I am not a true crime buff, which is something I guess I should state up front because what it does is put me in the category of quite a number of people who have listened to podcasts in the last few years. But I am a fan of good journalism (which sounds silly to say, but when you think about how we live in an age where tptb are seeking to destroy any truthful reporting or actual truth in favor of media fellatio, you have to) and a quality true crime podcast can be just that.
There are a number of true crime or true crime-adjacent podcasts that are on my iPod, some of which I have completely listened to and others that are waiting for me to get through the stack of My Dad Wrote a Porno episodes that has been piling up. And while I suppose that I could review these individually, I also thought an evaluation of the genre might also be worthwhile. After all, it is one of the most popular genres of the medium in the same way that shows like Dateline are ratings stalwarts for television networks, and that means it’s accessible and even a bit of comfort food for some.
And I realize how odd it sounds that a true crime podcast would be comforting to a listener, but if you consider that there’s an entire segment of our population whose television viewing is of the Law & Order, CSI, NCIS, Blue Bloods, Chicago [insert department here] variety, setting them up with something like Serial or Atlanta Monster is not very hard because both of those podcasts (and others like them) are salacious and often engaging, which is probably the most important thing for a good show. We love hearing the details of the crime and we also love the idea that the story is being teased out bit by bit, and when everything is firing correctly, it becomes water-cooler material.
But it’s not the easiest thing in the world to put one of these together. First, I imagine that you have to have resources and access that someone like me–a schmuck who blabs about random pop culture–wouldn’t. Next, you’re using those resources to carefully craft your story with an eye on both the truth of the matter and entertaining the audience. Anyone can literally read a Wikipedia entry or crib from various New York Times articles (go listen to the historical context portions of several episodes of In Country if you want to hear me do it), so you need to make this worth listening to. Even when it’s something that I’m actually familiar with, I am spending my time seeing if there’s something I didn’t know about it or if there are answers to questions I already had.
Coming from someone who has done his fair share of podcasting and writing, I can say with authority (okay, fake-assed authority) that all of that is on top of the fact that the show must be well-produced and well-hosted. Yes, I realized that it’s rich coming from me, who has made more mistakes in his hundreds of podcast episodes (that’s not hyperbole, btw) than most people make in a lifetime. But I’m learning as I go and don’t have NPR or ABC News behind me, so I cut myself some slack here. If the show isn’t paced well or the host has horrific vocal fry, it’s hard to want to keep going. Furthermore, if at any point, the show becomes more about the host than the actual subject, I’m out. Yes, the host as a character in the podcast can actually work–Serial did this incredibly well–but when it looks like they’re inserting themselves into the story more than they’re actually reporting on it (Up and Vanished), then I think they’ve crossed a line and begin to wonder if they’re more interested in coming off as a hero or looking correct than being accurate.
So with that admittedly pompous declaration out of the way, I’ve grouped several podcasts that I’ve listened to or am currently listening to. Some of them are straight-up true crime–a missing person, a murder, a stalker, an assault. Some of them are true crime-adjacent–a political scandal, corporate intrigue. And I’m going with my usual ratings of Worth Subscribing, Worth Trying, and Waste of Time, starting with the worst …
Waste of Time
Up and Vanished. This podcast, over two seasons, covers the cases of two separate missing women. The first is Tara Grinstead, a Georgia teacher; the second is Kristal Resinger, a woman from Colorado. I only listened to the first season, which was credited with helping crack the case, and while I found it interesting, the show’s host, Payne Lindsay, stepped over that line of involving himself in the story a few too many times for me.
Missing: Maura Murray. I have been fascinated with the Maura Murray case since I first saw it on an episode of 20/20 about a decade or so ago. If you’re unfamiliar with it, she was a college student who vanished after crashing her car on a highway in New Hampshire. There’s speculation that she had deliberately vanished, especially since she cryptically told her employer that she needed time off, and while there was no evidence of foul play, there have been suspicions of her being found by someone and murdered. The first few episodes of the show, which took a thorough look at the case and investigated it, were fascinating, but there came a point where the hosts were a little too much into their own ideas and theories and were also clearly trying to keep the show alive by spending more time speculating and chasing every lead or fact because they’d basically exhausted the information they had.
