An interview with Unsolved Murders: True Crime Stories creator Max Cutler on axemen, The Black Dahlia, and what’s next for his Parcast network

The Unsolved Murders: True Crime Stories pod debuted quite recently and shot to the top of iTunes podcast rankings in no time with stories on The Axeman of New Orleans, William Desmond Taylor’s mysterious death, and more. I spoke to podcast co-creator Max Cutler early this week about how the UM team chooses topics, what’s next for the Parcast network, and what attracts us to the genre.

Sarah D. Bunting: True crime is pretty hot right now, finally. When I started The Blotter, it was still kind of considered this, like, trashy thing that no one would admit that they consumed, but I was still into it. Was this a genre that you’d been thinking about working in for a long time, or did the recent successes of stuff like Serial and Making A Murderer feel like a road was being paved for you to really get into this genre?

Max Cutler: Yeah, I think there’s kind of two points to that question, actually. I’ve always loved true crime, and I would love to get into true crime, so that’s why Unsolved Murders: True Crime Stories started, but it also was dictated by the fact that true crime did get hot, and we thought that if we were able to do a true-crime show that was different than already existed, we might be able to kind of cut through all the other shows and become very popular. That’s kind of what we did. So, for me, I’m extremely happy that true crime was at a point where we thought it could be a viable business for us and be a great podcast, but also, it’s been my passion for a long time.

Growing up, I loved mysteries and I loved true crime. Started off with mysteries. I really loved Sherlock Holmes. I was fascinated by that. I was always fascinated, and relished great detective mystery shows, I guess you could say. Then, as I got older, I started to become more of a true-crime fan … I’ve always had an inherent issue when people commit a crime and it’s not solved. I think that justice should be served. Unsolved Murders is a little bit more of an entertaining podcast in the true-crime genre, but it’s still the essence of who did the case, and trying to solve it. I think it’s very interesting. Our listeners have really enjoyed it. It’s been really just a humbling experience, so far, for us.

What was the chicken and what was the egg — did you decide, “We’re going to do a podcast, and we’re going to start a network that features storytelling” first, and then you sort of latched onto this flagship topic or genre —

Yes.

Or did you have the topic first?

Definitely, the first step was, I had been passionate about audio my whole entire life. My dad, who’s also a partner with me on this, was in radio growing up. I grew up just listening to radio, loving radio, and I always wanted to have it be my life, somehow. I wasn’t sure how to make it happen, and then, podcasting, over the last couple of years, really grew. It’s growing every day, it’s an amazing industry to be in right now, I think. I knew I wanted to get into podcasting, I knew I wanted to build a network, and I thought, when I listened to other podcasts out there, the storytelling elements was really lacking from a lot of podcasts. I would say eighty to ninety percent of podcasts are two hosts talking about something they’re really passionate about, or great storyteller talking about whatever the story is they’re saying, but there wasn’t many highly-produced and great storytelling pod, great podcasts out there. That was the first step.

Then, the second step, for me, was trying to see what kind of genres there were holes in, and match it with my passions. Like you mentioned earlier, Serial was a huge step for true crime, and it really paved the way. Now you have probably thousands of mimicking-Serial shows, but I thought there was something different in the true-crime genre, still, that people wanted, and I think that True Crime Stories really is filling that void, currently, and hopefully we can keep it up.

Now it’s come to the point we just want to get better with every episode. Yeah.

Right. My next question was going to be, why this particular style? This, sort of, reminiscent of vintage radio plays, was that specifically what you had in mind, or did it just sort of fill in, like you were talking about, it filled in a hole in this particular genre, that people weren’t really doing it in this style?

Yeah. I think it’s kind of both, actually. It definitely filled a hole that no one was doing, and I thought that, kind of an old-time radio feel, I think it’s a great opportunity for people to kind of reminisce with their childhood.

Okay.

It’s different than is out there — and also, for Parcast, which is our network — it’s a very different statement, because we’re in with a lot of great, very talented voice actors, and I wanted to be able to use their talents. I thought, for a flagship show, what better than a highly produced, tight show that a lot of our competition, quite frankly, can’t do, whether it be because of connections, financial cost, et cetera. I thought that put us a little step ahead of everybody. It’s important to note that I love other podcasts. I’m not trying to put down any other podcasts, I’m a huge podcast fan. Also, future podcasts are not going to be the old-time radio feel. There will be more typical podcast shows coming out in the near future.

I definitely want to get back to that, but sticking with the current podcast, how are the stories chosen? There’s such a huge range of crimes, even if you restrict it to the ones that have never been solved. How do you narrow it down for yourselves?

Yeah, it’s a lot of research. Tons of research, actually. What we needed to do was narrow it down, exactly like you said, so we kind of made our niche in starting off with crimes that happened prior to 1970. We saw a lot of podcasts doing a great, great job of covering more recent crimes, so we want to do something a little different. It also kind of fit our narrative of the old-time radio feel. That was our first, kind of, chopping block, I guess you could say.

