‘What Kind of Listeners Do True Crime Podcasts Invoke?’ by Collin Bjork
A Diverse and Polarizing Genre
True crime is one of the most popular and critically acclaimed podcast genres worldwide. And the variety of stories that are told under the banner of true crime is vast. Some try to solve cold cases (Up and Vanished; The Teacher’s Pet). Others aim to free the wrongfully convicted (Undisclosed; Broken Justice). Many detail grisly murders (Dirty John; Dr. Death). But others eschew the spectacle of violence and focus instead on the resilience of victims (Missing and Murdered; Believed). Some give the mic to the incarcerated to tell their own stories (The Messenger; Ear Hustle; Bird’s Eye View). And others shift the focus from individual crimes to systemic injustices (Stolen; The Lake). True crime podcasting is, in short, hardly monolithic. Rather, the genre is best characterised by its diversity.
Public opinion of true crime podcasting is similarly wide-ranging. Take Serial Season 1, for example. With more than 470 million global downloads, this 2014 murder mystery podcast from the producers of This American Life is widely considered to have been at the forefront of the “golden age of podcasting” (Berry 2015). But writers disagree dramatically about the podcast. Some say that Serial is “long-form journalism at its most riveting” (Sawyer) and a form of storytelling that leaves listeners expecting “to come out the other end edified and enriched, in complex ways” (Weiner). Others, however, view Serial as emblematic of “white reporter privilege” (Kang) and of a genre that’s “interest in the larger ambiguities of class, race, gender, and power often seems less urgent than its fascination with..its own narrative form” (Phillips).
Academics, too, have divergent views of true crime podcasts like Serial Season 1. On one hand, Ellen McCracken states that Serial establishes “a new kind of intimate storytelling in the digital age” (1, 2017), while on the other hand Charli Valdez highlights how Serial engages in the politics of “racial erasure” (101, 2017). Alternatively, Michael Buozis insists that Serial is engaged in “giving voice to the accused” (255, 2017), while Elizabeth Yardley et al. contend that Serial is ultimately more interested in “securing lucrative sponsorship deals” than interrogating “the making of criminal subjectivity” (517, 2018). And cutting across all of these positions, Martin Spinelli and Lance Dann claim that Serial is less about the murder investigation and more about the meta-story of the producers’ “engagement with journalism’s shifting ethics and its evolving podcast form” (185, 2019).
This wide array of perspectives on Serial is representative of both public and academic discourses about true crime podcasting more broadly. Simply put, people disagree about the virtues and vices of this popular podcast genre. And based on the above examples, it’s clear that the primary focus of these debates is on the ways that true crime podcasts use specific storytelling structures to construct the subjectivities of the criminal other, their victims, and the journalists who tell their stories. This kind of critical analysis is undoubtedly important to understand the cultural work of the true-crime podcasting genre and to push back on unjust misrepresentations of criminals, victims, and the criminal justice system itself. And yet, this focus on characters within the audio story tends to overlook a crucial set of participants in true crime podcasting: the listeners.
As a scholar of rhetoric, I am keenly interested in audiences. And when it comes to true crime podcasting, I’m especially interested in understanding what kind of political subjectivities different true crime podcasts encourage listeners to inhabit.
Listeners as Detectives and Jurors in Serial Season 1
Take Serial Season 1 as an example again. Host and investigative journalist Sarah Koenig investigates the trial of Adnan Syed who was accused and convicted of murdering his ex-girlfriend Hae Min Lee in Maryland in 1999. In some ways, it’s a traditional whodunnit murder mystery. Koenig treats the story, for the most part, as an unsolved crime, and gathers facts, clues, statements, interviews, affidavits, and the like to try to figure out who killed this teenage girl. This approach invites listeners to grab their magnifying glass, don their deerstalker hat, and become a detective alongside Koenig. And in the age of the internet, thousands of everyday people have welcomed the opportunity to join the ranks of the so-called “citizen sleuths”, an online community that has had mixed results as a force for justice (Tait). Other true crime podcasts similarly invite listeners to inhabit the role of private eye, especially those that investigate cold cases and unsolved crimes like Up and Vanished and The Teacher’s Pet.
But Serial Season 1 is also different than these other whodunnit podcasts because, from the state’s perspective, it’s not a whodunnit at all. The case is closed and Syed is locked up in a Maryland correctional facility for murdering his ex-girlfriend. Although Serial Season 1 retains elements of a whodunnit narrative, the podcast is structured more like a relitigation. In this sense, Serial Season 1 invites listeners to inhabit the role of the jury as Koenig rehashes the bungled trial of Syed. And as the season progresses from one episode to the next, Koenig flips back and forth between presenting evidence that makes Syed look guilty, then innocent, then guilty again, and finally innocent. This structure mimics the alternating structure of lawyers in a criminal trial and positions listeners as a jury tasked with adjudicating Syed’s case.
Koenig makes this positioning of her audience as jury clear at the end of the final episode when she uses her narration to directly address the audience in the second person:
“Because you, me, the State of Maryland, based on the information we have before us, I don’t believe any of us can say what really happened to Hae. As a juror, I vote to acquit Adnan Syed. I have to acquit. Even if in my heart of hearts I think Adnan killed Hae, I still have to acquit. That’s what the law requires of jurors” (“Episode 12: What We Know”).
The conflation of subjects in the first sentence of this passage–“you, me, the State of Maryland” becomes “we” and “us”–blurs the line between Koenig and her listeners. When Koenig goes on to say, “As a juror, I vote to acquit Adnan Syed,” the spectre of the previous sentence’s conflated “you, me” lingers in the word “I.” In other words, when Koenig, as juror, votes to acquit, she also wants her listeners, as jurors, to acquit because “[t]hat’s what the law requires of jurors.” With this concluding line, Koenig transitions back to a plural noun “jurors” that echoes the blurred “we” at the start of this passage and again links her listeners with the role of jurors.
What’s at stake in understanding how true crime podcasts position their listeners? Who cares if true crime podcasts construct their listeners as detectives or jurors?
Well, first, detectives and jurors are not the only types of listeners that true crime podcasts invoke. My research indicates that true crime podcasts also position listeners as spectators, voyeurs, bystanders, activists, judges, clients, confidants, eavesdroppers, complicit criminals, and more.
Second, when you dig into these podcasts more closely, you begin to see that they create much more specific subjectivities for their listeners than the general categories listed above. For instance, because Koenig acts like a surrogate for her audience in Serial Season 1, she doesn’t just position her listeners as general jurors but rather as jurors who, like her, overlook issues of race and do not sufficiently attend to the lives of women victims. And when millions of true crime podcast listeners are encouraged to feel empowered and energised by wielding the power of a race-blind juror, it becomes easier for those audiences to feel comfortable inhabiting that same subject position the next time they encounter a similar story in the news or in their daily life.
When it comes to true crime podcasting, then, it’s important not only to study how these podcasts represent criminals, victims, and journalists. It’s also crucial to understand how they shape their listeners because listeners play an essential role in perpetuating or upending the collective cultural norms that cast certain people and systems as criminal while figuring others as innocent. And given the popularity of true crime podcasting and the diversity of podcasts in this genre, it’s clear that this will be a key cultural battleground moving forward.
Dr Collin Bjork is lecturer in science communication at Massey University Aotearoa New Zealand. He is a digital rhetorician, science communicator, podcaster, and global teacher. He is the co-producer of the Global Rhetorics podcast.