Stephanie Green has your indispensible (and inessential) true-crime listens
Since I last posted a podcast roundup on The Blotter, the world of podcasting has moved beyond the still-lingering hype over Serial. There has been an even bigger boom in the true crime ‘cast genre, with an ever-expanding universe of crime-focused podcasts, from the deliberately provocative (Missing Richard Simmons) to the rigorously journalistic (AJC Breakdown’s third season) to the unintentionally meandering (Someone Knows Something, Season 2). Here are six current true crime podcasts, reviewed.
Missing Richard Simmons
- Basic premise: Much has been written about filmmaker-cum-podcaster Dan Taberski’s quest to uncover the “mystery” of fitness icon Richard Simmons’s disappearance from public life in 2014. It was billed by The New York Times as “the next cult audio obsession,” and Taberski did all he could to heighten the intrigue surrounding his investigation into Simmons’s extreme reclusiveness. However, as the podcast progressed, it became clear to many listeners and critics that a) there was no real mystery to be uncovered; Simmons simply decided to retreat from his intensely public life and adopt a more private one, and b) many of Taberski’s efforts to crack the (non-existent) case were ethically questionable. By the time the podcast wrapped up, Taberski was sheepishly admitting that Simmons is, in fact, probably fine and just wants to be left alone. However, Taberski doggedly clung to his assertion that Simmons somehow owes his fans and friends an explanation for his retreat into privacy.
- Quality of research: Okay. Taberski certainly delves deeply into Simmons’s personal life and history, and interviews a host of Simmons’s friends, acquaintances, and business associates about Simmons’s past and present. However, this biographical “research,” while interesting, doesn’t turn up anything that would shed light on the mystery/foul play that Taberski is convinced is at the heart of Simmons’s refusal to engage with his public. Instead, it suggests that Simmons simply overextended himself by engaging too intimately for too long with his friends and fans until he reached a breaking point. Despite Taberski’s repeated allusions to something darker afoot, there does not seem to be any coercion, abuse, or other crisis involved in Simmons’s decision to retreat into his home, and Taberski’s attempts to cook up a scandal fall flat.
- Likability of host(s): Also okay. At first, Taberski seems like a genuinely concerned friend who only wants the best for Simmons. As the podcast progresses, though, he comes off as, if not stalkerish, then at least unwilling to accept the possibility that Richard Simmons is fine and simply wishes for privacy. However, despite some of his ethically problematic choices in pursuing his story, Taberski is a mostly likable, affable host, and the listener is left wishing that his charms were directed toward a story with more meat.
- Editing: Excellent. Each episode comes in at about half an hour, with little extraneous content.
- Worth a listen? Yes. On a meta level, listening to Missing Richard Simmons provides an opportunity to reflect on the ethics of investigative podcasting. Content-wise, the story of how Richard Simmons came to be Richard Simmons is very engaging. Where the podcast is lacking is in its treatment of the real-life Simmons as a living, breathing human with feelings and preferences (namely, for privacy).
Someone Knows Something (Season 2)
- Basic premise: The second season of this CBC podcast finds host David Ridgen investigating yet another Canadian cold case, the 1998 disappearance of Sheryl Sheppard, of Hamilton, Ontario. Two days before she went missing, Sheppard’s boyfriend, Michael Lavoie, had proposed to her on live TV, and she’d accepted. Ridgen focuses on their tumultuous relationship in an effort to uncover what may have happened to Sheppard.
- Quality of research: Okay. Ridgen’s research mainly consists of interviewing people who knew Sheppard and/or Lavoie and probing them for their impressions of the couple’s relationship. He does speak to investigators who worked on the case at the time, but given that the case has been cold for two decades, this avenue of investigation does not uncover any new leads about Sheppard’s disappearance. Ridgen’s implied (although never explicitly stated) conclusion is that Lavoie most likely killed Sheppard, but Ridgen hastens to add, ad nauseam, that Lavoie maintains his innocence and has not been found guilty of any crime involving Sheppard’s disappearance. Ridgen repeats this mantra so often that it becomes irritating, especially since he doesn’t furnish any other viable theories about what may have happened to Sheppard.
- Likability of host(s): Not great. As with Season 1 of Someone Knows Something, Ridgen tends to unnecessarily insert himself into the story. His journalistic style, too, leaves something to be desired; he finds almost comically unflattering ways of describing nearly every person he interviews, particularly women.
- Editing: As in Season 1, each episode goes on too long and could do with better sound editing. We don’t need to hear an interviewee shuffling papers, for example, or Ridgen’s car door closing, or other background noise that is apparently meant to be atmospheric but is actually distracting.
- Worth a listen? Maybe. The story has potential, but Ridgen continually gets in the way of his own reporting. However, the interviewees are colorful and Ridgen manages to convey a real sense of place, giving a clear picture of the gritty, working-class side of Hamilton. And in terms of substantive subject, it’s an improvement over S1.
Missing and Murdered: Who Killed Alberta Williams?
- Basic premise: The body of Alberta Williams, a 24-year-old indigenous Canadian woman from Prince Rupert, British Columbia, was found along a highway in northern BC in 1989. The highway where her body was found is now known as the “Highway of Tears,” since it is the site of a series of murders of mainly indigenous women and girls between 1969 and 2011. This podcast from the CBC seeks to uncover what happened to Alberta Williams, while situating her murder within the larger context of the many other missing and murdered indigenous women and girls in Canada.