From there, the options are really limitless. It’s one of those things where our whole entire team here, we have a meeting about every case. We need to find not only a great case from a storytelling standpoint, but most importantly, that we’re passionate about, and we feel that we can solve. It’s really hard to say who definitely did it, but we, at the end of this, feel we know, most likely, who did it.

I would say it comes down to our whole entire team being really passionate about a case, and making sure for our audience that not only will they feel satisfied at the end, when the case is done, but also, that it keeps the momentum going, and every case we do needs to improve upon the first case. We started off with The Axeman of New Orleans, which I think was a riveting case, and quite frankly, I don’t know how it’s not more popular in the true-crime world. Then, we went to the first ever Hollywood murder, with William Desmond Taylor, which our audience really, really enjoyed. Now, we’re back to a serial killer called the Phantom Killer. In the future, podcasts are going to be focused not so much just on serial killers, but more on the one-murder offs, because we find that those are really interesting.

It gets back down to not only entertaining our audience, but, more importantly, trying to find justice for the families that lost loved ones. I think that’s really important.

I was reading an article where you were talking about breaking out the stories, and all the research that you do, and it sounded a lot like a TV writer’s room. Can you walk me through the process a little bit more micro, like, what your timeline is, and what voices are coming in where to talk about construction and stuff like that?

Yeah, I can happily talk about the process. For us, by the time we decide on a case, it takes about five weeks to actually get [hosts] Carter [Roy] and Wenndy [Mackenzie] in the studio, until they’re recorded. During those five weeks, when it first starts off…we are built like a studio, so that’s a great point. We have staff of writers, talent, producers, et cetera. We have a meeting, and normally it’s, at first, it’s me actually, and my dad, and we present different cases that we think we like. We then bring in the writers, present cases to them, they present cases as well. We then settle on a case. … Then, the writers write the show, make it a reality, kind of bring our vision to light, if you will. That’s a very thorough process, because there’s a lot of research that goes on during that phase, as you can imagine, and also, a lot of rewrites.

Then, finally, when we feel we have a script that is engaging and that we feel, from a research standpoint, will hold up, we then start passing out the different roles. Depending on the scripts, I think Unsolved Murders varies from 38 speaking parts, is the least, so far, to 57, I want to say.

Wow.

It’s quite a huge undertaking, quite frankly. We’re so lucky to have very talented voice actors now that come in pretty much weekly. We cast them to each, to the roles that I feel fit, that works for them. I’m getting to know them better, so I know, kind of, where their talents are.

Yeah, I was going to ask — I didn’t realize it was quite so many — I was going to ask if it was like Ryan Murphy with American Horror Story, and his stable of players, or if you had to audition it out every time?

It’s stable of players now. We’ve gotten to a point. We’re bringing on new people, of course, we’re always open to that, but we have, I would say, a foundation of about twelve voice actors that we go to, depending on the show. What’s great about our voice actors, and many voice actors is … that they can play many voices. Even if there’s 58 [characters] in there, it’s not 58, that’s not 58 different actors. It could be as little as 12 or 15. For us, it’s just really finding talented people. To me, it’s such an eye-opening experience, actually, on this business than other ones I’ve been in, because the people I work with are just so fun to work with and so nice and so kind.

Max Cutler.

Max Cutler.

Can you tease us some upcoming stories?

I definitely can. Right now, we’re doing the Phantom Killer, as I’m sure you know, and that’ll be two more episodes in that installment left. We will then be moving on to two new, exciting cases. One is William Goebel, who is the only governor to ever be assassinated while in office, and the case is still officially unsolved. We’re really excited about that case.

We’ll also be doing a Bugsy Siegel case, which is obviously more well-known than what we normally do, but we think it’s a very interesting story for it, and has Mafia ties, and it’s never been officially solved. We’re looking to see who actually, I guess you can say, did the hit on Bugsy Siegel.

In the future, we have a lot of other great cases that are coming up, as well. We’re really excited about it. We’re also, exciting news that was decided this week — currently, Unsolved Murders: True Crime Stories is a every other week show. Starting in September, it’s going to move to a weekly show, which I think our fans have been really wanting, so we’re really excited to be able to do that for them, and also increase the length of each episode. We’re very excited about that.

Nice. Are there any stories that either you’ve all sort of decided, “We can never do this,” for whatever reason — it’s too big, it’s been done too many times? Were there any stories, also, that you started production on, and then it just wasn’t coming together like you wanted?

