The result of her investigation, Accused, is the latest in a string of audio investigations that are both incredibly popular—Accused, which ended last month, and In the Dark, which ends today, are both currently in the top 10 podcasts on iTunes—and valuable for the local reporters who produce them. From The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s Breakdownto The Australian’s Bowraville to The Democrat’s Finding Tammy Jo, true-crime podcasts are giving journalists hoping to reignite cold cases an audience invested in their work—and one that goes far beyond the circulation of The Cincinnati Enquirer.
Act Locally, Podcast Globally
Unlike conventional reporting, the intimacy of serialized audio offered a version of true crime storytelling that allowed Hunt to be a concerned character, and show a personal investment in the story without sacrificing her journalistic credibility. “It’s a no-brainer: of course we want the murder solved,” says Hunt. “Because of the podcast format, it felt more appropriate than it would have in print to be explicit about it.”
And the Maryland retrial that Serial made possible—”in a closed case where there’s already somebody convicted,” stresses Hunt—gave her hope that she could identify Andes’ killer. As Hunt sees it, the podcast form provides otherwise inaccessible reach. “When you’re writing a story for a local newspaper, it gets some attention, but your audience is generally local,” she says. If anyone has information pertinent to the Andes case, they likely don’t live in the college town of Oxford, Ohio anymore—or subscribe to theEnquirer. But the podcast, with recurring suspects and episodic cliffhangers, has broader appeal.
Accused didn’t crack the case, but Hunt believes it still can. Since releasing the last episode, she has continued to interview people involved with the case, and sends tips to the local police working on it. “We’ve heard from people all over the country with direct connections to the case,” she says. “All we need is for somebody to recognize they have information they didn’t know was important.”
For Madeleine Baran, whose podcast In the Dark delved into the 1989 murder of a child—a mystery that finally got anofficial confession a week before the podcast was planned to launch—there’s even more at stake. While the admission of guilt gave her podcast an ending, Baran hopes that a podcast’s reach could lead to awareness of how police shelve unsolved crimes, and how one case can affect national change. “It happened on a dead end road, in a town of 3,000 people, and the police got there right away—at one point, the National Guard had been called out,” says Baran. “So why wasn’t a case like this solved?”
Humanizing can be difficult through a newspaper column, but if you’re hearing from different people, that adds legitimacy to their perspectives.ADAM WANDT, PROFESSOR OF PUBLIC POLICY AT JOHN JAY COLLEGE OF CRIMINAL JUSTICE
In the abstract, it’s hard to care about justice for a 30-year-old crime, or the broader unfairness of false confessions, especially if the crime occurred far from your community. Listening to a podcast makes the investigation—and the systemic injustices—specific. “Podcasts make it personal,” says Adam Wandt, professor of public policy at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. “Humanizing can be difficult through a [newspaper] column, but if you’re hearing from different people, that adds legitimacy to their perspectives.”
Through these podcasts, listeners hear week after week from people who’ve experienced false confessions, faulty eyewitness testimony, racial prejudice. “What we’ve seen, with Serial or with Making a Murderer, is that people are willing to stick with these longer stories if they’re well-told,” Baran says. And if they’re outraged about the mistreatment of the protagonists, people may feel similarly about those injustices writ large—and seek to change them.