EDITOR’S NOTE: “The Best Audio Storytelling: 2022” is a newly released audiobook compendium of English-language nonfiction. The collection’s curator, Julia Barton of Pushkin Industries, spoke with creators of work in the collection about their storytelling choices and challenges. This is the third of four posts that revive “Audio Danger,” Barton’s Storyboard series on podcasting published a decade ago. The first installment, posted last week, updates the status of podcasting as a journalistic form. The second analyzes a podcast about the Jan. 6, 2021, assault on the U.S. Capitol.
By Julia BartonOpen the Apple Podcasts U.S. “top shows” list on any given day, and you will encounter the strangest magazine stand. The most popular shows, in terms of new subscribers, are usually a mix of news, religion or self-help, comedy, and — by far the biggest genre — true crime. There are series about murder, of course, but also deceit, sexual assault, terrorism, corruption. As long as someone’s doing something bad, it seems, the listeners of America can’t get enough of it.
Just as established as true crime’s huge popularity has been the backlash against it, especially in audio, which until a decade ago, had no tabloid-style genre. Documentaries, parodies, think-pieces all point to an ethical queasiness about shows that seem to repackage human suffering into addictive (not to mention commercially lucrative) entertainment. And sometimes that ethical queasiness has real-world repercussions.
“This is not a podcast for me,” Young Lee told a Maryland appeals court on March 28. Lee’s sister, Hae Min Lee, had been murdered in Baltimore in 1999. The eventual murder conviction of her boyfriend Adnan Syed did not make national news until the podcast “Serial” dug up and questioned the case in 2014. Eventually, Syed’s murder conviction was dismissed — but in a move that’s now roiling the criminal justice world, Syed’s charge has been reinstated after Young Lee’s objections.
And “Serial’s” popularity could well have been a factor in the decision. According to The New York Times, Lee’s voice wavered as he talked about the case: “This is not a podcast for me. This is real life. A never-ending nightmare for 20-plus years.”
It’s worth noting that in a post right here on Nieman Storyboard, soon after “Serial” launched in 2014, the creators of the show expressed their own concerns. They said were caught off guard by the podcast’s runaway success, and even more by its rabid fanbase of amateur online sleuths trying to “solve” the murder.
“(Our sources) are real people with families and lives, who have trusted me with their information or with their anonymity, and so it makes it nervous. It makes me really nervous,” said “Serial” host Sarah Koenig.
Making ethical issues part of the story
It’s one thing to say that podcasters should confront the ethics of what they do. It’s another thing to hear them being confronted on tape and changing trajectory as a result. For me these days, the best true crime podcasts are the ones that confront their ethical issues head on and use the energy of that confrontation to make their stories better. That’s a big reason why I admire the Gimlet/Spotify series “Stolen: Surviving St. Michaels,” and in particular its third episode, “Don’t Play with This.”
The host and lead reporter of “Stolen” is Connie Walker, a longtime veteran of CBC television and radio. Walker’s past reporting includes the series “Missing and Murdered,” about crimes against indigenous Canadians. But this time, she turned to her own family’s history — in particular, the long shadow of Canada’s religious residential school system for indigenous children, a system that the country’s government has now admitted was a form of “cultural genocide.”
Walker herself did not attend residential school growing up in Okenase First Nation in Sasketchewan. But her late father, Howard Cameron, attended a large institution called St. Michael’s, a school in Duck Lake run by Catholic priests. He never talked about his experiences there with his daughter. But Walker says that after the discovery in 2021 of a mass grave at one of the Canada’s largest residential schools, she began seeing an outpouring of stories from older family and tribal members about the abuse they had endured at St. Michael’s. So she returned home to interview those relatives, and to understand more about her father, from whom she’d been largely been estranged growing up.
Letting listeners in on the reporting process
The second season of “Stolen” follows Walker’s quest to understand her father’s past and her own. At the start of the third episode, we hear a remarkable archival film, a documentary set at St. Michael’s in 1967. (The school has since closed). In the film, former students confront one of the priests, Father Anthony Duhaime.
“Father, we heard people stand up here and say they were beaten if they spoke their native tongue,” a man’s voice says.
“Yeah, but that’s one fact against the other,” the priest retorts. “What does it prove? Nothing.”
Walker’s father is not in the film, but by now she suspects one of the priests abused him. She’s on a quest to find out the man’s name and whether he’s still alive. She heads to the local library and finds that one of the possible suspects, the man in the film, has already died. But she finds a strange profile piece about another of the priests, someone her uncle had accused of sexually abusing him as a child.
In the article, the priest talks blithely about visiting a local penitentiary and confessing: “Maybe I should be in here also, but I never got caught.”
“The article gives almost no context for the quote,” Walker narrates, “But I’m shocked to read it. I don’t know what he meant, but it’s the kind of thing I can’t just ignore.”
Although this series is more personal than Walker’s other investigative podcasts, up until this point she’s been employing what I call “Nancy Drew mode:” the storyteller following a trail of clues. Nancy Drew mode works really well in the linear form of audio, as our minds naturally want to connect what we just heard with the next piece of information. It’s a big reason why true crime audio stories can be compelling and addictive. And Walker’s clear, simple narration style — honed from years of news reporting — makes the story easy to follow. One new discovery leads to the next without digression or confusion.
Walker also employs a trope that “Serial” made popular: the reporter-team field debrief. We hear as she calls her producers from her car to tell them what she’s found in the library. One suspect might still be alive, she tells them, but before approaching him, she wants to talk with one of St. Michael’s more outspoken survivors. A man named Eugene Arcand.
And it’s here that the episode takes a turn. Arcand, an advisor to Canada’s National Truth and Reconciliation Centre, is a busy guy with only a little time for an interview. But sitting on the patio of a local Starbucks, he tells Walker frankly about the abuse he’d endured, and how he’d once confronted the very priest she’d been researching, calling him a “sick pig” and threatening to throw him off a balcony.
Then Arcand tries warns her off her quest.
“I see people thinking they’re doing good when they’re not doing good. We don’t want to just be interviewed, and then somebody takes off with it and becomes an expert on the backs of our misery,” he says.
Looking back on this moment later, Walker tells me she was stunned. “I had been so motivated by wanting to seek some kind of accountability and to try to find out as much as I could. To hear him say that was really jarring.”
In the episode, Arcand goes to recount words of an elder who spoke to him in Cree, warning him that the stories of residential school survivors belong to the community:
“This is what we have learned,” Arcand quotes the man as saying. “We don’t profiteer from it. We take care of it, where we have to pass it down. But use this in a good way. Don’t play with this, you know?”
Letting the reporting shift the narrative
The episode lets us hear almost all of Walker’s intense encounter with Eugene Arcand. And it gives us the rare chance to hear a subject reshape the trajectory of a true crime narrative. Walker says after she spoke with Arcand, she asked her immediate family if she should even pursue the story further. Ultimately, her younger brothers convinced her that they, too, needed to understand what had happened to their father. It was their story as well, because it had shaped their lives.
In the following episode, Walker and her fellow producers change course. They interview 28 survivors of St. Michael’s — many of whom had never told their stories publicly before. It is painful to hear how they were abused, their childhoods stolen and culture repressed. It takes a brave, persistent and thoughtful journalist and production team to seek out these voices and handle them with care. When true crime is based more on truth than crime, the results can be powerful.
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Julia Barton is the executive editor of Pushkin Industries, following a long career in public radio. She helped develop “Revisionist History” and “Against the Rules,” among other chart-topping shows.