Living the Wildlife with @MackenMurphy

This month I spoke with @MackenMurphy, host of Species Podcast. What began as a hobby has turned into quite a popular show and has given him a platform to voice his views on veganism and animal welfare!

Macken Murphy is the host of Species, the podcast about animals. On the show, he covers a different animal every week—he tries to go beyond the fun facts and include philosophy, history, and culture in every episode. Occasionally there are bonus episodes, where he talks about a narrow animal-related topic that wouldn’t normally be covered. Recently Macken has started bringing on interesting people (like me!) to come and chat with him about animals. He's been podcasting for about a year and a half, and to his great surprise, it has really taken off over the past few months. Since the start of this year, it has become a bit more than just a hobby, and for that he's immensely grateful. When Macken's not podcasting, you can bet he's reading, writing, listening to podcasts, and spending time with his fiancé.

What sparked your interest in animals and how did you decide that you were going to start a podcast about them?

I’ve loved animals since I was a very young child. While I never expected to be involved with them in any professional capacity, I guess I grew up unintentionally educating myself on them. I would read books about animals, watch Animal Planet on TV, I even had animal trading cards. I was pretty enthralled by my fellow creatures; some of the earliest photos I have from my childhood are of me sitting with pigeons outside, or chasing after chickens.

The reason I started a podcast—as opposed to a YouTube channel, or a blog, or some other artistic medium—is purely because it is a type of media I understand. I’ve been listening to podcasts daily since I heard the first episode of Serial back in high school. I absolutely love podcasts; I am extremely busy, and podcasts allow me to consume entertainment while doing other things. This is impossible with other forms of media… Unless you are extremely talented, you can’t read a book while doing your laundry, or cooking, or driving. But while listening to a podcast, you can complete all the mundane tasks you need to, while being entertained.

To be honest, I started the podcast purely as a casual hobby. I loved animals, I loved podcasts, and so it only seemed natural for me to start a podcast about animals. The niche seemed wide open—at the time I was not aware of any other animal podcasts, and I figured it would be fun to fill the void. I never expected there to be a lot of people interested in listening to my kind of content, but apparently the latent audience was quite large!

Podcasting has become incredibly popular in the last few years. Even I’m thinking about creating one. How do you go about creating new and interesting content along with finding wildlife lovers to interview?

My show is scripted, and so a huge part of my job is simply researching the animal. I read a bunch of relatively boring scholarly articles, news stories, and historical documents, and then I re-frame them in a way that is actually digestible and fun. I sit down with my laptop, and the writing just spills out for a few hours at a time. To be honest, I usually have no clue what I’m going to write until I actually start. I have to produce about 8 pages of content for a 20 minute episode, and while that might seem like a lot, I feel like the animals do most of the work—there is simply so much to say about each creature that I could never get writer’s block.

Interviews are definitely the easiest style of podcasting for me. Finding guests has been pretty simple, since I follow a lot of animal experts on twitter. I basically just send a tweet inviting the person on to the show, and then I give them a call. We talk, and then I edit for a few hours afterwards. Compared to researching, writing, reading, and editing, having a conversation is incredibly simple, and it is a very low-investment way of putting out fresh content.

With all of the success you’ve had with your podcast since starting it last year, what do you envision for the future? Are you looking to remain focused on podcasting or bringing your messages to other forms of media?

It’s strange, I started Species as a fun little hobby to help me fill some spare time. I said before I started that I’d be thrilled if I had just 100 listeners, so I definitely did not expect to have thousands of people tuning in. While it has become a bigger part of my life than I ever expected, it still isn’t a major focus of mine in the grand scheme of things.

Listeners shouldn’t worry though, I have no plans to stop Species anytime soon. I think I will keep doing this in the background of my life for a while. In fact, Species is expanding into other forms of media: I hired a cartoonist for a single gig a few months ago, and our project received about 41,000 views—so it makes business sense for us to produce more visual content together in the future (I actually just spoke with him earlier today). But I don’t know if this show is ever going to represent a major chapter in my career. We’ll see… I have plans for future chapters, Species is just the first one.

You have a very active Twitter account with nearly 20,000 followers. While it can be difficult to keep so many people engaged with animals on a daily basis, you do it with ease. What’s your secret?

Viral, visual content. When I first started on twitter, I posted as if my only goal was to get people to click on the links to my podcast episodes—this was highly ineffective marketing. Now, I have my @SpeciesPodcast handle, and I use it to share videos, photos, and occasionally facts. I sometimes share episode links, but this isn’t how I get new listeners most of the time: People follow my account for the viral content, but at a certain point if you see the name “Species Podcast” on your feed enough, you will open up your podcast app and have a listen.

I just share the photos and videos that excite me, the followers and listeners come naturally from that process. My ideal video is something that is either cute, awe-inspiring, or extremely unusual; my ideal caption is educational, surprising, and funny. If it has most of those components, it will probably go viral.

You also have a personal account on Twitter where you’re very vocal about your veganism. What prompted you to stop eating animal products? You’ve also labeled yourself as a sentientist. What does that mean?

I should preface this question by saying I try to keep my veganism separate from my podcast. While I was vegan long before I started Species, I basically never mention it on the show—we’ve almost had 100 episodes now, maybe 30-40 hours of me talking on tape, and I’ve mentioned veganism on three occasions that I can remember. Once because a listener asked about it, once because it was relevant to the conversation subject, and once because I had the great John Oberg on as a guest. My podcast is about encouraging people to love animals, and while I think veganism inevitably follows from that position if you think about it for long enough, you can definitely listen to my podcast without being vegan. To give you an idea of how quiet I am about it, I’ve actually been invited hunting twice by listeners. Needless to say, I had to disappoint them.

On my personal twitter, I am more direct about my feelings. I promote veganism on a daily basis. I know veganism is considered a rather radical position, but in reality it is quite moderate. We all agree that unnecessary cruelty to animals is wrong. And we all know that what we do to animals for our food, clothing, and other items is cruel. Once you realize that animal products are (in 99% of cases and circumstances) completely unnecessary, it is easy to see why we should choose vegan alternatives whenever possible. Veganism is the only way to reject unnecessary cruelty towards animals. Veganism is simply the act of boycotting violence towards animals—it is the mere refusal to pay someone to harm an innocent creature.

The animals we use are abused in ways that would make Michael Vick look like a moderate. I refuse to fund animal agriculture for the same reason you would refuse to fund dog fights. It’s strange: If I treated a dog or a cat the way farm animals are treated, everybody would think I was a complete maniac. And yet, because I refuse to pay someone to abuse any species, I am maligned as an extremist. It is truly an odd circumstance I find myself in, receiving daily hatred merely for adopting this anti-cruelty stance.

As for sentientism, that is simply the easiest phrase I can use to accurately describe my core philosophy. Everyone is, to some degree or another, a sentientist. You feel no moral obligations towards your toaster, because you do not think it is sentient. But if you were given a robot toaster that appeared to be capable of having thoughts and feelings, you would suddenly feel obligated to make sure those thoughts and feelings weren’t negative. The only determinant for whether or not a being has moral value is whether or not they are sentient. Sentientism is humanism, expanded out to include all those capable of suffering. I believe morality is clearly reducible to the well-being of sentient creatures—ourselves, other animals, and perhaps one day AI and aliens. Though if we get to meet such characters in some sci-fi future, it is unlikely they will be the ones who need safeguarding.

If the readers could only have one take away from this interview, what would you like it to be?

Be kind to animals.

If you want to get the latest updates from Macken, be sure to follow him on Twitter and listen to Species Podcast on his website or iTunes! Don’t forget to donate if you enjoy his work and would like it to continue.

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