Stephanie Early Green sifts through the best (and the rest) of the genre’s audio explosion
The huge popularity of Serial has ushered in a renaissance for true-crime podcasts. It seems like there are a million to choose from, and they’re all offering something slightly different. How is one to sort through the many offerings to find the ones worth listening to? To help you make your way, I’ve reviewed seven popular true crime podcasts — a mere drop in the bucket, but it’s a start.
The Missing Maura Murray Podcast
- Basic premise: Missing Maura Murray discusses the 2004 disappearance of college student Maura Murray, who went missing in rural New Hampshire after crashing her car.
- Quality of research: Poor. Hosts Tim Pilleri and Lance Reenstierna consistently favor wild, convoluted conspiracy theories over actual facts. They have entertained and supported theories on Murray’s whereabouts from all manner of charlatans, internet trolls, busybodies, and know-nothings, and show a marked lack of journalistic curiosity about the facts (or lack thereof) bolstering any of these assertions.
- Likability of host(s): Poor. Tim and Lance come across both as condescending and clueless. They bristle with resentment at “armchair detectives” interested in the case and angrily deride internet trolls, while not seeming to realize that they themselves could fairly be described as armchair detectives and/or internet trolls. Their default posture is angry defensiveness mixed with an inflated sense of self-importance. It makes for some rough listening.
- Editing: Poor. Each episode sprawls well over an hour yet contains very little new content. Tim and Lance tread the same ground over and over, with no narrative structure to shape their discussion.
- Worth a listen? Nope. I’ve discussed my issues with Missing Maura Murray at length on this very blog. Suffice it to say, I am not a fan. I keep listening because apparently I have a masochistic streak, but I don’t recommend that anyone else do so.
Someone Knows Something
- Basic premise: Documentary filmmaker David Ridgen investigates the disappearance of five-year-old Adrien McNaughton, who went missing in rural Ontario in 1972. Ridgen is from the same town as the McNaughton family, and revisits his hometown to conduct his investigation.
- Quality of research: Okay. Ridgen seems genuinely interested in finding information on McNaughton’s disappearance but just doesn’t have access to the resources necessary to crack a forty-plus-year-old cold case. He has dabbled in cadaver dogs and psychics, but so far has not uncovered any useful information regarding McNaughton’s whereabouts.
- Likability of host(s): Okay. Ridgen seems like a nice enough man, but he tends to insert himself in the McNaughton family’s tragedy to a degree that is unnecessary at best and intrusive at worst. I would enjoy SKS more if Ridgen made the investigation less about himself and his tangential connection to the case, and more about the facts, including any information uncovered during the initial police investigation.
- Editing: Poor. Each episode is too long, and there is a lot of ambient sound and extraneous conversation that detracts from the storytelling.
- Worth a listen? Maybe. Based on the title of the podcast and Ridgen’s narration, he seems to assume that there was some sort of foul play at work in McNaughton’s disappearance and/or that McNaughton is still alive and well in the Ottawa Valley. After listening to the podcast, though, I am not convinced there’s any real mystery to be solved, other than that a small child met with some misfortune after wandering too far from his family in a rural area. While it’s compelling to hear how McNaughton’s tragic disappearance has affected the lives of the people who cared about him, there might not be enough story here to fill an entire season of a podcast.
- Basic premise: Criminal examines the human stories behind real-life crimes, from petty theft to murder. Fun fact: Criminal has been around since January 2014 and predates Serial, meaning Serial was not the first true crime podcast to spring forth from the universe of public radio. Gasp!
- Quality of research: Good. The show is produced by professional journalists and it shows.
- Likability of host(s): Good. Host Phoebe Judge has a deliberate, vaguely Canadian way of speaking (which is odd, since she’s from Chicago and is based in North Carolina), but she is careful not to insert herself into the middle of the stories she’s reporting.
- Editing: Good. Each episode of Criminal is short and sweet, with no extraneous bits.
- Worth a listen? Yes. The stories are consistently interesting. Some are funny, some are sad, and some are just bizarre. The podcast definitely has a public radio feel to it, so if that’s not your jam, the studied, conversational tone might bother you. But I really enjoy it.
Last Podcast on the Left
- Basic premise: Comedians Ben Kissel, Henry Zebrowski, and Marcus Parks “explore the horrors of the world both imagined and real.” Favorite topics include serial killers, cults, and conspiracy theories.
- Quality of research: Excellent. Even though Last Podcast on the Left is a comedy podcast, the guys really do their homework, reading exhaustively about each case or theory before discussing it.
