Trial By Podcast: The podcasting public reviving cold cases
Interactive crime. It’s addictive. Where once it was enough to figure out whodunnit before the closing credits of CSI, armchair sleuths are opting to go deeper via an ever rising, real time format.
It’s the combination of presenting a fascinating story with the power to do good and audiences can’t get enough.
The ABC’s Trace has addicted podcast listeners trying to help solve the case with leads and tip-offs. In the lead up to the Australian Podcast Conference ‘OzPod’, the ABC revealed the podcast reached 1.1 million downloads across June and July.
Trace quickly topped the charts with an intriguing look at the unsolved murder of Melbourne mother and bookseller Maria James in the 1980s. This is a tale that’s captivated the nation. Audiences have followed a fantastical journey through satanic cults, sexual abuse in the catholic church, police bungles and ritualised murder. The podcast has already delivered a DNA-linked bombshell which made national headlines.
Journalist and host Rachael Brown believes podcasts can help with stalled cases.
“The wide appeal of podcasts, and the fact they’re not governed by duration and scheduling constraints, has brought attention to, and review of, a cold case which – given policing constraints and resourcing issues – may have otherwise sat in a box gathering dust for years to come,” Brown said.
People are responding to true crime podcasts’ ability to not just entertain, but deliver real-time outcomes and updates.
The Australian True Crime podcast co-host Meshel Laurie, suggests a symbiotic relationship between audience and investigators.
”The public has embraced the podcast, leading to new witnesses coming forward and police re investigating. That’s a pretty powerful set of outcomes,” she said. “ The story itself is compelling.
Each of the characters is fascinating in their own right. In fact, if it was fiction it would seem far-fetched”.
The true-crime genre is experiencing a cultural moment, blurring the line between journalism and entertainment. It’s resonating with audiences, who are pushing true-crime, including Australia’s Casefile and New Zealand’s Black Hands – A Family Mass Murder gaining substantial downloads.
The Australian newspaper’s Walkley Award winning Bowraville is another podcast with purpose, forcing authorities to re-examine the murders of three Aboriginal children after 25 years of frustration and inaction. The story had been reported previously, but the combination of The Australia’s news reporting and the emotional engagement of audio that drove change.
“I had reported on the case for the newspaper, but when I quoted the families there, it was just words on a page” said crime Reporter and host Dan Box. “The podcast meant people could hear the emotion, the sadness and the catch in the voice as they tried to hold back tears. It was more powerful than anything I could have said in print.”
“The power of the medium and the ability to focus on an issue over a long period of time really allows you to shine a light in a way few other forms of reporting are able to achieve.”
Melbourne’s The Age newspaper harnessed the power of podcasts with Phoebe’s Fall, which teased apart the investigation into the death of 24-year-old Phoebe Handsjuk, whose body was found at the bottom of a garbage chute in a luxury building in 2010.
“ For listeners, it’s a way of catching them with a narrative and holding them through something that might have twists, turns and dead ends in a way that is very difficult to do in print,” said host and The Age Investigations Editor Michael Bachelard. “Anything that uses the attitudes of investigative journalism to examine an issue or write a wrong, combined with the power of the podcast medium, could drive change”.
TV networks too are exploring the trend, deep-diving into stories without restrictive schedules.
“I see podcasts as a medium of the future that traditional media should want to embrace, not shy away from,” said 7 News Executive Producer Sally Eeles of the podcast Little Girl Lost, on the unsolved murder of Leanne Holland.
For Maria James’s son Mark, the Trace podcast is a final and unexpected opportunity for a resolution.
“I’m looking at this podcast as the final chance to get an answer as to what happened,” he said. “If this podcast doesn’t succeed, it’s never going to be solved” .