A guide to the sub-genres: from the popular to the prestigious
In the podcasting gold rush, the true crime genre is among the biggest motherlodes. But it’s a lot more varied in form and approach than its reputation suggests. It is not all about serial killers—or Serial. Rebecca Lavoie, podcast critic and the co-host of the true crime commentary podcast Crime Writers On…, offers a helpful taxonomy to the riches of the field, which, she points out, “encompass[es] dozens of subgenres and formats.” It ranges from buddy chat and commentary shows like the hit true crime comedy pod My Favorite Murder, which combines irreverent comedic banter with morbid descriptions of true crime cases, and first-person investigations that foreground an amateur or professional quest, such as Serial and Caliphate; anthology series like Criminal; to long-form series that carefully unravel a crime and its lasting impact, such as Season 1 of In the Dark, which outlines how the botched investigation of the abduction of Jacob Wetterling “fueled national anxiety about stranger danger and led to the nation’s sex offender registries.”
Not all subgenres are created equal, of course. Some subgenres accrue prestige, while others gain audience traction. Prestige podcasts, such as investigative reconstructions, not surprisingly, tend to be harder and more resource-intensive for independent podcasters to pull together, compared to chat-casts. Lavoie says the most popular true-crime subgenre of podcast—for makers and audiences, who sometimes send them to the top of the charts—is her least favorite: a single person or two friends doing a tacky impression of My Favorite Murder. “These shows bring nothing new to the story, which they sometimes recount from an irresponsible point of view, and they’re based on others’ work, which, frankly, bothers me,” she says. Aside from the penchant for plagiarism, she disapproves of the complete lack of original reporting. “They don’t interview witnesses, or pull documents from court houses,” she says, “They add nothing new [to their recounting of true crime cases] aside from oohs and aahs.”
That isn’t to say that there is no way to inject originality into a pre-existing formula, especially one that’s so successful. Lavoie thinks a good example of this is the podcast A Date with Dateline, in which two friends look at true crime through the lens of the epically enduring NBC show. “Their discussions bring something new to the formula,” Lavoie adds, “whether it’s reflecting on how [true crime] TV is made, to their irreverent feelings about Keith Morrison.” The critically lauded podcast You’re Wrong About is another excellent chat-cast corrective. Some of its episodes revisit—and revitalize—hoary true-crime staples such as the OJ Simpson trial, the “preppy murder”, and serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer, through deep empathy, humor, and intensive original research that teases out the surprising historical and biographical context of each of these cases.
Essential ingredients for a successful true-crime podcast
What truly elevates a true crime podcast is a larger driving question that makes it far more than the sum of its ugly parts. In other words, it helps to have a good reason to tell the story. This could be a wrongful conviction, or a case that was solved through a new type of forensic science. Or it could be a series that uses a single case to examine a larger, under-examined terrain, for example, the disappearance of indigenous women, as in the case of Stolen: the Search for Jermain by Connie Walker, which Lavoie says is an “outstanding slow-rolling investigative series.” Through the series, Walker revisits and reconstructs the disappearance of a young indigenous mother in 2018 from a bar in Montana. Lavoie is also enthusiastic about the huge emerging subgenre of the true grift podcast, which discuss frauds, double lives, and historical mysteries. “The best of these go beyond just what happened, or why people fell for this scam, to tell a larger story,” she says. For example, the six-part ABC podcast about the Theranos scam, The Dropout, she says, “is a story about a woman who invented a fake technology and lied to people, but it’s also a story about the credulousness of the venture capital world.”
A lack of strong editorial support can lead to flabby scripts, and a structure that fails to hold listener interest and fritters away suspense.
Aside from original reporting and a strong driving question, it is essential to have good audio that’s recorded well and mixed well. A final—and too often undervalued—element is good editing. A lack of strong editorial support can lead to flabby scripts, and a structure that fails to hold listener interest and fritters away suspense. It can also lead to the inclusion of inessential and distracting elements. Lavoie’s personal true crime bugbear is a Serial-inspired tendency to “show one’s work,” including phone calls and courthouse visits, even when it is unnecessary and unedifying.
