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Why True Crime and Podcasts Were Made for Each Other

What is it about the format that makes tales of real-life terror so appealing?

The podcast community began the month of March with hosts urging podcast enthusiasts to offer tutorials to friends and family, an attempt to urge the 70-percent of adults who don’t already listen to them to get comfortable with the decade-old medium. By the end of the month, the podcasting world was seeing results of their #trypod campaign, but by then, the medium had already been given a new word-of-mouth marketing push: S-Town. Released on March 28th, the new show set a download record of 10 million after just four days of availability.

S-Town begins with a murder — or at least the rumors of one. John B. McLemore of Woodstock, Alabama lures reporter Brian Reed into the Deep South by reciting cryptic details of a beating death and its cover up, which McLemore learned via the stereotypical small town grapevine. Though S-Town is ultimately about way more than a murder, the true crime hook certainly didn’t come about by accident.

S-Town boasts the most supreme lineage of any podcast ever made, starting with This American Life, the granddaddy of all podcasts, serving as its literal grandfather. In 2014, the team behind Ira Glass’s NPR-mainstay — including Glass, senior producer Julie Snyder, and reporter Sarah Koenig — spawned podcasting’s first true smash with their spinoff Serial. An eventual Peobody Award winner, Serial altered the podcasting landscape by covering a single story — the legal case against convicted murderer Adnan Syed and its glaring inconsistencies — over multiple episodes, allowing the reporting to reach outlandish depths while keeping listeners enthralled.

Though Serial was not the inaugural true crime podcast — Criminal, Generation Why and Sword and Scale can proudly say they preceded it — the project proved that the medium could provide a happy home for many macabre investigative tales, turning listeners into amateur sleuths as the podcast progressed. Since then, within the podcast world it seems as though it’s been true crime, all the time. From Accused to In the Dark to Crimetown, true crime podcasts have completely dominated the top of the iTunes charts of late.

So why is the podcast platform such a perfect fit for the true crime genre?

Steven M. Crimando, head of Behavioral Science Applications, a firm that trains organisations in violence prevention and response, says that true crime stories appeal to our senses of “vulnerability, susceptibility and plausibility.” In other words, this particular podcast genre makes listeners worry that the crimes presented in these shows could happen to anyone, including them, most especially because the stories are rooted in facts.

In the Dark host Madeleine Baran, who on her podcast last year exposed shortcomings in the investigation into a young Minnesota boy’s 1989 disappearance, feels audio stories lay claim to a unique intimacy with listeners. “There’s an intimacy that is unique to audio because you’re getting to hear these people talk and you feel connected to them,” she says. “You feel like they’re talking to you, perhaps differently from video.”

adnan syed serial dfcd108a eec6 4fff bfba fb49071bbb94Adnan Syed’s case became a national obsession when he was covered on Sarah Koenig’s ‘Serial.’

When it comes to movies, Crimando says, film producers have far more control over the viewer’s comprehension of a story, but with audio-only tales, listeners create an even scarier version of what goes on. The images they conjure up in their minds are based on all of their deepest individual fears that fill in the blanks, and Baran adds that, with podcasts, listeners have to “do some work” in imagining what the host, sources and subjects all look like. “That’s a part of radio that I really like,” Baran adds. When podcasters mix in the tension and horror of a murder and other crimes, the voices emit packets of dense emotion, eliciting a greater visceral response from the listener.

“For some people, their motives are a little darker,” Crimando continues. True crime podcasts “let you into the mind of the psychopath — a deviant, crazed individual. There’s a weirdness to it, a curiosity with it, but there’s also something about it that’s relatable.”

He says almost everyone has a revenge fantasy at least once in his or her life, and most never move past the mere thought of it. But with true crime podcasts, Crimando says, “from the safety of your own home,” listeners get to meet the perpetrators that have actually taken action and “fulfilled a dark fantasy.”

“The most primal and the most powerful instinct we have physiologically is fear,” Crimando says, “and these stories are so heinous and evil that they trigger our fear response.” Thus, he speculates, true crime podcasts have an addictive quality because of the release of adrenaline in human bodies when they feel fear — and binge-listening to true crime podcasts can cause this adrenaline rush to repeat itself in quick bursts.

“I think people love to binge,” says crime reporter Amelia McDonell-Parry, who has written about true crime productions for publications (including this one), and who is now co-hosting a season of the podcast Undisclosed. Though S-Town saw its seven episodes released en masse, the decision to do so seems experimental, if not trend-bucking. “Most podcasts come out one episode at a time and buzz builds slowly,” McDonell-Parry says. “People get invested in a way that other mediums don’t provide.” By the time many people hear about a new podcast, even if a show’s production is just three episodes deep, listeners get the chance to hear portions of the story, back-to-back, generating multiple adrenaline releases.

Amber Hunt — one of the two reporters behind the hit true crime podcast Accused, which examines the mystery surrounding the murder of an Oxford, Ohio woman, Elizabeth Andes, in 1978 — concurs with McDonell-Parry’s assessment. “People’s attention spans are more forgiving for podcasts than for the written word,” she says. Even though these serialised stories span a length of time far greater than, for instance, a feature film, Hunt says the medium and their generally more snackable-length episodes allow storytellers to get very nuanced and specific, without losing their audience to boredom. “You can walk people through the investigation with you,” she says of a podcast production. “It’s a really transparent medium and people can tell if you’re not being honest about the process.”