- Likability of host(s): Okay. These guys are definitely not everyone’s cup of tea; their humor is across-the-board offensive. However, the topics they discuss are so interesting and they are so weirdly knowledgeable that you get used to the tonal grossness after a while.
- Editing: Okay. Each episode tends to run long because they work their way through a ton of history and facts about each topic while also indulging comedic tangents along the way. Could benefit from some pruning, but not terrible.
- Worth a listen? Maybe. If you can get past the abrasive crudeness, Last Podcast on the Left is fascinating and actually pretty funny. At first, I was so turned off by the guys’ humor that I considered abandoning ship, but I stuck with it and now I often laugh out loud while listening. Given the effectiveness with which the hosts have brainwashed me, they should consider starting their own cult!
My Favorite Murder
- Basic premise: Comedians and true crime devotees Karen Kilgariff and Georgia Hardstark discuss their “favorite” murder cases, i.e., the ones they’re most intrigued and freaked out by.
- Quality of research: Okay. Karen and Georgia do cursory research about the cases they discuss but often forget or misreport certain facts. Since it’s a comedy podcast, I can live with that (and they’re open about their laziness).
- Likability of host(s): Okay. Personally, I am a fan of Karen and can take or leave Georgia, but the two have a fun dynamic. It’s like listening to a couple of your witty girlfriends discuss true crime, while swearing a lot.
- Editing: Okay. The show is lightly edited and there are often long diversions about the hosts’ personal experiences, but the tone is light, so it’s not a slog to listen to. I’ve found it makes good background listening for chores.
- Worth a listen? Maybe. Like LPotL, My Favorite Murder is certainly not for everyone. Karen and Georgia’s flippant tone when discussing real-life tragedy can come off as insensitive. Mostly, I’m okay with the tone because Karen and Georgia strike me as empathetic people, and they’re legitimately interested in the cases they’re talking about. Also, it’s a comedy podcast, so get over it.
Crime Writers On…
- Basic premise: True-crime authors Rebecca Lavoie and Kevin Flynn, noir novelist Toby Ball, and former defense investigator Lara Bricker discuss Serial, plus other true-crime podcasts and media.
- Quality of research: N/A. Generally, the hosts discuss the current week’s episode of Serial or whatever media property they’ve chosen for that week, which does not require additional research on their part. Crime Writers On tends to be heavy on opinion and light on additional facts.
- Likability of host(s): Okay. Of the four co-hosts, I find Rebecca and Toby to be the least annoying, while Kevin and Lara drive me up a wall. I suspect that one’s tolerance for the individual hosts will depend on whether or not one agrees with their individual takes on Serial. Kevin and Lara tend to be Sarah Koenig boosters/apologists, and I found their unflagging support of her choices in reporting this season of Serial irritating. Toby and Rebecca tend to be more discerning and critical.
- Editing: Okay. Each episode tends to be a bit unwieldy (particularly now that the hosts do live sponsored ads), but Rebecca is a good moderator and usually keeps the discussion on track.
- Worth a listen? Maybe. If you’re a hardcore Serial fan and are looking for additional discussion/opinion, Crime Writers On might scratch that itch. I enjoy it when they discuss other true-crime media and podcasts, like MMM or The People v. OJ Simpson.
- Basic premise: The Atlanta Journal Constitution produces this podcast, which looks at one Georgia-based case per season. The podcast focuses heavily on the workings (and misfirings) of the criminal justice system, from police investigation to prosecution to sentencing. This season, Breakdown is telling the story of Justin Ross Harris, the Atlanta man who left his two-year-old in a hot car to die while he was sexting with women.
- Quality of research: Excellent. Host Bill Rankin is meticulous in explaining details of the case and the legal procedures involved in prosecuting and defending it. I’m an attorney, so this podcast presses all of my legal-nerd buttons, and throws me back to my 1L criminal law class (which I adored).
- Likability of host(s): Good. Rankin maintains a careful, journalistic neutrality that allows him to explore both sides of the case.
- Editing: Good. Not too long, not too short, and no tedious diversions into the host’s personal feelings.
- Worth a listen? Yes. If you’re interested in the legal structures underlying the criminal justice system, it’s hard to beat Breakdown. The content this season is tough going, especially if you have a child, but the case is interesting, so if you can stomach it, it’s worth your time.
True-crime devotee and compulsive knitter Stephanie Green left a career in the law to become a writer. She blogs at StephanieEarlyGreen.com.