- Quality of research: Excellent. Host Connie Walker is an investigative journalist for CBC who focuses on indigenous issues. She herself is Cree, and cares deeply about Canadian indigenous communities and their challenges. This subject matter is her wheelhouse and it shows.
- Likability of host(s): Excellent. Walker admits up front that she has a personal stake in the story of Alberta Williams, but avoids inserting herself unnecessarily into the story. When she sprinkles personal anecdotes into the narrative, she succeeds in deepening and personalizing her reporting without distracting from the story about Williams’s murder. For example, Walker discusses her own father’s experience being abused in a “residential school” for native Canadians, fitting this anecdote into a larger discussion of the lasting, deleterious effects of the residential school program on indigenous communities. She handles interviews with sensitivity and professionalism.
- Editing: Good. The episodes vary in length and some go on a bit too long, especially when Walker describes her efforts to obtain interviews with uncooperative subjects, but generally, the editing and storytelling is solid.
- Worth a listen? Yes. The stories of missing and murdered indigenous women are both important and underrepresented. The Alberta Williams case also has twists and turns that make it particularly compelling.
- Basic premise: The latest podcast from the Serial and This American Life teams, S-Town (short for “Shit Town”) starts off as an examination of an alleged murder in a small town in Alabama and then spins off into something completely different. By the end of the second episode, what had begun as a true-crime podcast has morphed into a type of character study layered with mystery, whimsy, and confusion.
- Quality of research: Good. S-Town is not necessarily research-heavy like a crime investigation podcast such as, for example, Breakdown, but Brian Reed and his team do their fact-checking legwork and interview a large cast of characters to paint a vivid picture of the titular S-Town.
- Likability of host(s): Okay. Host Brian Reed, a senior producer on This American Life, was somewhat of an unknown quantity as a host, and after listening to S-Town, I’m still a bit fuzzy on his perspective as a reporter. He sometimes goes the Sarah Koenig route of remaining wishy-washy on his stance about disputed facts, which works as a storytelling technique, but is frustrating from a reporting standpoint. He also has some vocal tics that become maddeningly pronounced when one is binge-listening to S-Town, but that might be an issue that I, a noted misophone, need to deal with on my own.
- Editing: Good. S-Town demonstrates its Serial and This American Life pedigree in its slick editing and smart use of musical cues.
- Worth a listen? Maybe. Given the buzz that this podcast has generated by dint of its creators, it’s almost guaranteed to be the most talked-about podcast this week. However, one’s interest in the story that S-Town tells largely depends on one’s commitment to its main character, a man named John. If you’re interested in John’s life and point of view, you’ll be drawn in by the podcast. If, however, you signed on for a true-crime podcast and don’t care to hear the details of John’s peculiar life and entanglements, S-Town will almost surely prove frustrating.
AJC Breakdown (Season 3)
- 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. In its third season, Breakdown is looking at the case of Dr. Narendra (“Vinni”) Gupta, a diabetes and hypertension doctor who’s been accused by eighteen female patients of sexual assault. This story was spun off of AJC‘s “Doctors and Sex Abuse” series.
- Quality of research: Excellent. As always, the reporting for Breakdown is top-notch.
- Likability of host(s): Good. Bill Rankin, host of the first two seasons of the podcast, has stepped aside for this installment, which is hosted by Johnny Edwards, a reporter for the AJC legal affairs team. Edwards introduces himself by admitting that he’s “no Bill Rankin,” but Bill Rankin assures us that Edwards “has an amazing story to tell [us].” Like Rankin, Edwards comes across as conscientious and scrupulous in his reporting, which is what listeners have come to expect from this podcast.
- Editing: Good. Interviews with Gupta’s victims are woven seamlessly into the story. They are tightly edited enough not to be meandering, but still give the listener a moving (and disturbing) picture of Gupta’s alleged crimes.
- Worth a listen? Yes. Breakdown has proven itself over three seasons to be excellent by every standard: compelling storytelling, high journalistic ethics, and tight editing.
Offshore (Season One)
- Basic premise: Offshore, now in its second season, tells “stories from Hawaii,” and as such, is not always a true crime podcast. However, Season 1, “A Killing in Waikiki,” told the story of the killing of Kollin Elderts, a native Hawaiian man, by Christopher Deedy, a white off-duty federal agent who was in town for the APEC summit. The podcast looks at the complicated, uniquely Hawaiian racial politics surrounding the case, and larger questions about why it is so difficult to obtain a guilty verdict against law enforcement officers who shoot unarmed people.
- Quality of research: Good. The podcast is produced by Honolulu Civil Beat and PRX, and does a good job of laying out the details of the confrontation between Deeds and Elders, the case against Deeds, and the aftermath. It situates the entire case within the (quite complicated) context of race relations in both Hawaii and the greater United States.
- Likability of host(s): Good. Host Jessica Terrell sometimes seems a bit out of her depth, reminding us that she is new to Hawaii, but she tends to stay out of the way of the reporting.
- Editing: Good. Offshore has a public radio journalism feel and, as such, is not too long, pleasant to listen to, and informative.
- Worth a listen? Yes. As someone who has never been to Hawaii, I learned a lot about the tricky racial politics at play there. This story is thorny, and the podcast does a good job of exploring its nooks and crannies without jumping to easy conclusions.
True-crime devotee and compulsive knitter Stephanie Green left a career in the law to become a writer. She blogs at StephanieEarlyGreen.com.