It starts as a voice in your ear, worming its way in with an addictive intimacy that thrills and terrifies.
Or maybe it floats through the air as you drive, cook, lift weights. Deflecting with black humor, sliding its barbed metal hook in so deftly you don’t even notice until it begins to stalk your nightmares.
The clues you ignored, the shady witnesses, the weak alibis and sloppy detective work. You turn it over like a Rubik’s Cube, obsessively reviewing what you know, what you don’t. But what you can say, with 100 percent certainty, is that this kind of evil could happen to you. You start to check the doors and windows before bed, look for warning signs on first dates, avoid parking structures at night. You may even submit your own leads, suggest databases to check or suspects that make your spidey sense tingle.
You are hooked on true-crime podcasts.
And you are not alone.
Podcasts now number more than one million, according to the tracking site Podcast Insights. True-crime series have blossomed with the medium, becoming a thriving corner of the podcast world. The intimacy of the platform makes it the perfect means to satisfy our innate human need to hear grisly stories. In 2016, Reddit fans compiled a list of 169 true-crime podcasts; today, there are almost 10,000.
Once Upon a Crime Podcast’s Esther Ludlow and author Denise Hamilton join Alta Live.
True-crime podcasts range from a lone sleuth recording out of her basement to slick productions with staff and celebrity hosts. There are podcasts about cold cases and the wrongly convicted, about serial killers and grizzled detectives, about white-collar crime and small-town murders. Some podcasts crowdsource investigations from listeners. Some are formatted as scripted narratives; others, chatty discussions. An astounding number are comedic in tone, including My Favorite Murder, which raked in $15 million last year and was the second-most-profitable podcast of 2019, right behind The Joe Rogan Experience, according to Forbes. Launched in 2016, My Favorite Murder is hosted by Los Angeles–based actor-writer-comedians Karen Kilgariff and Georgia Hardstark and has spawned its own podcast network, a book, a dues-paying fan club ($39.99 a year), sold-out live shows, and hundreds of thousands of devoted fans who call themselves Murderinos.
In an era when virtual reality and video games provide hyper-immersive sensory environments, the explosion of podcasting is an unlikely triumph, a throwback to an earlier age when people sat around the radio and listened to stories. While podcasts wouldn’t be possible without the web, they’re lo-fi. Anyone with a laptop and basic editing and sound software can record one. The medium relies on sound alone to tell its stories. The listener’s imagination fills in everything else.
Esther Ludlow grew up in the Northern California town of Milpitas. In high school, she bought a grocery store paperback called The Stranger Beside Me, Ann Rule’s book about Ted Bundy. Then she learned that a former classmate was the teen killer immortalized in the film River’s Edge. How could this happen? How could that big, awkward kid she’d sat next to in seventh grade kill someone? Her obsession with true crime grew. Ludlow earned a master’s degree in correctional psychology, then worked at a facility for troubled youths. She also listened to early true-crime podcasts like Generation Why. “I had already taught myself how to podcast,” Ludlow recalls, “but I didn’t know whether anyone would want to listen. Then Serial came out.”
A pop culture phenomenon when it debuted in 2014, Serial, hosted by Sarah Koenig and developed by This American Life, cracked the true-crime podcast world open. The show’s first season investigated the possible wrongful conviction of a high school student accused of murdering a classmate. The show won a Peabody Award and has been downloaded hundreds of millions of times. But true-crime podcasts date at least to 2011, when the murder-heavy Last Podcast on the Left launched (it now has its own podcast network and a deal with Spotify).
Ludlow named her podcast Once Upon a Crime to evoke her storytelling style. She begins with a topic like “Kids Who Kill” or “Prom Night Murders,” then researches cases online, using her invaluable Newspapers.com subscription, which includes small and rural papers. “I find so much stuff there,” she says. “Stories from journalists who knew the people. Court transcripts, appeals records. A lot of it is online now, and often someone has written a book. And I go to social media, see if there’s a memorial Facebook page, read the comments. I get a lot of details that aren’t in the record that way.”
Episodes run 40 to 60 minutes, and Ludlow writes a 10- to 15-page script for each one. She doesn’t consider herself tech-adept. “I had headphones, a laptop with a mic, and I just started recording,” she says. She taught herself production by googling “How do I use GarageBand to edit.” She dropped three episodes at once, and within two weeks, she had 4,000 downloads. “I chalked it up to being in the right place at the right time. Then Justin [Evans] from Generation Why mentioned me and my show. That put me on the map. By the end of the week, I had 75,000 downloads.”
