I listen to true crime, I read about true crime and I write about true crime every week. My hobby has become part of my job. Hours spent digging into long form stories and trawling through Apple’s podcast charts have changed the way I look at the genre. I still enjoy a good story, I still appreciate the art of digging into a cold case or highlighting a historical tale, but these days, I don’t just notice the stories, I notice the branding.
And there’s no one in the business with better branding than Parcast. After three scant years in the podcasting business (their first show Unsolved Murders debuted June 14, 2016), Parcast president Max Cutler has built one of the most impressive true crime podcast networks in the medium. Its 22 shows (and counting) cover everything from assassinations to female criminals to haunted places to serial killers, with names like Assassinations, Female Criminals, Haunted Places and Serial Killers. Parcast’s straightforward mastery of SEO and discoverability is undeniable, which is why I hopped on the phone with Cutler to talk about his business strategy, how it felt to be acquired by Spotify and his favorite true crime podcasts.
I know you started the company with your father in 2016, and that your father was in radio for a very long time, but what happened in 2016 that made you think, “This is the time, I have to get started?”
I guess it actually goes back before 2016. I’d been a huge audio fan, in general, for my whole life. I was the kid who was into audiobooks more so than reading, and then podcasts started to become a big thing in 2013, 2014. I was listening to pretty much every podcast you could listen to during my commute, when I was going for a walk. I fell in love with the medium.
In January of 2016, I started hearing more sponsorships and I started thinking a lot of the content I listened to really didn’t have the production quality that I would like… I was listening to a podcast and I noticed that it seemed like they were reading something. I went through the Wikipedia page and sure enough, they were literally going through the Wikipedia page of a true crime. From there, I was like, “This podcast is getting so many listeners, die hard fanbase, yet they’re not spending a lot of time on research, they’re not spending a lot of time on storytelling.” I thought there was a way to fulfill my need, in all honesty, and create these podcasts that do a lot of research.
That’s what Parcast does, potentially, better than most other networks. [We] hire writers that are actually screen writers, not traditional radio or public radio, but entertainment industry writers to bring the stories to life and take them deeper than other podcasts are willing to go. Lastly, of course, is our sound design. I think we do a great job of not over producing, but just enough that it keeps you into the story. When you combine those factors, we really caught onto something special.
It’s an incredible story. I know that when you started the company you accepted no VC funding, it was totally internally funded between you and your dad, but now that you’ve been acquired by Spotify, how is that working from a creative standpoint? How much creative control do you still have?
It’s a loaded question, but I have complete creative control over Parcast Studios, and that’s why I’m at Spotify. The opportunity was amazing. To hear anybody believes in you and believes in your vision… And I laid out the longterm, many year goal and they bought in. They just want to enable creators and that’s why I’m there. I wouldn’t be at a company that didn’t believe in me or believe in the Parcast vision. So to have a big company say that… Spotify has an amazing reputation of working with creators, so it’s just a win/win situation and I feel blessed to be apart of the Spotify family.
The reason I wanted to interview you is because I write a true crime column. I spend a lot of times looking through iTunes and seeing what new podcasts have come out that week. The longer I’ve been doing this column, I’ve realized your show creation strategy, or naming strategy, is maybe genius. You have 22 shows, and I don’t know how much you care about SEO, but… Assassinations, Crimes of Passion, Cults, The Dark Side Of, Espionage… There’s not a superfluous word in any of them. What’s the thought process there?
The thought process is in the podcast space, historically, discoverability is extremely challenging. Unless you’re top of the charts, unless you’re getting featured, how do they know to search for you? They don’t. It was 100% an SEO play. I thought very early on that if I wanted to listen to a serial killer podcast, I’ll probably type in “serial killers.” It really derived out of this deal of, what are people going to search for? What are their words? We need to create shows around these huge topics that could also be evergreen and go on forever.
What makes Parcast different and special than a lot of other companies is that we are able to produce shows on a weekly basis. We’re not taking that six or 12 episode deep dive and then taking six weeks off, these are ongoing. So to have these names like this, it’s just a great opportunity for us. We really own the SEO in the podcast space and we’re going to continue to do that, I hope, for the future.
In the podcast space, a lot of these other bigger networks will do a comedy show and a true crime show and you don’t really know what you’re getting. What it ends up doing, in my opinion, is creating no real brand loyalty. You know what you’re getting from a Parcast show. You know exactly what that show is and if you look at our roster you’d say, “Oh, they’re definitely dealing with the dark side of everything, they’re a storytelling network.”
You have about 22 different shows right now, and I thought I read an interview where you said there would be 40 by the end of the year, is that correct?
That is correct. We’re going to have 18 more launching by the end of December this year. A lot of work to be done.
