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Nicholas Quah. Podcast Critic, Vulture. Writes the 1.5x Speed newsletter. Creator, Hot Pod. Contributor, Fresh Air. Member, Peabody Awards Board of Jurors. Led Smart Mirror
Nicholas Quah. Podcast Critic, Vulture. Writes the 1.5x Speed newsletter. Creator, Hot Pod. Contributor, Fresh Air. Member, Peabody Awards Board of Jurors.
In her piece about the recent developments in the Adnan Syed trial, the author and critic Sarah Weinman reflected on the considerable evolution in true-crime culture and media since Serial debuted eight years ago. The genre seemed to grow exponentially since then, but its shape and texture are also quite different these days. Taking stock of the field, she grouped the ravenous, expanded consumer appetite for true crime into two broad buckets: “those craving and conducting rigorous journalism” and “those in search of community.” Modern podcasting feels like the most acute expression of Weinman’s taxonomy.
Of course, it would be dishonest to treat podcasting as unique when it comes to true crime. Such narratives have been a staple nonfiction flavor across many media going back eons: walk through any bookstore, scroll through any streaming service, open any magazine. However, perhaps owing to the medium’s relative newness, podcasting’s modern shape feels distinctly forged by the genre. True crime, and works inspired by the aesthetics of true crime, make up a disproportionate mass of new projects created within the format. Their abundance underlines a hyperbole I’ve uttered once before, and that I’ll utter again: True crime is the bloody, beating heart of podcasting.
Given true crime’s prominence among podcasts, we figured it would be fun to start diving a little deeper into the genre. Here you will find a routinely updated list of crime podcasts of the year that we feel are interesting in relation to the genre — shows that bring something unexpected to the mix, say something about the genre, or simply suit our tastes.
A few caveats. This list is not meant to be comprehensive. (How can it be? There are so many podcasts.) We tend to favor narratives over chatcasts that serve the desire for community. You might find occasional overlap with our running “Best Podcasts” list. We’re leaning on a broad understanding of “crime,” where a dead body does not necessarily have to factor. And for the first iteration of this list, we’re starting small with six picks.
I’ll pick up whatever Leah Sottile puts down. A veteran freelance journalist who specializes in deeply reported long-form features on right-wing extremism in the United States, Sottile has made three fantastic podcasts over the past four years: two seasons of Bundyville, which tackles the still-very-much-active Bundy family and the armed uprisings they continue to inspire, and Two Minutes Past Nine, a BBC series on the legacy of Timothy McVeigh and the Oklahoma City bombing. Her latest and fourth audio effort sees her reuniting with the producer Georgia Catt, with whom she collaborated on Two Minutes Past Nine. In Burn Wild, they tackle what could be superficially considered the mirror inverse of Sottile’s traditional subjects: left-wing ecoterrorism. The narrative follows the story of two fugitive environmentalists associated with the Earth Liberation Front, one of whom was recently caught and is currently on trial. But the hook lies in an ever-deepening question: In the face of the global climate crisis, which actions go too far — and which are rational endpoints?
It’s the musicality of this show that hooked me more than anything else. Marc Smerling, co-creator of Crimetown, returns with what is basically a spiritual continuation of that early Gimlet Media hit. Here you’ll find Crimetown’s interest in a city’s relationship with crime, politics, and power superimposed onto Youngstown, a quintessential Rust Belt city in the great state of Ohio. Crooked City’s historical narrative largely wraps itself around the political rise and fall of Jim Traficant, a native son who would become a corrupt congressman, but Smerling and his team really take time to explore their interests. The series constantly ambles outward and inward, ducking into various narrative alleyways to take stock of the city’s other historical threads. It’s packaged and delivered through Smerling’s raconteur-esque narration, all sly enthusiasm. Crooked City is a true-crime show that’s not beholden to a driving mystery, and what a delight it is.
I Was Never There follows a mother-daughter duo, Jamie and Karen Zelermyer, as they set off to learn more about the disappearance of a family friend back in the ’80s: Marsha “Mudd” Ferber, a West Virginia suburbanite turned hippie folk hero who ran an underground bar and sold drugs on the side. The series leans hard into the language of true-crime podcasts, from the ambling nature of its investigative beats straight down to the fuzziness of its conclusion. But the lasting appeal of this production lies in its recollection of the past. I Was Never There lingers in the memory of a moment at the trailing end of the American counterculture, when radical hopes curdled into something harder, something else.
Formerly of the CBC and now working Stateside, Connie Walker has built a robust body of narrative podcast work dedicated to reinvestigating injustices against Indigenous women. Typically operating within the true-crime genre, productions from Walker, who is Cree and from Okanese First Nation, often balance capitalizing on the genre’s inherent appeal while keeping a steady hand on the bigger picture about state violence and Indigenous people. Stolen: Surviving St. Michael’s feels like a deeper departure from its genre roots, with Walker turning inward to explore a story that originates in her family tree. The instigating mystery revolves around a violent story that she recently learned about her father. An investigation via oral history, Walker’s pursuit brings her to darker aspects of her father’s history as a student in one of Canada’s notorious “residential schools,” which were set up by the government to systematically isolate Indigenous children from their native culture.
Sympathy Pains recounts what I suppose you could call an emotional scam. The medical journalist Laura Beil, of Dr. Death fame, digs into the exceedingly peculiar story of Sarah Delashmit, who spent years weaving elaborate tales of health complications and personal misfortune as means to insinuate herself into other people’s lives … and into the molten center of their emotional labor. What’s principally interesting about this show is its structure: six episodes, with the first four installments unspooling the fundamentals of the tale through the recollections of four individuals directly affected by Delashmit. All throughout, Beil seems particularly drawn to the mystery of Delashmit’s psychology — who would do such a thing? — which, for the most part, is a question that can’t really be answered with anything beyond speculation, or mere pablum.
Allie Conte, a journalist and newly licensed private investigator, heads down to Dickinson, Texas, on the invitation of a man named Tim Miller, who has cultivated a fair amount of fame over the years as a successful search-and-rescue operator locating missing persons. The trip isn’t for a simple profile, however. As Conte learns, Miller, whose daughter was murdered decades earlier, seems convinced that he’s figured out who did it — and how he may rain hell on this person. Although rough around the edges, Vigilante is an unexpectedly sticky show that’s almost noirlike in its texture. The nature of what Conte is witnessing shifts before her eyes as she spends more time drifting deeper into Miller’s world, filled with distrusting cops and gray characters and messy hunger for retribution.
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