When Hunt and her storytelling partner Amanda Rossmann started researching the Andes murder, they didn’t have podcasting in mind. They presumed their take on the case would end up on the front page of a Sunday edition of the Cincinnati Enquirer, where Hunt is employed as an investigative reporter and Rossmann is a photojournalist. Unlike many podcast hosts, neither of them had any experience in radio, but eventually Rossmann felt the voices of the subjects and sources in the tale of the Andes killing “were so strong, it just lent itself to a podcast. And knowing how well Serial had done with this type of story, we had to at least try it.”

Chris Bannon, the chief content officer for Midroll, the parent company of podcast production giant Earwolf, credits Serial with presenting a storytelling structure not seen in true crime podcasts prior to its release. “I think serialised storytelling, with cliffhangers, and the ability to lead people through a stage of a story with good writing, leaves audiences wanting more,” he says.

This point is certainly realised throughout S-Town. At the very end of episode two, for instance, Brian Reed is told his primary subject, John B. McLemore — who by that point in the story had emerged as an enigmatic, though troubled hero — has committed suicide. The news bowls Reed over, and listeners are left to contemplate what drove McLemore to take such tragic action.

“We do so poorly with uncertainty, it’s one of our worst traits,” says Crimando, the behavioural scientist. (Fortunately for S-Town listeners, because all the episodes are readily available, they don’t have to remain uncertain about McLemore’s death for long.)

s town
Brian Reed’s ‘S-Town’ has become a sensation since its release in late March. Andrea Morales

Crimando adds that crimes themselves happen in a serialised manner, one action followed by another and then another. Therefore, serialised storytelling can capture the timeline of a crime in a unique, frighteningly accurate way. McDonell-Parry calls this “falling down the rabbit hole” of a criminal investigation, as enjoyably told in a podcast.

Citing a 2010 study titled “Captured by True Crime: Why are Women Drawn to Tales of Rape, Murder and Serial Killers?” Crimando says, “There is a subset of women that are drawn to this stuff because they’re learning from it.” He calls this “survival aspect,” where women glean lessons on how to protect themselves from predators, a “unique motive” for true crime consumption on their part.

A recent episode of the Cracked podcast featured Georgia Hardstark and Karen Kilgariff, hosts of the My Favorite Murder podcast. On their show, the women present gory, scintillating details of killings they’ve researched, and listeners get to hear them cringe over it all. “I have this anxiety of being murdered all the time,” Hardstark said on Cracked. “And women have, like, 50 percent more fear of being killed than men do, [and] we want to study it.” She added that women easily identify with a female character in a true crime podcast that was trying to be sweet or helpful to someone, and were killed shortly thereafter.

On the other hand, Kilgariff believes women are titillated by the horrific tidings outlined in these podcasts that have traditionally been a taboo for females. “When I first checked out a book on Ted Bundy, my parents told me ‘a nice little girl shouldn’t be interested in this,'” she disclosed on Cracked. Looking back on that moment, she was appalled at her parents’ reaction because Bundy “was a real monster” — not someone in a fictional film or book — that she should be educated about. Today, she suspects, American society has evolved and moved into a time where female fandom of the genre is more accepted.

Shows like Serial and Accused may perhaps have an advantage in being able to pull in a gender-diverse audience because they feature victimised females. Another hit podcast, Stranglers, seems to have struck a similar chord, and has capitalised on the allure of a deeply disturbing true crime story.

Launched in November, Stranglers dives deep into the Boston Strangler case of the mid-1960s, when a handyman named Albert DeSalvo confessed to 13 murders that had set off the largest police investigation in Massachusetts’ history. Many questions about the tactics utilised by cops and the FBI remain, as well as the uncertainty that DeSalvo’s confession was valid. The title of the podcast also nudges the audience into suspecting multiple felons. “I thought it was the perfect story for the generation of people who listen to podcasts — primarily Millennials through people in their early forties, who don’t really know the Boston Strangler story,” Bannon says.

The current iTunes hit Crimetown seems to act as a counter to those stories that might attract mothers who fear for the loss of their children, or women concerned with the dangers that come with a night out. Crimetown is produced by Zac Stuart-Pontier and Marc Smerling, two of the men behind TV series The Jinx, which chronicled the life of real estate heir Robert Durst. Their new podcast recounts the rise and fall of the Mafia-tied Providence, Rhode Island mayor Buddy Cianci between the late 1970s and mid-1990s — and it sounds like a real-life radio version of The Sopranos.

Like the Accused duo, Stuart-Pontier and Smerling had no experience in either radio or podcasting, but after The Jinx, the film vets wanted to get out of their comfort zone. “There was a lot of room for ways to tell stories,” Stuart-Pontier says, “so we thought we could bring some of the cinematic things that we do to the medium.”

“Another big thing is how you structure the story,” Smerling says. “We wanted to take a scripted-narrative approach, which is different from a lot of other podcasts that are more straight journalism.” The result is a winding odyssey through history, filled with colorful characters and heart-pumping, violent scenes.

Smerling also likes the podcast medium’s organic efficiency. “TV shows are hard to make,” he says, adding that they seemingly take months to get off the ground. In podcasting, “the process is a lot easier” with less cumbersome equipment and fewer necessary collaborators. Smerling and his partner can move production along by simply setting up a meeting with a source and bringing a voice recorder.

With podcast production being relatively uncomplicated and cost effective, combined with the physiological effects true crime stories and binge-listening have on us, as well as the cross-gender appeal of these stories, there’s no reason to expect a sudden dearth of shows within either the true crime genre or the medium as a whole anytime soon. Though human beings have been consuming true crime tales for at least a few millennia — from Ancient Egyptian murals to pulp magazines to streaming video — it might be the podcast, with its on-demand, serialised stories, that has proven to be the finest, most frightening form of them all.