Pitfalls to avoid
When putting together truecrime podcasts, it’s helpful to keep in mind the larger pitfalls that are common to the field of crime reporting in general. The biggest of these is uncritically centering the perspectives of cops and detectives. As Lavoie notes, “Serial had two big flaws: The first was this strange dichotomy of ‘Is Adnan Syed innocent or a psychopath?’ The second was that all the police work was taken at its word, even though those particular cops had accusations of misconduct against them in other cases.” She adds that the Black Lives Matters protests might have since “shifted the baseline,” by creating a greater awareness of the rampancy and impunity of police misconduct, and the often self-serving nature of their version of events. “Reporters now know not to take cops at their word, and that the [police departments’] public relations message is massaged, and can’t be the story,” Lavoie says, adding, “Unless that’s what your story is about—a cop who did it differently, or is trying to reform the system from within.” This is the case, for instance, in the excellent Topic podcast, Running from COPS, which takes a critical look at how the impunity sausage gets made, by examining “the longest-running reality TV show in TV history and its cultural impact on policing in America.”
Centering the victim is another pitfall to avoid—that is, when they’re not the story. “In Serial, she [Hae Min Lee] absolutely is, as her relationship with Adnan Syed [the accused] was the theory of the crime,” says Lavoie. However, there are times when the victim—or their family’s perspective—can overlap with the issues around cop-centricity. In the second season of In the Dark, (which quite nimbly steers clear of this) for example, the story of the egregious—and eventually overturned—wrongful murder conviction of Curtis Flowers, the grieving father of one of the victims was convinced that he was undoubtedly the perpetrator and ought to “fry in hell” since he believed the police investigators’ account of what happened.
Finally, fact-checking is essential, as well as journalistic ethics, such as getting real consent from participants. It is also prudent to thoroughly vet your main source, especially if they’re an unreliable narrator recounting exceptionally hair-raising tales. Call this the Caliphate pitfall; a talker that weaves a suspiciously cinematic yarn, or the perils of a story that’s just a little too good. “[Caliphate] didn’t get the same rigor and examination as print stories for the New York Times would,” observes Lavoie.
How a prestige podcast came together: Making Norco 80
Should you decide to make the critically lauded subgenre of podcast—the meticulous reconstruction of a historic event, which teases out its lasting impact—listening to LAist Studios’ Norco 80 is a pretty great place to start. The compelling 10-part-series revisits a botched bank robbery that occurred on May 9, 1980 in the sleepy one-horse town of Norco in the outskirts of Los Angeles. On this afternoon, five masked robbers carrying assault rifles and a homemade bomb stormed a bank, after carjacking a van and kidnapping its driver. The men were driven by apocalyptic millenarian beliefs, as well as bleak job prospects. Three of them were killed in the course of the robbery and subsequent firefight, as was a police officer.
The podcast argues, convincingly, that the incident spurred the increasing militarization of law enforcement and the increasing deployment of automatic weapons, helicopters, and advanced tactical training. It is sensitively put together, carefully tracing how the broader context—international politics, economic stresses, rising religious fervor—as well as individual contexts of its protagonists, including ethnicity and a history of childhood abuse, influenced the course of events.
Antonia Cereijido, the host of the show and executive producer of podcasts at LAist Studios, takes us through the making of the show. Her team pulled it together in an astonishing six months—which she “does not recommend.”
FIND A GREAT STORY, AND THE BROADER QUESTION IT SHEDS LIGHT ON: Cereijido’s team had a bit of a head start here. LAIst Studios had acquired the rights to Norco 80, the book by Peter Houlahan. So they had the plot, the cast of characters, as well as the meticulously researched story and historical context. “That cut our reporting time in half,” Cereijido says. “Otherwise, this would have taken us three years to get done.” Crucially, they also had incredible archive tape of the police chase and interviews with the robbers shortly after the mountaintop standoff. “Without that, it wouldn’t have worked at all,” Cereijido says.