That was in 2016, which true-crime producers described as still the Wild West of indie podcasting. Everyone learned by trial and error. They knew one another and shared tips in private Facebook groups; they attended conferences like CrimeCon to drum up publicity. They learned about filing Freedom of Information Act requests to obtain coroner reports and the pitfalls of using copyrighted music. They compared notes on how much to charge advertisers poking around this new medium and what hosting platforms cost. They set up Patreons, sold merch, plugged one another’s shows, and guest-hosted tirelessly. Ludlow also belongs to an informal FB group of female podcasters who support and encourage one another.
Today she has a 178-episode (and counting) catalog, and Once Upon a Crime regularly ranks among the top 100 true-crime podcasts. Each month, half a million people download her shows, and she has up to 100,000 subscribers and a distribution deal with the platform Stitcher. She quit her counseling job and hired a part-time assistant. In 2018, she made about $80,000 in ad revenue; this year, she’s on track to break six figures. Approached regularly by production companies, she prefers independence and creative control, though she knows it’s a trade-off and speaks wistfully of Generation Why and Small Town Murder (motto: “Shut up and give me murder”), which consistently top the true-crime charts.
Indies “still have to fight to stay on the charts,” Ludlow says. “It’s like music or publishing: you have to figure that out.”
For every Esther Ludlow who’s making a living, there are hundreds who can’t afford to quit their day jobs. Take Berkeley-based Colleen Eckvahl, who started the biweekly podcast Misconduct with her aunt Eileen Wilson in 2017. As a child, Eckvahl devoured newspaper stories about the Black Dahlia and Laci Peterson murders. She and her aunt would watch true-crime documentaries, then conduct their own postmortems. Like Ludlow, they were inspired by Serial. Podcasting “seemed easy and cool,” Eckvahl recalls. “We already had all this knowledge. We thought it was something we’d enjoy doing. But we quickly realized, ‘Oh my God, this is so much work.’ ”
Her aunt bailed, but Eckvahl persevered. When Kind Bars placed an ad, things got real. While sensational cases receive the most downloads, Eckvahl likes digging up long-forgotten ones, such as the story of Judy Williamson, an 18-year-old UC Berkeley student who disappeared in 1963, last seen on her way to the bus stop. Many assumed she was a promiscuous runaway, but three years later, her remains were found in the Santa Cruz Mountains, and 14 years after that, a former UC classmate confessed. When that episode dropped, Eckvahl heard from one of Williamson’s friends, who’d been planning to meet her the day she disappeared. Fifty years later, still haunted by the loss, she was writing a book.
Eckvahl, who spends up to 40 hours a week producing Misconduct, says that, three years in, she sells enough ads to pay for her research, equipment, and subscriptions. But she still works full-time as an office manager. “I call it my paid hobby,” she says, laughing.
While men are more victimized than women by violent crime overall, the reverse is true when it comes to rape and domestic violence. Plus there’s the free-floating anxiety, especially when we’re out alone at night, that we feel in our bones. But as any therapist knows, it’s healthy to face one’s demons. True-crime podcasts offer a way to do that. They can help female hosts (and their audiences) process fear, stay alert, and avoid potentially dangerous people or situations.
True-crime podcasters say that 75 percent of their audience is women, which echoes the finding in a 2010 article in Social Psychological and Personality Science that women consume significantly more true-crime media than men and write 70 percent of all Amazon crime-related book reviews. Consider Wine & Crime, hosted by three sassy, funny Minnesota women. It receives some 700,000 downloads per month, 85 percent of them by women.
“As a woman, a lot of things we’re taught are rooted in true crime,” Eckvahl says. “Walking into a dark parking lot. Navigating the world you’re already living in. Avoiding its weird, dark underbelly. So it’s empowering.”
Humor can also help. My Favorite Murder has been topping the charts in large part because of the hosts’ performance and comedy chops. Kilgariff acted on Mr. Show and wrote for television mainstays like The Rosie O’Donnell Show, The Ellen DeGeneres Show, and Portlandia. In interviews, Hardstark has said that talking obsessively about murder is a way to neutralize her lifelong fear of getting murdered. Indeed, listeners say the show is therapeutic in helping them assuage anxiety. A popular MFM refrain is “fuck politeness,” a reference to how women are conditioned to stay nice when they should run away screaming. Listening to the show is like getting tipsy with your funniest trash-talking girlfriends. Each episode ends with Hardstark’s cat meowing into the mic and the hosts chirping, “Stay sexy and don’t get murdered.” Fans don’t seem too bent out of shape that underlying research can occasionally be sloppy; the show has a “corrections corner.” They draw fan art, send in their creepiest stories, and last year gathered for a “My Favorite Weekend” extravaganza in Santa Barbara.
