Crime plays: the rise of true-crime podcasts

Photo: iStock

Photo: iStock

Podcasts are booming. Once homespun and clunky, the new generation of these portable radio programs is slick, professional and reaching the sort of mass audience most traditional broadcasters would kill for. The latest figures show about half of American households are fans and Australia isn’t far behind – more than 20 per cent of under-54s class themselves as regular listeners.

It helps that there’s a podcast for everything and everyone, covering topics such as football, sex advice, history or your favourite TV show. But in the wake of the American global smash hit Serial (the first series clocked up 175 million downloads), the top of the podcast charts belongs to the shadowy world of true crime.

When it comes to true crime podcasts, Melbourne is proving a world-beater, spawning a wave of hits including the ABC’s Trace, which re-opened the cold-case 1980 murder of mother Maria James.

Outlining an 18-month investigation by journalist Rachael Brown, the show was an instant hit; the debut episode leapt straight to the top of the iTunes podcast charts, where the series remained for its four-week run.

Rachael says true crime tales make compelling listening because the audience can all too easily imagine themselves involved. “Everyday people get caught up in these events and I think that resonates. It could be your neighbour, or your sister,” she says.

Adding to the appeal, a podcast allows listeners to actually take part in an investigation. Trace’s early popularity led to listeners unearthing missed leads. And as a result, Rachael soon found later episodes swerving into unexpected territory.

“I had no idea of the dark places Trace would go,” says Rachel. “I didn’t realise it would veer into the Church or how many other victims would be affected. I had no idea this bungle with the DNA had happened. We’ve been flying by the seats of our pants.”

Tips from Trace listeners eventually led to Victoria Police admitting to a DNA bungle in investigating Maria James’ murder. A local priest was among several suspects cleared as a result of testing against an incorrect DNA sample.

While there are no figures available yet for Trace, there’s no doubting podcasts are a big market for the ABC, which reported 153 million downloads or streams in the year 2015-16.

Over at The Age, another podcast investigation last year proved a similar hit, also topping the iTunes charts for a month. Led by investigative journalists Richard Baker and Michael Bachelard, Phoebe’s Fall examined the circumstances around the death of Phoebe Handsjuk in 2010.

Unlike Trace, Phoebe’s Fall generated no new leads, but it did raise awareness of the case to a level where changes to the judicial system look likely.

“I never set out thinking we would solve what happened, but there was a clear absence of evidence,” Richard says. “What we wanted to do was ask if the system worked, and I don’t think it did. We wanted to see if this case could be a trigger for a review.”

Melbourne has always had an appetite for true crime stories, says Richard, but the intimacy of the podcast – people tend to listen on their own, earbuds in – gives these tales a particular potency.

“I thought, if the audience could hear the people involved talking, with all that emotion, they would get a much richer and intimate experience. Listening sets free your imagination and allows you to become a participant, almost.”

For Meshel Laurie, true crime podcasts combine two long-standing obsessions. The radio host and author says she always felt a “gross weirdo” for fixating on true crime tales, but being able to talk about it as co-host of Mamamia’s Australian True Crime series (recorded and produced in Melbourne) has helped her understand her fixation.

As a long-term podcast fan, Meshel says much of the appeal lies in the medium’s small scale. To make and broadcast a podcast, all you need is a computer, a microphone and a killer idea. “Coming from a background in TV and radio, where everything is made by a huge group of people, there is something really exciting about hearing three people talk with nobody else’s words or rules,” she says.

Still, she is keenly aware that there’s a difficult balance between reporting on true crime and sensationalising it. She praises a moment in one episode of Trace (she’s a fan) where Rachael steps back from providing gratuitous detail.

Another tricky issue inherent in the true-crime genre is dealing with the expectations of an audience familiar with detective drama. One criticism of Serial was that, unlike a fictional crime tale, it couldn’t deliver the meaningful resolution some listeners were craving.

“I knew there would be pressure for that,” Rachael says. “But I’m not going to tie it up in a neat little bow for people, because that’s not life. I’ve kept it open for a fifth episode, which will depend on what the coroner decides regarding reopening the investigation.”

Both Rachel and Richard Baker have plans for follow-up true-crime podcasts, and Meshel hopes to continue her own series for as long as possible.

“Executives in newspapers, TV and radio keep saying nobody has an attention span anymore,” Meshel says. “That’s just not true. People want to sit with a story for an hour, or over weeks and months.”

Rachael suggests podcasts might even have the potential to revitalise investigative journalism. “I think you can do deep dives with podcasts that you couldn’t with conventional media,” she says.

“It’s also important to make the point that it gives voice to people who wouldn’t be heard in other mediums. Forgotten victims, people with disabilities can be given the time they need. That’s the beauty of the podcast.”


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