Justin Drown’s true crime podcast, Obscura, always seemed to garner positive reviews. For the first year he hosted the show, Drown says it “overwhelmingly” earned five-star marks from fans. That changed in July.
Suddenly, Obscura was inundated with hundreds of one-star reviews on Apple Podcasts. His overall rating fell from five, to four, to around three and a half stars as reviews flooded in. Most of them, he noticed, didn’t even have comments about what they didn’t like. “That’s when I realized, ‘Okay, something’s going on,’” Drown says.
Drown had a guess about what happened: coordinated sabotage. Earlier that week, the Tampa Bay Times profiled him and briefly mentioned his criticism of true crime podcast host Mike Boudet, of Sword and Scale. This might have pushed Boudet to retaliate in “an attempt to decimate my podcast,” Drown says. He posits that Boudet could have hired an automated service to bombard his show with one-star reviews. Boudet didn’t respond to a request for comment.
Podcast reviews can be easy to game, and Apple Podcasts has become the main target for angry fans interested in taking down a show. Apple’s service is the biggest name in podcasting, and it’s one of the few major platforms that allows listeners to leave public reviews. While hosts abused that feature in the past to beat the system with fake positive reviews, others have used it to inundate hosts they don’t like with a barrage of one-star marks, making the shows look like a bust.
These negative reviews can turn away new listeners, but hosts on the receiving end say the even bigger impact is on themselves. An attack makes them feel deflated and disheartened, and sometimes, they want to give up making their show entirely. “The initial impact of it is crushing,” Drown says. “You work so hard to build up your show and then to see that star number shoot way down. It’s a lot to deal with.”
Many podcasts that appear to be bombed, or have at least attracted a large number of negative reviews, involve already controversial hosts. One-star reviews make up more than 70 percent of Bill O’Reilly’s podcast reviews, for example, according to data from podcast marketing company Chartable, and more than 40 percent of reviews for former Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton’s election podcast With Her are one-star. In those cases, negative reviews likely served as a political statement.
In other cases, however, review bombing is coordinated and purposeful. Barstool Sports fans appear to have once targeted actor Michael Rapaport’s podcast after he called them “losers.” It currently has more than 34,000 one-star reviews on Apple Podcasts. Luminary now distributes his show exclusively and its app doesn’t allow for public reviews.
Fans will use negative reviews to defend or attack whomever they deem worthy. Two former Bachelor contestants were targeted earlier this year when fans determined that they had kicked another co-host and Bachelor alum out of a new show they were launching. When their new show, Mommies Tell All, launched in March, fans of their prior podcast immediately bombarded it with negative reviews.
One of the hosts, Jade Tolbert, said in a Facebook post that the reviewers were “breaking [her] heart with the hate and the nastiness you’re all leaving.”
The situation was also, she said, a misunderstanding — the third Bachelor alum agreed to leave the show, and had not been kicked out. “I’m truly crushed by some of the comments people have left and have been trying to be so strong about it, but I’m feeling really defeated,” she wrote in a Facebook group. “You win, if you’re honestly not a fan anymore, you left your review, so leaving the group is the least you could do.”
More than 40 percent of the show’s reviews are one-star, according to Chartable data. The Facebook group’s members later tried to initiate a separate effort to give the show five-star reviews, and it now has a review average of three and a half stars.
Last year, a similar one-star rating campaign was organized on Facebook to take down two journalists’ podcast. Fans of several Instagram pages bombarded the show, hosted by Taylor Lorenz, now of The New York Times, and Julia Alexander, who’s now my colleague at The Verge, after Lorenz wrote critically about the women behind the accounts.
“There’s no recourse with something like this,” Lorenz says. “There’s nothing we could do, so we just quit doing the podcast shortly after. It’s definitely when I emotionally just gave up on podcasting.”
The podcast’s producer, Ross Miller, a co-founder of The Verge who now works at Polygon, says he reported the harassment to Apple with an email to support. Apple said it was “investigating the issue,” and then never reached out again.
Apple confirmed that it monitors reviews for unusual activity and that it’ll take action if necessary. It also confirmed that people can report concerns about reviews through the desktop Apple Podcasts app or its website. After The Verge reached out about Drown’s show, Apple seemingly adjusted his show’s reviews and removed more than 300 one-star marks.
Most platforms don’t offer podcast reviews, and it’s unclear how useful the existing reviews even are. Only two major platforms, Apple Podcasts and Castbox, offer listeners the ability to leave public reviews. Castbox’s system functions more like a comments section, which it tells The Verge is purposeful and designed to be a “community tool meant to enable conversations rather than reviews.” The company says negative reviews don’t affect a show’s “discoverability, ranking, or relevance,” although “popular comments with high user engagement do rise to the top of listeners’ social feeds.”
Castbox also says it doesn’t come across much spam or review bombing, but if podcasters are worried about unfair or inaccurate information, they can reach out to the company, and it’ll “review each case internally.”
Apple Podcasts is entirely different. For one, it’s the most popular platform for podcast listening, with about 52 percent of podcast listeners using it, according to a 2018 study from Anchor. The company also maintains podcast charts that rely on a secret algorithm that takes metrics like new subscribers into account. Apple doesn’t say whether reviews factor into the rankings. Podcasters, like Drown, often check their reviews on the platform, and generally monitor their shows’ performance. Positive reviews can only help them, whereas negative reviews, even if they don’t affect the charts, could scare away potential listeners.
Still, the reviews aren’t something that matter to advertisers, according to Sean King, executive vice president of operations at Veritone One, a major podcast advertising agency. He says advertisers and ad agencies care more about “consistency,” or how well hosts engage with their audience.
“We look for a great, consistent audience that has a loyal following where the subject matter is aligning with the brand,” he says. “Those reviews really are just one of many measures of what that engagement may be like with the host and the content.”
A controversial host doesn’t mean a lack of audience. King cites SiriusXM host Howard Stern as an example. “There are people that absolutely despise him, but will still go back to listen,” King says. “He’d be one of those people that would have really high engagement, or high downloads, that consistency there, but may have a low score. What I would almost say is, ‘Well sure, they have a low score, but the last 15 episodes that they’ve launched have all had over 500,000 downloads.’ We’re going to look at that.”
King hasn’t heard of an advertiser reaching out to the agency over negative reviews about shows they advertise on. Peter Vincer, CEO of podcast production and distribution company HiStudios, also says he hasn’t heard about advertisers being concerned over negative ratings. HiStudios sells ads for Drown’s show, and Vincer worked at Castbox when the company implemented comments.
“I really don’t see reviews as having much of an impact on anything that’s significant,” he says. It’d be “pretty rare,” he says, for a company to be ready to purchase an ad, see the one-star reviews “and not also then assume it’s from some sort of shade campaign.”
This then leads to the real question: what function do podcast reviews serve, and how would a fair review system function? Other industries have already grappled with this problem. Rotten Tomatoes, for example, implemented verified ratings and reviews that require confirmation that users actually bought tickets to a movie. Steam introduced product changes, like monitoring reviews during a set period of time when review bombing might happen. Review bombing touches most industries, but in podcasting’s case, the problem centers on Apple Podcasts, the medium’s most popular platform that purposely obscures its algorithms.
When reviews are genuine, they can be helpful to potential listeners. But in an industry that lacks a large number of professional critics, user-generated podcast reviews might be too difficult to manage and not worth preserving.