Are Reality Documentary Podcasts the New True Crime?
The podcast industry is going from strength to strength, producing more quality content and listeners each year. True crime has played a big part in this popularity explosion, driving high talkability and downloads. Whilst the genre continues to grow, another style is emerging, with the potential to follow a similar trajectory. In this blog post, we explore what made true crime such a phenomenon and how an emerging sub-genre, reality documentary, could go deeper into our fascination with real events and people. New podcast series We Are Lonely Season 2 is leading the charge, making use of the medium to present gripping, often never-before-told true stories with the added ingredient of real people’s experiences. Find out how this unique format capitalises on podcasting’s unique ability to connect and educate, and why that’s more important than ever.
A brief history of true crime podcasts
The genre has captivated the internet and audiences worldwide, and at times even contributed to progress being made in unsolved cases. Serial was the first huge true crime podcast, with over 300 million+ downloads since its launch 8 years ago. There are no signs of these gripping stories ceasing to fascinate us. Variety reports that the true crime genre has seen the most growth in podcasts, up 205% compared to one year ago. (Variety)
Tanya Horeck, the author of Justice on Demand: True Crime in the Digital Streaming Age explains this:
“On a daily basis, most of us go on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, TikTok to look up information and people we’re interested in. True crime seeps into that because it’s about investigation, about finding out information. In the pre-digital age, we were armchair detectives, but now we’re internet sleuths, and that’s quite intoxicating.’ (The Guardian)
Exploring reality documentary podcasts
Whilst true crime podcasts continue to captivate us, reality TV such as Love Island is also on the rise, dominating social media conversation. There is continued debate around reality TV, with some critics and studies claiming that the genre has a negative impact on self-esteem, especially body image. Fans argue that it is escapism and a guilty pleasure, at its best offering candid cultural insights into human behavior. But it's not always crass and sensationalist - what happens when you mix the investment with real people and experiences that reality series offer with the drip-feed documentary style of true crime? Enter reality documentary, a new podcast genre with a spin on unique investigative storytelling.
Reality documentary takes the best parts of a documentary series and adds real people on the journey in real-time, adding an unscripted dose of realism and insight into human nature. By drawing on true experience, listeners are able to drive closer connections with the subject matter.
The nature of a podcast and the audience it attracts means that this brand of reality will be very different to an episode of MAFS. 92% of people that listen to podcasts do so alone, creating an intimate and personal environment. Additionally, people who listen to podcasts tend to be fairly educated (Andreessen Horowitz estimates 30% of us hold graduate degrees), and so do podcast creators. When podcasts do “reality”, it’s tackled with grace and respect.
We Are Lonely – A Case Study
In this new six-part series, we understand the reality of loneliness in Australia, experienced by a generation that theoretically has never been more connected. Four young people meet with mentors and experts who will help them build strategies to reconnect. The podcast seeks to demystify loneliness while presenting practical strategies to reconnect.
Director from Headline Productions, Liz Keen explains:
“When we were asked to pitch for a show about loneliness, I’d been thinking how there are no reality podcasts. Kind ones, like Queer Eye or Old Person’s Home for Teenagers.
So we pitched this idea - four people in their twenties are each linked with a mentor to help them find connection.”
Drawing on widely held and relatable experiences of isolation, identity struggles, relationships and addiction, the participants in the study are vulnerable about their experiences. For example, 24-year-old Tim is a young gay man from a mixed Asian and Australian background, who had built a close community centered around his life, uni, drag, LGBTQIA+ culture, and gaming. But after moving from Perth to Melbourne during COVID, he struggled to maintain connections and became overly reliant on gaming. Tim's mentor is Sean Szeps, best known for sharing stories about parenting, mental health and about being queer.
Sean elaborates “What’s so special about the show - other than the fact that it raises awareness about loneliness (especially in young people and especially after the pandemic) - is that it pairs them with 4 older mentors who have some experience in that space…over the course of many months we connected every single week… I’m so proud that I got to be involved and make the connection with Tim.”
The unique blend of real human stories, compassionate mentors and mental health experts makes it incredibly engaging to listen to and connect with.
We Are Lonely is hosted by Jemma Sbeghen (host of The Psychology Of Your 20s) and features mentors Dr Deidre Anderson, Barry Conrad, Sean Szeps and Tessa Blenclowe. Experts involved include Professor Ian Hickie (Co-Director of Health and Policy, University of Sydney) and Dr Lisa Mundy (Developmental Psychologist).
We Are Lonely serves not only as entertainment, but as insight and inspiration that can positively impact the listeners mental and physical health. It might not surprise you to hear that people in Australia have never been more lonely. Half of us will feel lonely this week. The UK has a Minister for Loneliness and the US Surgeon General has declared loneliness a health epidemic, but it might surprise you that young adults are lonelier than the average person in Australia. If we learn to manage and minimise loneliness, it’s no more than a healthy human emotion. If it becomes chronic, it can have the same impact on us as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.
To conclude, the rise of true crime is a testament to our fascination with extreme situations and people. This form of entertainment helps us feel more informed about the world and more prepared for how to avoid becoming a victim. But sometimes, the biggest threats to us are more subtle. Through shining a spotlight on the rising loneliness epidemic, we can take away the stigma and encourage people to get help and connect. We Are Lonely is out now, wherever you get your podcasts and you can read more here.