Disruptions in a podcast community

Most podcasts, if not all, start out in a niche. Some might grow beyond that, converting new people to their subject, and others will remain in their little nook, serving listeners who already inhabited that space. Either way, podcasts gather communities about them — big and small — as listeners come together around the show to discuss the contents and other relevant media/information.

The actual platform this community occupies varies from show to show: The Receipts does great things with a Twitter hashtag, You Must Remember This has its own forum (old school, I love it), and In the Dark has a Facebook group you must pay to join. The technology seems to matter less than the fact that people really want to turn up and talk about what they’re listening to.

Listeners’ fervour for this kind of discussion can come as a bit of a surprise to podcasters, who might previously have thought that their main task was to cut tape and produce a show, not become a full time community moderator. As anyone who works in audience development or management for a big website, say, or a social network will tell you — this stuff is much harder than it looks.

Once your community grows to include thousands of people who post a lot, it can become more than a full time job to make sure that guidelines are adhered to and offensive posts are removed in a timely way. What was once a brilliant addition to your podcast can become a burden, and even a PR disaster.

I watched with interest this week as the latter unfolded around the My Favorite Murder podcast’s Facebook page (which has been liked by over 230,000 people). There’s a good explanation of what went wrong here; essentially it seems that a controversy blew up around an insensitive and appropriative piece of merchandise, which the hosts didn’t then pull from sale immediately, and then the anger spilled out onto moderating policies and alleged racists posts being allowed to appear on the page. The creators suspended the page for a while, but at the time of writing it’s back up.

I haven’t spoken to anyone directly involved in this particular incident, so I can’t comment on the precise facts and implications thereof. However, this case is interesting to me as an archetypal example of an online community outgrowing its source material, and indeed its creators’ capacity to steer it.

My Favorite Murder is a tremendously successful podcast, and having scrolled through some of the comments on the Facebook page there are plenty complaining about things other than the two issues I’ve mentioned above. There are too many ads; the show isn’t just about murders any more; the episodes aren’t as long as they used to be. There’s an atmosphere of dissatisfaction in some parts of the group, which I’m sure wasn’t what its creators wanted when they began. But sometimes things outgrow our original intentions, and there comes a point where a community has to evolve and add the resources for its safe management, or it has to close down.

Navigating these growing pains is really difficult, especially when you might not have the resources to police or moderate the community full time. Nobody gets into podcasting because they want to try and run an online community — but since this particular show’s creators have just announced the launch of a whole podcast network, it seems that they have bigger plans for expansion that are going to require them to get their affairs in order, sharpish.

(If you’re interested in this topic, this episode of Gimlet’s Reply All tells the story of a Facebook group that got out of control, albeit in a far more lighthearted way. )