We’re consuming stories about criminal investigation at staggering rates these days — of the top 10 most downloaded iTunes podcasts, three are about crime. So, why do we care? We got some answers from crime podcast fan Robert Kolker, author of Lost Girls: An Unsolved American Mystery, the best-selling account of the still-unsolved Long Island serial killer case and the age of Internet prostitution.
True Crime: Why do we get so obsessed with crime-related podcasts? Is it that we love to gossip and tell stories?
Robert Kolker: It’s a little bit about voyeurism or nosiness, but I think you’re on to something with the idea of storytelling. What draws a lot of people to true-crime podcasts and keeps them listening is suspense. Even when they aren’t really whodunits, but instead are about miscarriages of justice, or (like Serial) did-he-or-didn’t-he narratives, these podcasts work best when there is a question that needs answering.
RC: What makes a good crime podcast?
Kolker: Long before this genre exploded, This American Life demonstrated how addictive storytelling is a perfect match for radio: Ira Glass has been very public about how one of his most important standards for the work on that show is that no matter what the particular episode or segment is about, the listener ought to be wondering every second what will happen next.
RC: What don’t you like when it comes to the crime podcast listening experience?
Kolker: I am less interested in the ones that falsely amp up the tone and sound melodramatic or voyeuristic. The more subtle, the better. They benefit from having long running times (though the worst of them overdo it), and they also benefit from the medium’s whispering-in-your-ear sense of intimacy (though again the worst of them exploit this in a corny way). There are other pitfalls — like nattering hosts. The host is the tone-setter, and if they’re too glib or fake, it makes the show unlistenable, at least to me.
RC: Who is your favorite host?
Kolker: Karina Longworth’s You Must Remember This has plenty of crime and intrigue in any given episode, but the 12-part series about Manson is just amazing. There is so much already written about him, and she breaks it all down in an easy to understand way, and pulls out telling details constantly. Best of all, she doesn’t play up the salaciousness of the material. She’s not a prude, but she’s not a panderer, either.
(Image: Emilio Morenatti/AP Images)