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The unlikely role of true crime podcasts in criminal justice reform

While the true crime genre has long been established in literature and television, and its broad popularity continues on today with recent hits like The People vs. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story, HBO’s The Jinx, and Netflix’s Making a Murderer, the genre has made new waves in an unsuspecting mediumpodcasts.

Beginning with Serial in 2014, the popular podcast about a Baltimore teen’s murder and her ex-boyfriend Adnan Syed, who is serving a life sentence after a highly contested conviction, there’s been an explosion of true crime and wrongful conviction retellings and analyses through audio. In fact, true crime podcasts often top the iTunes top podcast chart, generally considered the best measure of a show’s popularity.

The appeal of true crime podcasts

True crime retellings first appeared in the 1500s as part of sensational leaflets written by the British, recounting tales of gruesome crimes. By the 20th century, true crime stories reached national bestseller status, most notably Truman Capote’s 1966 tale In Cold Blood (paywall), a non-fiction retelling of the small-town Clutter family murders in Kansas, and Vincent Bugliosi’s Helter Skelter, the 1974 true story of the widely publicized Manson murders.

While podcasting is a relatively new area of expansion for the genre, it’s had a transformative effect. Through podcasts, true crime fans can hear new content, but take a step further. Podcasts allows fans to become actively involved themselves, by connecting with the hosts other listeners and a growing network of criminal justice reform advocates. True crime podcasts are often at their best when they’re covering stories that are still in need of answers, or where justice may not have been donethat’s when the public awareness and engagement that podcasts can inspire have the best chance of making a real-world impact on the cases being covered.

Podcasts provide an interactive, engaging, and investigatory experience in a way that no other medium can match, but that’s only one reason for the uptick in interest in recent years. Here are three other ways that true crime podcasts appeal to listeners:

The audio format is powerful. When it comes to covering criminal justice system, audio often has the edge over written and televised coverage. Courtroom proceedings and police interviews tend not to be that visually interesting. But audio records of these same events are powerful (and publicly available!). Podcasting is a compelling way to bring this content to the audience in a way that is both entertaining and in-depth. At Undisclosed, venturing into the world of podcasts has allowed usa group of lawyers, professors, and advocates, but without any previous audio experienceto provide our listeners with the deep legal analyses they’ve come to expect and appreciate.

Production costs are low. One of the huge advantages of podcasts is their accessibility. That’s true not just for podcast listeners but also podcast producers. An eager would-be podcast host with a compelling story doesn’t need a big-studio budget to make an impact. They can use simple recording equipment to make a compelling and well-produced showsomething that would be unheard of for most other formats. Using audio to sift through interviews, facts, and rumors, true crime hosts can unravel the details of a story alongside their audience. This has huge implications for the true crime genre, in which there is a nearly unlimited amount of material out there that is worth coveringall that is needed is for someone to come along who cares enough about the story to share it.

Podcasting has gained traction in true crime—beyond other mediums. For Undisclosed, which originally focused on the wrongful conviction of Adnan Syed, podcasting was the obvious choice of medium. Along with my co-hosts, Rabia Chaudry and Colin Miller, I began blogging about the case after listening to Serialthat’s how the three of us first met. We soon realized, though, that there were a lot of people out there who cared a great deal about Adnan’s case after listening to Serial, but that we couldn’t reach through blogging alone. By starting a podcast, we were able to connect those listeners with our findings on the case, and then expand to reach a huge audience of podcast fans out there who are looking for informative and compelling true crime content.

While podcast listeners are clamoring for more content in the true crime genre, it is important for hosts and producers to think carefully about what we’re looking to gain from true crime storytelling: do we want to grab the attention of listeners and entertain them for a few episodes, or can more be achieved?

Relying on true crime as a driver for social justice

It can be off-putting when someone rehashes a gruesome story for the sake of entertainment, possibly harming family members and others related to the case. However, the most compelling true crime documentaries have the ability to shed new light on inequalities in the US justice system—bringing attention to issues of race, religion, and socio-economic class, while reigniting audiences with an intimate discussion of old cases.

Certain shows have even succeeded in changing the direction of the cases they’ve covered, by discovering new evidence, and bringing new light to old information in a way that has prompted courts to revisit these convictions. In reviewing the first season of Serial (spoilers ahead!), listeners will notice that the series ends with the same question with which we started: Did Adnan Syed commit the crime? But the show effectively calls upon the audience to question fairness in the criminal justice process, opening the door for questions of biases, witness manipulation, prosecutorial misconduct, ineffective assistance of counsel, and questionable evidence. Through Undisclosed, we have been able to continue to bring these issues to our listeners’ attention, while also advancing a cause that all three of Undisclosed’s hosts care passionately about. Rabia Chaudry, perhaps known best for her legal work as Adnan Syed’s public advocate, summarizes our goal most clearly: “Undisclosed has one focusto find a way to get an innocent incarcerated person a new shot to be exonerated or acquitted. We don’t explore criminal mysteries for the sake of it.”

The podcasting industry is growing at a time that coincides with great social activism. Our listeners want to hear these storiesand then they want to take it a step further and act for justice.

Beyond just entertaining audiences for a series arc, podcasts have a special power to transform listeners’ interest into activism. The public interest and commitment that they generate can result not only in real changes for the individual cases that are covered, but also fosters awareness and support for broader transformations in criminal justice legislation and policy. As Rabia says, “True crime has always captured the imagination. What’s different now is the awareness of how often the system gets it wrong, so the popularity [in true crime] is really around wrongful convictions and that’s a great thing.”

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