The team knew what their broader driving question was: tracing the influence of this botched bank robbery on present-day discourse on policing. The next step was figuring out how to not just translate the story from the print medium to radio, but to rebuild the story in a way that worked for the ear, and was reinvigorated by the team’s perspectives. “Three of us were women,” Cereijido says, “and so we just had different questions, quite naturally, for instance in the way we approached masculinity.” Given their own ethnicity, the two senior producers, Cereijido and Sophia Paliza-Carre, were also sensitive to different details in the story pertaining to Andrew Delgado-Monti, a Latino officer drawn into the standoff. Besides, the team was putting the show together last summer as the George Floyd protests raged all around them, and so it felt not just natural but mandatory to question the version of the police.
GATHER GREAT INGREDIENTS: The team first went in search of the best characters to interview to reconstruct the events. They asked the author, Houlahan, who he recalled being the most vivid talkers. “True crime must be character-driven, or else it doesn’t, you know, hit,” says Cereijido. They eventually ended up interviewing as many as 20 people. But they ensured that each episode featured few voices, “so people can follow along.” “In reading, you can go back and remind yourself who someone was, and in film or TV you have two points of reference, a face and a voice,” Cereijido points out, “But in radio it’s hard to keep so many people in your brain.”
Then, they lined up their best characters, and let them guide the telling of the story. Aside from electrifying tape of the lead bank robber, George Smith, panting, wounded, and being interviewed by a police officer as they walk towards a helicopter, the first two episodes are enlivened by the account of the hostage, a man named Gary Hakala, who recalls being painfully bound up in tape “like a caterpillar” at the back of his van, struggling with the need to urinate while he was haplessly dragged through a car chase and a firefight. “He was an incredible storyteller, so evocative, as he talked, you imagine yourself wanting to pee,” says Cereijido. “It felt like he was an actor! It was really crazy.” She also recommends providing the time and resources to cross-examine the subjects, and to fact check their accounts as carefully as possible.
FIGURE OUT HOW IT ALL FITS TOGETHER: The next step is to find the right shape for the narrative. The team’s editor, Audrey Quinn, had them put together a “heat map” using the most electrifying and memorable tape they had gathered. “It was essentially a storyboard,” says Cereijido. “It let us see where things can go, and where things can be paired together.” She recalls a conversation she had with Brendan Baker of Love + Radio, in which he observed that “the fun thing with non-fiction is to have materials you fit together like a puzzle.” “So we tried to look at everything we had gathered, and to think of all the ways we could turn it into something that would have you at the edge of your seat.”
Generating suspense was tricky, she says, as her team did not have the classic true crime asset: doubts around whodunit.
MAXIMIZE THE SUSPENSE: In settling on the right structure for the story, Cereijido and Paliza-Carre revisited their favorite true crime classics featuring bank robberies for inspiration. “We watched Heat and Good Time, because I’m a huge Safdie brothers fan, and that kicks off with a botched bank robbery,” she says. Other inspirations were The Vow, the documentary about the NXIVM cult (“insane cliffhangers at the end of every episode!”) and even Dan Brown’s MasterClass on creating suspense. Generating suspense was tricky, she says, as her team did not have the classic true crime asset: doubts around whodunit. “That’s Serial’s whole thing, and we didn’t have it!” she says. So they tried to identify every single point where they could add or intensify suspense and mystery, before unfurling a neat reveal.
MAKE CHOICES THAT FIT THE MATERIAL: Cereijido found herself eschewing one trope of true crime podcasting: “the hero’s journey,” in which the narrator takes the listener through the story as she uncovers it. “At times it’s great, and at times it’s cloying,” she says. “But for me, it wasn’t possible, because I wasn’t discovering [the case] in real time.” However, she found herself unable to avoid the other true crime staple: talking heads. The final two episodes feature interviews with Casey Kelly, who researches survivalism, and Rosa Brooks, a law professor who has worked as a reserve police officer and has written about the militarization of law enforcement. Cereijido thought this was unavoidable context; a “moral obligation,” to counterbalance the perspectives of police officers featured throughout the series. The effect is a thoughtfully delineated context that, as one reviewer pointed out, allows the narrative to transcend “a cops/robbers or good guys/bad guys binary, and instead leaves listeners asking their own questions.”