In 2012 a depressed restorer of antique clocks wrote This American Life to tell the staff about an uninvestigated and unpunished murder in his home town of Woodstock, Alabama. Produce Brian Reed was intrigued enough to eventually go down to Woodstock, meet John B. and investigate the murder.
It turned out to have been no murder. John B. was totally wrong. But, for some reason, Reed found John B. fascinating and decided to investigate other things about his life. and turn the results into a podcast, S-Town ("Shit Town" being John B.'s nickname for his hometown). John B. committed suicide during production, and Reed then investigated that, uncovering John B.'s private sex life, among other things.
Reed affected to find John B. fascinating, and I, as podcast listener, was expected to do the same. Instead, I found John B. to be a tiresome blowhard. People claimed he was a fantastic restorer of antique clocks, a genuine expert. I don't even believe that, though my belief he was a faker even in that is unsupported by evidence, and is just prejudice on my part.
Talking a lot doesn't make you fascinating
We've all met people like John B., always talking about how much they read about all sorts of different topics and how deeply they've thought about everything. John B. provided no indication of understanding anything, and, in fact, seems to have poisoned himself with mercury while doing fire gilding...though that, like so many facts in this podcast, is never to be confirmed, since the autopsy did not check for mercury.
I still listened to the whole thing, because it kept promising to become more interesting than it actually ever did. And Reed is pretty good at digging around, and getting people to talk pretty freely. That's a real skill, and you do get some self-revelation from people, some of whom probably regretted being quite so open when the podcast finally was available.
We may be facing a shortage of genuinely compelling true crime
But the success of the podcast Serial has stimulated a lot of people to create multi-chapter investigations of past crimes and misbehavior. Serial itself never convinced me that its central character, Adnan Syed, was anything other than guilty. The BBC's Death in Ice Valley...well, I don't want to give spoilers, but I found it unsatisfying. These people do seem to play fair: if they are stymied, or can't figure something out, they don't pretend they have, and don't fake any kind of resolution if there is none.
But the problem is a lack of interesting unsolved crimes, fascinating locals, and evocative situations. That unfortunate shortage is pretty much why mystery fiction was invented. John B. is a typical serial liar, always rambling around the subject and trying to avoid giving away that he doesn't know a damn thing. I didn't get the appeal. I don't think the podcast did John B. any favors by exposing him to a wider audience, and most of the controversy the podcast aroused was about the invasion of privacy, not so much that John B. wasn't much worth listening to.
An actually interesting podcast: Reply All
By contrast, a podcast that is consistently interesting and showcases interesting people is Reply All. PJ Vogt and Alex Goldman always seem to find interesting puzzles, and then find interesting people to provide pieces of the explanation. Plus, Vogt and Goldman are incredibly funny, and give each other shit in a realistic and delightful way. I always learn something interesting from them.
So that's one thing. An interesting host (or two), who is skeptical, willing to dig deeper, and doesn't take anything at face value, can go a long way to making the story more interesting, even if sometimes they don't get all the way to the conclusion. In fact, at least once, they've reopened an investigation when they realized they'd actually reached a wrong, or at least incomplete, conclusion.
So that's my prejudice: I'd rather listen to smart people tell me about interesting true things than half-smart people bullshit me about pointlessly untrue or half-true things.
What serial podcasts do you like to listen to?
It's a genuinely interesting art form. Though I think Serial benefited quite a bit from great theme music, and its charming Mail Chimp ad, all of which turned it into something iconic. But don't forget The Nisha Call...actually, by the time it became an issue, I had totally forgotten the Nisha Call, and never bothered to go back and find out what it was. No, I don't want you to write and explain it to me.