Oct 1, 2019

Cult-like following for podcast all about sects

Let’s Talk About Sects is an award-winning podcast from Sydney-based filmmaker and writer Sarah Steel
Peter Wells
Sydney Morning Herald
September 25, 2019

Let’s Talk About Sects is an award-winning podcast from Sydney-based filmmaker and writer Sarah Steel. The show explores the charismatic leaders behind cults ranging from The Family, Branch Davidians and one that sprung up from an addiction to recovery program Synanon.

“I’d been listening to heaps of podcasts, and I was listening to a lot of true crime at the time,” says Steel, who created and hosts the show. “I had a basic fascination with the psychology of cults, how they work, why people end up in them, what’s going on with the people who start them. These people have this amazing influence over other people’s lives and often cause them to do awful things, things that are against their own basic morals and ethics.

“When I was looking, there just wasn’t anyone out there doing a podcast about cults – I couldn’t find one to listen to. So I thought maybe I could make one.”

Steel’s podcast has gone on to become a worldwide hit, frequently topping podcast charts and “must listen” lists. Her meticulously researched program features interviews with survivors and experts, all with an empathetic tone.

“I’ve come to understand better how these groups work and how, really, anyone can find themselves in a cult. The people I speak to are intelligent, wonderful people who were looking to make a change in the world, or really make a change in themselves. And they just fell under the spell of the wrong leader,” Steel says. “The more I’ve come to understand that, the more it’s about helping these people share their stories and trying to make sure other people in society know the red flags to look out for so they don’t end up in a similar situation.”

Season three starts with an examination of the cult around NXIVM, a self-help organisation whose founder Keith Raniere was convicted in June on charges including conspiracy, forced labour, racketeering and sex trafficking. Raniere is awaiting sentencing.

“A lot of cult leaders will use religion as a shorthand to gain a lot of authority over someone, because if they’ve got God speaking to them, that’s an automatic authority right there,” says Steel. “But I think religion is just an easy mask for the sort of person who really craves power and control and works in that manipulative way.”

Each episode takes about a month to research and record, all around Steel’s day job, although the success of Let’s Talk About Sects means she’s devoting more time to the podcast each week.

“With podcasting, you can’t go into it thinking that you’re going to make money, you have to go into it with a passion for just doing something for the love of it,” she says. “Sects is my passion project, I spend a ridiculous amount of time on it, and I get more and more messages from people who have had these experiences and find it very hard to find an outlet to tell their story. So I feel really privileged to be able to offer that platform to them.”

Peter Wells works at Swinburne University and is a technology commentator in his spare time. He is an award-winning journalist who currently appears on the Daily Tech News Show.


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