From Serial Killers To Binge Listeners: The Unanswered Questions of True Crime Podcasts

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Hi, I’m Imy, and I am addicted to True Crime podcasts. 

It all started with Serial in 2016, and I haven’t been able to stop since. But, are these podcasts appropriate, helpful or even healthy?

After listening religiously to ‘The Mysterious Mr Epstein’ after his death, I sat in the kitchen and my housemate came in, and after listening to five or so minutes with me, asked ‘Who is Epstein?’ I was shocked. I was disgusted. How could he not know the evil, very real threat, of such a predatory, evil monster? How could he not only not know the atrocities this man committed, but the network he created of high power rapists and pedophiles? I had been listening to this podcast, obsessing and reading about this man for months; Christmas was approaching and I was listening to it on the walk to uni, in the shower and before bed every night. It was something I hadn’t experienced with a podcast before and I found it fascinating. 

I explained a basic outline of who this monster was, to my housemate, and he said ‘Well, why are they making podcasts about something so horrible?” I began justifying it but quickly realised quite how many moral issues I was encountering. Perhaps there was more at play here than just my need to consume interesting and engaging content. 

As of April 2020, there were over 30 million podcast episodes available online and, in America at least, 55% of people have listened to or do listen to podcasts, and the growth of podcast listening has been huge. In three years, the number of people listening to podcasts monthly has risen by 54%. With long-running crime series podcasts like Serial and popular shows such as Morbidology and Someone Knows Something rising up the charts and featured in many “top 50 true crime podcasts 2020” listening lists; true crime podcasts have found a firm place on Spotify, Apple and beyond. 

But one thing kept playing on my mind after what my housemate said. Do these podcasts help to educate us or do they commercialise the victims and stories of people like Epstein? When we are able to consume bite-size content about something so extreme, so dangerous and so secretive – particularly when it involves organised crime, pedophilia, and sex trafficking – there is a lot to be said for how something so simple, short and entertaining has been created from something so life-ruining, complex and pervasive of so many corners of society. It seemed clear to me that this was problematic; but why had it not whilst I was binge-listening to the hideous experiences of so many young, vulnerable girls? You certainly become desensitised to the violence being committed when you’re listening to it through your earphones, on the bus, with a short commercial break part-way through. 

So yeah, I decided, this is problematic. True crime podcasts certainly do take the sting out of the real matters at the heart of these stories, however, do they serve a purpose for opening a dialogue about issues such as police failures, social injustice and organised crime? Serial – the series I mentioned earlier – takes a stab at investigating structural racism in American judiciary systems as well as the crimes committed in the systems themselves. A 2018 Vice article discussed with great dignity the way in which Serial investigates the failures of the system and how deep-rooted they are:

“We hear about the seeming impossibility of reforming the system from Detective Steve Loomis, the former president of the Cleveland Police Patrolmen’s Association, who insists that less reactive training would only put officers in danger. “Tamir Rice knew exactly why those policemen were driving that marked police car towards him, alright?” he tells Koenig, “He is a product of the street. He is not a product of a loving home.” “

There is certainly then, a necessary place for these types of independent investigative programmes, ones which have few vested interests and are instead places for opinion, scrutiny and accountability. Something I suppose many documentaries have not necessarily managed to do. The way in which the recent Epstein documentary on Netflix, for example, discussed the police, was very different to the way the podcast did, which seemed far more honest and accurate. Podcasts do certainly seem to have a place for more honest reporting of true crime and judicial events that maybe big-budget documentaries don’t.

But, there is still an issue of sensitivity. Should commercials, particularly those for corporate objects, invoicing platforms, website building apps or cleaning products be allowed to feature on true crime podcasts? Should we allow commerciality to compliment horrific acts of violence and aggression? I don’t think so. There should be a place for these podcasts, and without these sponsors and ads, maybe they couldn’t exist to provide the scrutiny so necessary. But, I do think it would be better if these kinds of podcasts were not so commercialised and product-centric, so they can keep their integrity intact. 

True crime podcasts are an excellent form of the kind of gross, violent entertainment so many of us love, and they are created in an easily consumable fashion. For education and spreading a message, this is excellent; it gets the word out and reels people in. But, there certainly is a problem with them being a lighthearted look at real, violent, heinous events, with a commercial twist to them. So next time you listen to a true-crime podcast, maybe take a second to look into the resources available online so you can see a non-commercial spin and full-length piece on the events you have become obsessed with listening to.

Words by Imogen Brighty-Potts

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