The first part of your question is a great question. We have that conversation all the time. What makes, I think, Unsolved Murders special is we try to avoid some of the major, big cases, the main cases, like the Zodiac Killer, Black Dahlia, Jack the Ripper. With that being said, we’re trying to find our — if we’re able to do it and present the facts in a unique way, we’ll a hundred percent do it, but right now, we have no plans of doing those. That could very well change, I want to make that very clear, because we are getting a lot of people wanting us to do, actually, the Black Dahlia, for whatever reason. It seems to be the case that everyone wants.

Yeah, I’m not surprised. [Olivia Lenius] was listening to some of the podcasts and helping me prep some stuff, and that was the first one she put on her list of, “Are they going to do this in the future?” There’s just something about that case, but, at the same time, there’s so many weirdos with that case, like, “It was my uncle who had one arm!”

It’s such a hard case to do, but we are getting so much email requesting it, that we are, it’s almost pushing us in that direction, so that’s why I don’t want to say it’ll never be done, because I do think if we’re able to do the research on it and find something unique, a unique take that hasn’t been done before, we’ll do it. The problem with these cases is they’re done so frequently, many times throughout the year, that it’s almost, if there’s no new facts coming into the play, we don’t really want to do them.

Right, right.

I only want to make sure that we’re unique in how we present the case. Then, I’m sorry, I forgot the other part of your question.

Sorry, I have a way of compounding like four questions into one sentence. The second part was, are there any stories that you guys started production on, and it just wasn’t coming together, and you had to scrap it?

We haven’t had, where we were actually in the studio, where we scrapped it. We’ve had where we’ve started to block out cases and do some research, that we realized that this was not the right case for us, because either there wasn’t enough action going on, or we couldn’t…mostly, actually, the real reason is, we have issues finding, sometimes, the research on it. Like I said, research is a huge part for us. If it’s going to be really time-intensive — more so, it already is time-intensive — so if it’s more so, then we sometimes have to say no, especially right now, because we are a startup, and our financial situation, as a startup, as I know you know, is, we don’t have unlimited funds, unfortunately.

We need to make sure that we can pull off whatever we’re doing within our budget, so if we can’t pull it off, and we can’t do it, it can’t be a great episode, a great show, then we don’t want to do it. Because that’s just not going to be, that’s going to leave our listeners unhappy.

Right. What is your research process like? Are you going to, physically going to archives, like, with your white gloves on? Is it mostly internet research? Are you going to cemeteries? And how do you know which sources to trust when you’re working on these older cases?

We don’t put the white gloves on, we haven’t done that yet. That’s something I actually would love to do. My nerdy side really wants to do that.

What we do is, our whole entire team, we do a lot of fact-checking. I would say, we start off on the internet to see if the case is interesting, if there’s a lot of information on it. We go to libraries over here locally, we have books, we have magazines, we will call experts on the case and try to learn more information about that. If one source says a specific fact, we don’t really take it for granted until we see it on other sources as well, to make sure that it is correct.

We do a great job of getting true crime magazines, and then, books and libraries — it’s a long process, honestly, because a lot of reading goes into it, which takes the longest time. It’s not something that, we decide on a case this morning and we can be done with it by tomorrow. It’s going to be done in a couple weeks. It’s definitely a full-time job.

Do you have any — I don’t know if you’re still doing true-crime research for pleasure, that has nothing to do with the podcast, but do you have any, like, guilty-pleasure true-crime stuff that you still read or watch? Are you chilling in front of the ID Channel like I am?

I wish I was. I’ve been so busy the last month, we’ve grown so fast, that I haven’t been able to have, really, much time to do much true crime, or just watch TV, or do any entertainment right now. I do listen to podcasts out there that are really great, some true-crime podcasts. There’s a new one out there called Generation Why that’s great; Criminal, I think, is a unique take on it. They have stories of people that’ve done wrong, I like that. Obviously, Serial is a big one as well. Right now, I’ve been really focusing on podcasting, because I want to hear what — I don’t want to say “our competition” is doing, because I really believe podcasters are all in this together, and we’re a very tight-knit community, but at the same time, it’s important to know how they’re producing different episodes. Yeah, so that’s pretty much where I’ve been in the last month, I would say.

I’m really hoping, my plan is in the next couple of months to get back to that point. It’s a good problem to have, the fact that we are so busy is the best problem to have in the world. It’s definitely better than being bored.

Yeah.

I can’t complain too much.

Speaking of what’s coming up and your expansion, what is coming up next for the Parcast network? Talk to me about the overall vision and where you’re looking to be in a year or two.

Yeah, so we have 19 shows in different stages of development, which is really exciting for us. Over the next year, our plan is to release six, possibly seven, shows, in different genres. There will be a couple more true-crime shows coming out. There will be some history shows, there will be even some paranormal shows we’re really excited about. Our next show is actually debuting on Wednesday, August 3rd.

Okay.

