In a post that has since been taken down, Danny Manus warned that screenwriters are unwittingly being drawn into cults:

To be honest, I’m not even sure the professionals themselves are aware of their Jim Jonesy behavior and what type of insulated, self-aggrandizing, arrogant dome of cynicism and power they are creating. So, in hopes that there is still time to save others from drinking the Kool-Aid, and as a public service to inform those unknowingly responsible, here are some ways to know if you’re leading a cult.

– You cast aspersions on outside computer programs or software your followers may use (…and then launch your own and charge for it).

– You advise your followers that they need to move closer to you, and can only truly be part of your world if they are living nearby in the same town.

– You create your own terminology for words and concepts that don’t require new terminology (or perhaps your own FONT because the font others use aren’t good enough for you?).

While the first bullet point could apply to Marco Arment, I have a strong hunch that Manus is mostly referring to me and Craig Mazin, and our Scriptnotes podcast.

If he’s calling me a cult leader, he’s not altogether wrong.

By these standards, most popular podcasters are cult leaders.

Sound of My Voice

Here’s the thing: I’m fascinated by cults. I read books about Jonestown. I watch movies like Martha Marcy May Marlene. I wrote a pilot for Fox about an apocalyptic cult in the Santa Ynez Valley.

I know cults, and podcasts are inherently kind of culty.

Week after week, you’re hearing the same voices talking in your head about the same topics. You begin to learn the hosts’ quirks, opinions and predilections. They feel like friends even though they’re strangers.1

Podcasts never abandon you. They are with you when you’re alone in the car, or riding the train, or washing dishes. They take you out of the tedium of the moment and engage you in something more interesting.

Podcasts offer secret knowledge. Anyone can watch The Daily Show, but to listen to a podcast you have to know it exists. You have to seek it out. You have a source of information almost no one else in the world does.

Some podcasts even provide a special wardrobe, say, a t-shirt.

Yet there are some significant barriers to podcasts becoming full-on cults.

For starters, listening to a podcast is a solo experience, while cults are inherently group activities. Social media can get you part of the way — but you’d want to do some live shows so your fans can interact with each other.

Second, the opt-out is way too easy. True cults have ways to punish apostasy. With podcasts, you can simply stop listening, or delete the show from your podcasting app. No one is going to know that you bailed.2

Cult-like isn’t the same as cult

I don’t believe podcasters are cult leaders in the sense of Jim Jones. Manus is comparing the murder of 913 men, women and children to a few mean Facebook comments.

A podcast like Scriptnotes — or The Talk Show, or Serial, or the Slate Political Gabfest — does share some characteristics with a cult. It has charismatic leaders voicing an opinion. It singles out heroes and villains. Just like Apple and Android, a podcast can attract fans and fanatics.

Should podcasters be aware of the dangers of cult-like behavior? Absolutely. So should bloggers, tweeters, Viners and YouTubers. Any time you have a crowd, you have to consider responsible crowd management.

Manus writes:

Those who spout off about how THERE ARE NO RULES – but then continue to tell you exactly what to believe and think and how to act and who to do business with – are either wildly hypocritical, or completely oblivious.

I don’t think Craig and I are hypocritical or oblivious. We’re mindful of our responsibility to both our audience and the industry, and always aim to be inclusive rather than isolationist. If we’re cult leaders, we suck at it.

But I guess that’s what a modern cult leader would say.

  1. Meeting people in person, I’ve experienced both sides of this asymmetric familiarity. It’s weird both ways.
  2. I’ve stopped listening to several of my friends’ podcasts. No, not yours. Another friend’s.