Will you be taking break from your production schedule or slowing down your new releases?
I think it’ll be dictated by the marketplace. What makes this special is that there’s a need for content right now. People keep going on in the podcast space, “There’s 700,000 podcasts now!” The truth is, there’s not that many that are competing on a weekly basis, and there’s not that many competing where Parcast is. I think there’s a lot of need for amazing stories to be told and as long as our podcasts keep delivering bigger numbers every week, which they are, we’re going to keep doing this.
I also think, that of those 18 shows coming out, we will be launching some new verticals that we’re excited about. I think the ability to innovate and create formats, in particularly in the second half of 2019, is a big goal of Parcast.
Why is having weekly podcasts so important?
It’s huge. You need to build repetition. You need to build a habit, essentially. I think, especially in a space where there’s a lot of podcasts, there’s a lot of competition out there… If you’re going 12 weeks on, 12 weeks off, people might forget about you. They do forget about you. It’s been proven.
Every Monday morning, I want people to get excited that Serial Killers is coming out. We’ve never missed an airdate on any of our shows. I think that’s really special. When you think about the podcast space, we are a very young space, people tend to forget that, but people would miss airdates. Not only did that upset advertisers, but more importantly, it upsets your listeners.
I think all of our shows, at least 90%-95% of our shows going forward, are going to be at least weekly if not even more frequently.
In the past, I’ve heard you define the true crime podcast space, before Parcast, as being one of two ways. There were a lot of, what you called, the NPR imitators or the purely comedy driven shows. How would you define what you guys do? Also, who do you think your audience is?
Well, I know our audience is female. I know our audience is about 75% female. I think we’re a storytelling network and a research network. And quite frankly, if you like audiobooks, you’re really going to like Parcast shows. We go deeper then definitely most podcasts go. We’re going to throw a lot more research at you. We’re not going to go out and spend nine months on every episode, that’s just unattainable, but we have a team of researchers here that I’m not sure other networks have. I mean a full entire team that, literally, their whole entire job is to get as much research on every episode as possible so our writers can bring these stories to life.
So when I think of Parcast, we’re a network of storytellers, we’re a network of creators. If you like audiobooks, and apparently if you’re a woman 25-34, you’re really going to enjoy Parcast.
How important are the iTunes charts?
They’re not important at all. They’re manipulated by tons of networks. There’s no relevance on the iTunes charts to the actual show audience size. We don’t care about any charts, but definitely not Apple charts.
Because BYT also run’s Death Becomes Us, we’ve done a lot of research on true crime festivals and live shows. I know there was a Serial Killers tour that was cancelled, but are there any plans to bring that back in the future? What happened with that tour?
Definitely a loaded question. I would say, starting with the tour, that we just had an issue with the venues at the end of the day. It was our first time doing it and we were selling a good amount and we wanted to make sure it was the best experience. About four months before the tour, I decided to pull the tour because I wanted to make sure that when we do a live show, it’s a great experience. People are paying money for that, significant money, and it needs to be different than another podcast that’s doing a live tour.
In terms of the future, I think that’s a big part of Parcast in the future. We’re working on it and hopefully there are more live tours or festivals for Parcast in the future.
Have you seen any live tours or festivals that you thought did it right?
I think a lot of people do it right. I think most podcasts that are personality driven do a great job of that. They know how to connect with the audience. I think that’s great. I think, for Parcast, what makes it more challenging is that we’ve always prided ourselves on going a step further than just people talking into a mic. Wanting to build out these stories and going deeper… How does that translate to stage? Well I hope that it’s not just going to be our hosts telling the story. I want to go deeper on a case. Maybe we have actors. There’s a lot of things that we can do that, of course, cost a lot more money.
I think the live touring aspect, for Parcast, is a ways away, but it’s something we’re always looking to because it’s a great way to connect with our fans and that’s what matters to us the most. We have a very loyal audience. They reach out to us everyday, believe me when I say that. We care so much about our audience. We’re not here without them. I think a lot of people tend to forget [that], especially when you have a little bit of success. We’re not better than anybody else. We’re not here without our audience. They’re here every week and we try our best to live up to their expectations of us.
Besides your own, what’s your favorite true crime podcast?
This is always such a tough question. My favorite podcast right now is Myths and Legends, I think Jason’s great… But in terms of my favorite true crime podcast… There’s two. These are both the top of the charts, but I like Casefile and I like Crime Junkie a lot. They’re different storytelling, different ways of doing it. I find them very interesting. I have a lot of respect for Ashley Flowers at Crime Junkie. I think what she’s been able to build, in terms of her connection to her audience, is nothing less than amazing. She’s obviously a great storyteller, but I think where a lot of storytellers mess up is they don’t have that connection with the audience like Ashley does. Her engagement is amazing.