Hardstark and Kilgariff have formed a partnership with Stitcher and a network of their own with a diverse roster of shows, the crime-iest of which is Jensen & Holes: The Murder Squad, which examines cold cases, unidentified remains, and missing person cases using listener tips. The hosts are Paul Holes, a retired cold case investigator with the Contra Costa County District Attorney’s Office who worked the Golden State Killer case, and Billy Jensen, an investigative reporter who helped finish I’ll Be Gone in the Dark, the late writer Michelle McNamara’s book about the case. Thanks to cross-promotion on MFM, the show, launched last year, is already a hit.
For the armchair sleuth, true-crime podcasts such as Jensen & Holes present a tantalizing opportunity to play Sherlock Holmes in real time. If CSI made everyone an expert on forensic science, podcasts provide a hands-on way for listeners to harness their growing knowledge in the service of justice. Many shows offer tip lines, links to hotlines serving victims of domestic violence (a common cause of murder), or even their own rewards.
When Marissa Jones’s podcast, The Vanished, investigated the 2017 disappearance of Debra Puente, a 50-year-old woman in San Diego who was last seen leaving a bar after drinking with work friends, listeners wrote in with suggestions: reinterview her abusive boyfriend; check for reports of drowned bodies on the beach where her car was abandoned; post flyers at homeless encampments. A childhood friend eulogized Puente and thanked Jones for humanizing her. The case remains open, but the podcast provides a valuable public space where relatives and strangers alike can gather, mourn, rage, hypothesize, and hope. A desperate mother once reached out to Jones asking how much she would charge to cover the case of the woman’s missing son.
“Families often say, ‘Law enforcement isn’t doing anything,’ ” Jones explained on another podcast, adding that one victim’s family was told by shows like Nancy Grace and Dr. Phil that the case wasn’t sensational enough to be featured. However, “people who listen to podcasts don’t have that bias,” Jones said. “They care about missing men, missing minorities, not the same people they see every night on TV.”
“PLEASE cover more cases about missing black women who are ignored by mainstream media. even if you already have, the more the better!! thanks!” wrote a listener on the Trace Evidence podcast comments page. “Do you have any in mind?” host Steven Pacheco responded, providing his email. “99% of my cases are chosen from listener suggestions.”
Brianna Miera, who hosts the podcast Murder Dictionary with Courtney Gilmore from their homes in the Los Angeles neighborhood of Van Nuys, says podcasting lets her expand beyond the true-crime cliché known as Missing White Woman syndrome. “There are so many victims out there that deserve to have their stories told,” says Miera, who is half Latina and married to a woman. “I want to talk about people who are victimized because of the boxes they can tick off on the census.”
THE BIG LEAGUE
Whether you loved or hated Joe Exotic: Tiger King, you can thank the West Hollywood–based podcast company Wondery for inflicting its eponymous subject upon the world last year with the season-long podcast that begot the Netflix docuseries.
Launched by longtime media executive Hernan Lopez in 2016 with backing from 20th Century Fox, Wondery has 30-plus shows that get more than 50 million downloads monthly. Investors have sunk multimillions into the firm, which has partnerships with music companies, film studios, and heritage media like the Los Angeles Times (Dirty John, one of its big hits, grew out of a multipart Times series).
The rise of studios like Wondery has changed the face of podcasting. Indies who’ve partnered with firms can expand and grow their brands, though they might lose creative control. Many new corporate shows have high production values, with sophisticated editing and original music. But others are superficial explorations that offer little insight and few new facts.
One thing podcasters big and small don’t worry about is running out of murders, because sadly the world’s a violent, messed-up place. And even when two podcasts debut stories on the same subject, listeners don’t mind—they love hearing different takes on a complicated murder. Ludlow once met a fan at a convention who had 100 true-crime podcasts on her phone.
Yet everyone knows the wildcat era is ending. The future will bring consolidation. The battle for your earbuds will intensify. Will the indies who helped create podcasting survive?
The suspense sends shivers up your spine.
Los Angeles–based journalist and crime writer Denise Hamilton wrote about the last sacred spring in L.A. for Alta’s Spring 2020 issue.
Read more from Alta‘s Fall 2020 Noir Special Section.