It’s called Remarkable Lives, Tragic Deaths. It’s a history show that really delves into people that changed the world but, obviously, died tragically, from world leaders, entertainers, historical figures. It’s a show that I’m very excited about. I think it presents history almost like and autobiography show, completely differently. If you like Unsolved Murders, I really think you’ll like this show, because there’s definitely some elements to it that are similar. We’ll have the voice-acting element, and also Carter, who’s the host of Unsolved Murders, will be one of the hosts on this show as well. We’re very excited about that show.

After that, the next show has yet to be confirmed in terms of what we want to do; it’s kind of like an internal struggle over here. Everyone has their big show they’re passionate about. I will say the next show will probably be coming out in October, middle of October, is our plan for the third show. Our goal is, really, to come out with a new show every two to three months. We’re just trying to, we’re trying to grow fast but smart, I think that’s the best way to put it. When the Parcast network was established, it was really, one, I loved audio, I love podcasting. It’s been in my family, my dad, but also, I really thought that podcasting needed to be taken to the next level.

I think right now, most podcasts’ sound-quality production value can be improved on, and that’s our goal, is to really produce shows that have great sound quality, and have a great story arc and story structure, and will help, hopefully, bring awareness to the podcast space, and by doing so, not only will it help our podcast grow, but just as equally important, other podcasts grow. Because like I said at the beginning, I really believe we’re all in this together. Podcasting has been around for over a decade. It’s really only started to become an actual business and people, I think, taking us seriously, in the last three years or so. It’s a really exciting time to be in the podcast industry.

Yeah, it is. I mean, it does seem like, all the sudden, everyone has — I have three, which I sort of can’t believe.

That’s amazing, congratulations.

[laughs] Well, thanks. But it really does take a lot of time, and if you’re trying to do it well and make it sound like it wasn’t edited with oven mitts on, which mine often does. You’re trying to make it sound professional, like, this is always the sort of double-edged sword of the internet, which I have worked on for 20 years, that, anyone can do it, but not everyone should.

Exactly, and I think that, especially, as the podcast space matures — there’s nothing wrong with having the hobbyist podcasts, I love them, whether it be brewing, golf, like, it’s great, I love them, but if we really want to take it to a new level where it’s a viable business, it kind of just, it needs to just go up a notch. Our hope is that, with technology improving every day now, it seems like, people will continue to be able to put out better podcasts, which is great. I think what sets Parcast above some of the other podcasts out there is the fact that we are able to spend the time and effort to get the sound quality and production quality top-notch.

I’m going to ask you a slightly off-topic question as my last one: If you’re looking back at when you realized that you were a true-crime fan, or, like, the seminal work of true crime that made you passionate about the topic, whether it was a mini-series, or a book, or a movie, documentary, what would you say was the seminal work that made you passionate about this genre?

It’s always hard for me to answer that, because I really think that, for me, well, it’s not necessarily true crime, but when I was young, as I mentioned at the beginning, I really loved Sherlock Holmes. That kind of spurred my interest, eventually, into true crime. As a kid, my dad has always been into, my dad and my mom for that matter, have always been into mysteries and true crime, and so there was always on, kind of in the background, these mystery shows, and that really spurred my interest.

Then, what was the case? It was like, oh, it was, I’m pulling a blank, but it was this true-crime case that was on the news, and it really, just in general, any case, ever since I can remember now, really, since I was about 12 or 13, cases that would go unsolved really bothered me. I had a relative that passed away tragically, and it was never solved. I think that probably was a kind of a moment in my life where I changed to the true crime thing, from just like a mystery to true crime.

Right.

I think that’s my passion. I think when you lose somebody and the case is still not, you know, it doesn’t matter if it’s solved or not solved, it makes you realize that, in that moment where you’re not sure it’s going to be solved, it scares you a little bit. Because you definitely want justice, you feel for the families, and I think, especially right now, what’s going on in America, it’s a very crazy time.

That is sort of my grand unifying theory of what attracts us, in some ways, to true crime. Sometimes it’s just the storytelling, but other times I think it’s this need to feel like knowledge is power, and that you can control this tragic event that, maybe was fundamentally random, but basically, that it gives us a measure of control, or the illusion of control, over that.

I couldn’t agree with you more, actually. I think you said it perfectly. I’d like to change my answer to that!

[laughs] Done and done.

You are a hundred percent correct. It’s the ability to think we — that knowledge is power, and to solve it. Also, I do think, innately, I like to believe, anyways, human beings are good people. We want to solve cases, and we want to help other people out. It’s so easy right now, when the media and just people are, there’s so much negativity going on in the world, to forget that. I do believe that, and I think that there’s always bad apples, but if we can solve it, and help other people in need, I think it’s a great way to live your life. It’s always fascinated me. Yeah. I think that’s kind of it.

Olivia Lenius contributed research for this interview.

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