Fans of true crime documentaries have a new obsession: true crime podcasts — a new, evolved take on telling real-life thrillers.
Podcasts are only getting better and better, and with them the true crime genre has found a new form. By regressing to the way these stories used to be told in the radio era, true crime podcasts have brought new depth to the way we explore police investigations.
Famous shows like Serial and Teacher’s Pet have proven that, beyond engaging a wide audience with police cases long gone cold, they are able to bring attention to social issues in the region the podcast is investigating, and even affect the case itself, giving those involved a new chance at justice.
True crime has taken the form of docu-series in recent years, something TV has milked for all it’s worth. They’ve made crime something entire channels are devoted to, so you can access stories about murderers 24/7, anywhere. Even Netflix has become populated with a bunch of similar shows, all related to crime in some way.
These TV shows are famously designed to feed on people’s interest in the macabre, using dramatic music, sensationalist language and even displaying gory photographs to shock the viewer and keep them watching. On television, the way we deal with fictional crime on Criminal Minds is way more tasteful than how we deal with real crime in most docu-series or documentaries.
But things are changing. Since Serial and other similar shows, the way the wider population comes in contact with true crime stories is quickly evolving.
Hosts like Sarah Koenig and Hedley Thomas have a new approach. Instead of leaning on sensationalism, detached from the reality of the people involved, they take on their cases through the perspective of the people involved. Their style is quieter, more compassionate, and they are intimately involved in the stories they are investigating.
It’s obvious from the start that, while they are very professional and objective as reporters, they care wholeheartedly about the people involved… and not only the victims; every single person involved is depicted as a complex person, and not reduced to a caricature.
Because of the audio-only nature of podcasts, there are tighter constraints to what the show can do. But these podcasts have found ways to make it work — sometimes with even more satisfactory results than an audio-visual version would have had. Listening to the voices of witnesses and friends of the victims in one’s ears, the birds and crickets in the background, the sound of a phone dialing and cars starting, and the crunch of gravel beneath the people’s feet, makes listening feel like a very personal experience.
This grassroots approach also makes the shows deal with victims more respectfully. Whereas many takes on cases in visual media end up being sensationalistic, these true crime podcasts show us reality through interviews with those involved. They don’t have a way to show us gory images, but neither do they try to find an audible equivalent: the facts, laid out with compassion and respect, are more effective in reaching the audience’s emotions than something that makes the story sound like fiction. It affects us more than a detached, structured interview in a documentary would have.
And often, these podcasts end up having an effect on the real case. Many deal with cold cases that have been forgotten by locals, and were terribly wronged by the justice system. The podcasts allow a population to learn the story from scratch, with new eyes, away from the sensationalist news. They allow us to get to know the people involved, and feel for them. And as a result, people feel personally moved to push for the case to be re-opened, and for justice to be found.
In the case of Serial, a combination of the audience’s interest and the reporters’ effort, made it so that Adnan Syed got a chance at a new trial. More recently, some weeks ago, Chris Dawson was arrested for the murder of his wife after Teacher’s Pet brought to light new evidence in his case. And in this case, the show’s discovery of a ring of sexual predators operating in the area in the ’80s made survivors feel confident enough to step forward and accuse their abusers as a group 20 years after the crimes.
Listening to true crime podcasts is a much different experience than consuming true crime stories in other forms, and it’s proving to be a more respectful, compassionate, and engaging way to learn about the things that happen in society. While it’s extremely entertaining, it’s also less at risk of normalizing the things that happen. True crime podcasts can be an empathetic experience, and given the engaging nature of podcasts, they can actually have an effect on the fates of the people involved.