we’ve had a slew of podcasts on religious cult leaders all coming within a few months of one another. Given the popularity of true crime, it’s likely that podcast producers have been scouring the true crime bookshelves in search of interesting subjects, and there have been plenty of books and TV movies on all of these subjects.

It’s also notable that many of these stories happened in the early nineties or earlier, and therefore aren’t quite as well known but a millennial, podcast-consuming generation.

When Beyond Reasonable Doubt was first released, I mentioned to a colleague that it didn’t appeal to me since I’d already seen the extensive TV documentary series on BBC Four. I wondered why the same story had been chosen for the podcast. My colleague pointed out that for many of the audience for this podcast, this was a new story for them, and they probably weren’t BBC Four viewers. And it remains true that while some of these series are exploring things older listeners may already know about, for many more, these are new stories.

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