Serial, Season 2. While not a bad show per se, the fact that Serial decided to cover the Bowe Bergdahl case, which was well-trodden territory in the media and didn’t even get to interview Bergdahl himself made it lackluster compared to its other two.
Atlanta Monster. This is a look at the Atlanta child murders of the early 1980s, which were committed by Wayne Williams. The team that produced Up and Vanished is behind this and it’s better than that show, mainly because Payne Lindsay doesn’t seem to insert himself into the story or become as speculative or combative with interview subjects as much as he does in the other shows. That’s probably because it’s not an open case, even if Williams insists he’s innocent. If you listen to it and it holds your interest, keep going.
Bad Batch. A true crime-adjacent podcast that investigates the stem cell industry and specifically the case of a company whose stem cells caused several people to become seriously ill from infections. The same team did a podcast I’ll listen to later on, Dr. Death, and this is very good, although it doesn’t have the salaciousness of the other and you have to be more into corporate watchdog type of reporting than true crime.
Bag Man. Hosted by MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow, this is a look at the scandal surrounding vice president Spiro Agnew that ultimately led to his resignation in 1973. It’s a classic political bribery tale and one that had me shaking my head several times in disbelief. But you’ve definitely got to be interested in that period of history or in politics to really get into it.
Gangster Capitalism. A fairly recent podcast that covers the 2019 College Admissions Scandal, Gangster Capitalism doesn’t exactly shed that much new information on the scandal–I think you could have probably gotten a lot of the details from reading the media coverage–but what it does well is throw the light on the pressure that parents put on their kids and schools to make sure that they’re accepted by elite schools. I was interested in it more from the education standpoint than the “Let’s see what Aunt Becky did” standpoint.
Slow Burn, Season 1. This covers the Watergate scandal and I found it to be a really good look at it because it took us beyond All The President’s Men, which is a book and film I love. But like Bag Man, the show covers a very specific period of time, so you have to want to hear about Richard Nixon.
The Dropout. An ABC News-produced podcast about the company Theranos and its CEO, Elizabeth Holmes. Worth a try because it’s one of several pieces about this particular scandal (including a documentary and the book Bad Blood), so you have other avenues to explore, and I’d explore at least one of them because this story is a doozy.
Dirty John. One of the more famous podcasts out there, mainly because it was made into a miniseries starring Connie Britton and Eric Bana (which is also great), this is the story of how John Meehan conned his way into the lives of rich women in Southern California and took them for hundreds of thousands of dollars. It’s outstanding and dramatic and I would recommend both the podcast and the TV series.
Dr. Death. I mentioned Bad Batch earlier, which is done by the same team, and while that is more of the shady corporate dealings and practices within the stem cell industry, this podcast is about a doctor whose practices caused serious harm and death to his patients. Christopher Duntsch was a neurosurgeon who claimed to be able to perform restorative and life-saving surgery yet maimed and killed nearly 33 patients. While the show is grisly at times, it’s a fascinating look into the medical world as well as where it intersects with arrogance and toxic masculinity.
Serial, Seasons 1 & 3. The first season of Serial is the dean of true crime podcasts, the one that got everyone talking when it covered the Adnan Syed case (btw, I had been to that Best Buy in 1998-1999 and I have no idea if there was a payphone in the lobby). The third season is a look at the court system in Cleveland. Their not being high-profile stories (at least nationally) works to their advantage in a big way because there’s a lot of story to tell. It’s also incredibly well-produced and if you’ve been avoiding it for years, I’d recommend it because you can tell why it was so big.
Slow Burn, Seasons 2 & 3. I guess my note about the show being of a specific time could apply here as well, but both of these seasons cover events from the Nineties, so I was way more invested in them than in the Watergate season. Season 2 covers the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal and put it in a much different perspective than the one I had back in 1998 when I was in college and loosely following it in the news. Season 3, which has been on the air for the past month or so, is going into the murders of Tupac Shakur and The Notorious B.I.G. Both are great deep dives into our political and popular culture.