From Serial to In the Dark: the true crime podcasts that changed their subjects’ lives | Podcasts

On Monday, a Baltimore judge vacated the conviction of Adnan Syed, a man who spent 23 years behind bars for a crime he claims he did not commit.

Eight years ago, journalist Sarah Koenig made Syed the focus of her This American Life spinoff podcast Serial, in the process making Syed an unlikely celebrity and catapulting the world into what would be known as the “golden age of podcasting”.

Over 12 episodes, Koenig popularized a new, transparent narrative process, admitting her shortcomings and confusion while investigating Syed’s case – “I’m not a detective or a private investigator” she says in the first few minutes of the season.

Serial was the first podcast to go mega-viral, reaching 1 million downloads per episode just four weeks after its release. It became the subject of daily water cooler discussions and innumerable think pieces. Today, the first season of Serial has been downloaded 300m times, and has been called “the holy grail” of investigative storytelling.

It created an insatiable interest in “true crime” with online sleuths obsessing over cases like that of Gabby Petito, a woman whose disappearance went viral a year ago, and podcasts about some of the most gruesome cases of rape and murder selling unsettlingly lighthearted merch.

Here is a look at what Serial has wrought – the good, the bad, the shamelessly sensationalist – in the years since.

The good: In the Dark, Missing and Murdered, Bear Brook

Serial is not the only true crime podcast whose investigations had real-life impacts on its subjects. In the Dark, an investigative podcast from American Public Media, chronicled the case of Curtis Flowers – a Mississippi man whose charges were dismissed 23 years after he was locked up for a crime he always denied committing.

The show follows a more traditional investigative journalism path, as the show’s host, investigative reporter Madeleine Baran, said: “We’re not trying to solve crimes, and we’re not interested in crime itself. We’re interested in these larger structures and powerful people and institutions,. So for us from the very beginning this was a story about the power of prosecutors.”

Missing and Murdered is another show in the rare and elusive non-exploitative true crime podcast genre, investigating disappearances of Indigenous people in Canada. In its second season, Finding Cleo, the host tracked down the body of Cleo L Madonia – decades after she went missing.

Bear Brook, another serialized true crime show, also led to breaks in a cold case. Hosted by New Hampshire Public Radio, it focused on the Bear Brook murders, in which four bodies were found in a state park in New Hampshire. Two years after its launch, following renewed interest in the case, the murderer was convicted using DNA evidence.

The bad: My Favorite Murder, Crime Junkie, Morbid

My Favorite Murder is the McDonald’s of True Crime podcasts – quick, fun and slightly nauseating. Two comedians give a run-down of various murders and other crimes, interjecting with jokes throughout. They have amassed a major following and sell a variety of merch: “Stay sexy don’t get murdered,” the show’s tagline, can be purchased on pins, T-shirts and gems for your Crocs.

Of course, My Favorite Murder is one of many true crime podcasts following this format: one or two hosts do little more than read Wikipedia entries about gruesome murders, stopping to interject jokes and commentary. Crime Junkie – which promises to give you your “fix” of true crime – and Morbid – describing itself as a “lighthearted nightmare” fall into those camps as well.

The family affairs: Root of Evil and The Clearing

There is a rise in podcasts that actually involve the victims of true crime in the reporting, and taking that to the next level are those that center the story around family members of those who committed the crime. In Root of Evil, great granddaughters of the Black Dahlia murderer investigate their relative’s crime – and explore how the trauma of his actions trickled down through their lives. Similarly, The Clearing focuses on April Balascio – who recounts her childhood as the daughter of a serial killer responsible for a number of murders across the US.

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