If you’re a true crime or podcast aficionado, odds are you’ve heard of a little podcast called Sword and Scale.
First released in 2014, Sword and Scale featured hour long episodes heavy on court transcripts, interview excerpts and audio from 911 calls. Some cases were so short that they would be put together into anthology-styled bookend episodes, while others had so much detail that they needed to be told in multiple installments. True Crime has always been a popular genre, and the diverse choice in cases, attention to detail and timeline arrangement of Sword and Scale quickly caught attention. It rocketed up the rankings in the Science and Social Science categories, gathering even more listeners after the success of crime podcast Serial, especially after the mass exodus of new listeners after a disappointing season two.
Like any successful podcast, Sword and Scale relies on multiple revenue streams to support not only host and creator Mike Boudet, but also the staff that works behind the scenes of any successful, large-scale podcast giant, including sound editors, writers, musicians, etc. There are generally two ways that social media enterprises like podcasts can become profitable: sponsorships and direct contributions. Sword and Scale managed both. It quickly rose through the ranks as the fifth highest creator on Patreon, number two in the podcast category overall. It took in an estimated $85,000 a month from more than 14,000 supporters at its peak. Meanwhile, the podcast’s success attracted big name sponsors like Blue Apron and Casper Mattresses and was promoted by a high profile podcasting network.
On Saturday, March 9th, Wondery dropped Sword and Scale from its line up. After previously recorded episode 133, Sword and Scale announced it would completely halt production of its podcast and lay off its staff.
… what happened?
I first came across Sword and Scale in 2016, when I started listening to burgeoning crime podcast Casefile. With only two episodes released at the time, I went seeking similar podcasts to tide me over between updates. The top of the recommended list was Sword and Scale.
Like any podcast, when listening to Sword and Scale, YMMV. The quality of the intro and closing sections, the methods for transitioning to and from sponsorship ads, the opinions and viewpoints expressed all may appeal to certain groups moreso than others. The show’s heavy reliance on little-edited 911 calls, for example, sometimes helped and sometimes hurt the show. This happened often, either by dragging out unimportant or unintelligible sections or by giving more information than should probably be broadcast on such a high profile show- including first and last names, telephone numbers, and addresses. I found that I often screened the shows for content, skipping ones that covered certain types of crime for how flippantly it was discussed. One episode followed the host as he visited an apartment complex to tell horrified residents about the gristly events that took place in their home and record their reactions. It felt exploitative, mean spirited. I unsubscribed for a time. But I went back. And I wasn’t alone.
According to Business Insider, young women are the largest demographic for true crime. In a Mashable interview cited therein, Boudet stated that 70% of his fans were women aged 25-45. While there are many theories as to why, psychologically, this might be the case, Dr. Howard Forman of Montefiore Medical Center cites increased empathy as the reason- and I’m inclined to agree.
Empathy, the ability to understand and share, at least to some degree, the feelings of another, lets the listener connect with victims. Why did this set of circumstances occur? Who did it affect? How can it be prevented? And when the victims in the cases covered are overwhelmingly female, it stands to reason that women look at true crime as a guidebook, a worst-case-scenario, bad end version of a very real, dangerous world that must be navigated daily. True Crime, then, in a way, has become a feminist issue. This fact is something that might have been expected to guide the promotions and interactions that Sword and Scale and host Boudet had with fans and followers.
But that isn’t exactly what happened.
Mike Boudet’s fan interactions have come under fire before. This excellent Mamamia article covers in-depth the first wave of backlash back in April of last year. On both his personal and official accounts, Boudet used his platform as a way to interact with female fans in a way that was inappropriate, embarrassing, and even degrading.
Boudet began to pick up the reputation of being a bit of a creep. He insisted his actions were full of good intentions. He was joking. They were compliments, after all. One might wonder if this was how he treated female fans he liked, what might he do to one who didn’t meet his Tindr aesthetic?
This was a rather costly mistake. Boudet blocked the fan and swiftly deleted his entire tweet history… but the damage was done. Negative publicity led Casper to drop their support of the podcast in future. Wondrey reached out to do damage control. Boudet assured the public that he understood what had went wrong. There was no way it would happen again.
Patreon’s well-publicized decision to no longer allow those who support hate speech like Milo Yiannopolous to use the platform led to Boudet’s announcement that Sword and Scale would soon be finding a new platform for monetary support.
In fact, Boudet’s return to social media heralded an almost frenetic attack on a nameless faceless group, a mob out to ruin the podcast at any cost. References to these SJWs pepper accounts across platforms.
Sword and Scale’s podcast beefs spread from My Favorite Murder to other well known titles. Even casual posts took on an abrasive, confrontational quality. The jokes got meaner. The reception got colder. Boudet was a powder keg, about to explode.
International Women’s Day is celebrated each year on March 8th, meant to celebrate womanhood as well as to bring attention to rights issues. It was established in the United States in 1909. Marketing-savvy businesses like McDonalds and Old Navy ran short term promotions that celebrated female achievements. And Mike Boudet, with over 12,000 followers, host of a podcast with nearly 40,000 followers, tweeted this.
It seems almost farcical. Who would post such a thing on the day when the internet is on high alert looking to promote the achievements and interests of women? Internet trolls, clearly- but most internet trolls don’t have high profile businesses that rely on predominantly female support. Wondrey Media tried to hold out, but the backlash was too great this time. Even their own posts celebrating Women’s Day had to be taken down under heavy criticism for what they were condoning. It was over.
The podcast stream was suddenly updated. In a six minute diatribe, Boudet explained that the podcast is now finished, mentioning the staff who will be laid off in a bid for sympathy. He blamed censorship.
“You get a mob to rally against you, intimidate those around you, anyone who associates with you, because you’ve been deemed a bad person who says bad words- the mob can censor you through intimidation, through boycotts and through other tactics just because they don’t like what you said, how you said it, what tone you used what words you used.”
He relayed this information as a call to arms against a great evil. Even the announcement tweet through the official twitter account held others to blame.
Which leaves the rest of us like…
In the end, however, the anger is misplaced. Businesses support profitable ventures. Advertising support helps generate interest and revenue. When a potential customer is no longer interested in a product, the associated businesses suffer.
Even Boudet must recognize this to a certain extent, as he doesn’t hold his corporate sponsors responsible for his cancellation. Lashing out at Wondrey or Casper would, of course, make other future sponsors wary.
In the end, Sword and Scale was cancelled for the same reason that most things are. Entertainment is not a right, it’s a privilege. Offending your base audience only assures that you won’t have a base audience anymore. Sometimes you have to be nice.
It’s just good business.