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June 16, 2020, 12:24 p.m.

Do true crime podcasts perpetuate the myth of an effective criminal justice system?

Plus: Axios joins the daily news podcast wars, Slow Burn has a good week, and how do you decide when to stop your pandemic podcast?

Welcome to Hot Pod, a newsletter about podcasts. This is issue 262, dated June 16, 2020.

Quick thing before we kick off. Tomorrow will see the launch of a new weekly podcast about podcasts that I’ve been developing with LAist Studios called Servant of Pod. You can find the trailer here. Subscribe, rate, review, send me emails and pitches and interview ideas, all that good stuff. Here’s a writeup from The Hollywood Reporter, which also discusses the broader slate that LAist Studios is rolling out over the next few months.

Okay, let’s move on with a little scoop.

Axios will launch a flagship daily news podcast next Monday. Word of the company’s push into the ever-competitive genre has been around for a while, dating back to a NBC News writeup from March, but we’re getting final details today. It will be called Axios Today and take the form of 10-minute episodes that drop weekdays before 6 am ET. Hosting duties will be held by public radio veteran Niala Boodhoo, and it’ll debut with two launch sponsors: Chevron and Goldman Sachs.

A brief primer for those who need it: Axios was launched back in 2017 with Politico veterans Jim VandeHei, Mike Allen, and Roy Schwartz. Its big editorial concept is what they like to call “smart brevity” — basically, news but pithier — and the company has built currency in the years since through a combination of rapid-fire scoops, an aggressive sense of ubiquity, and the occasional controversy.

For media nerds like myself, one of Axios’ more interesting qualities has been its focus on newsletters. Building off Allen’s reputation with Politico Playbook, Axios rolled out as a spread of journalist-driven newsletters that still strikes me as an effective deployment of the-journalist-as-brand. The company has since expanded to other platforms, as you’d expect from any healthy modern media operation — for instance, a show on HBO and a fresh new mobile app. And now, of course, its own flagship daily news podcast.

This isn’t the company’s first audio product, though — not even its first daily audio product. That honor goes to Dan Primack’s Pro Rata pod, which was rebranded and re-released yesterday as an afternoon brief called Re:Cap. But Axios Today is a significantly bigger investment for the company, evinced by the fact it’s being produced in partnership with Pushkin Industries, the successful podcast studio founded by Malcolm Gladwell and former Slate Group editor-in-chief Jacob Weisberg. I suppose it’s also worth noting that when taken together, the two podcasts — one morning, one afternoon — make for potential bookends for a news consumer’s day.

I’m told that Boodhoo officially joined the company at the top of the month. Previously, she was host and executive producer of The 21st, Illinois Public Media’s statewide news talk show. She held those roles for about three years before stepping down last summer for a Knight-Wallace Journalism Fellowship at the University of Michigan, where she focused her work on podcasting and podcast business models. With Axios Today, Boodhoo is returning to the grind of the daily news programming, a choice she made after briefly considering launching her own podcast studio after finishing her fellowship. “Turns out, I don’t really want to be running a company,” she said.

The intent is to “take the intelligence of public radio and the speed of commercial radio,” Boodhoo says, adding that part of what appealed to her about the job was the chance to “do journalism differently.” She argues that a smart, concise, and conversational approach to daily news podcasting is still up for grabs in the genre, and that such a product would have even more value in the pandemic era, where the risk of news fatigue is higher than usual.

News fatigue is only one of many challenges that Axios Today will face. Two others stand out.

First, the aforementioned reality that the daily news podcast space is incredibly competitive — some would argue saturated — and that’s even before you get beyond the big media brands with established podcast presences: The New York Times, NPR, Vox Media, The Washington Post, Slate, The Wall Street Journal, ABC News, and so on.

Second, it’s rolling out in an environment where listener behavior has been significantly altered by the pandemic. The daily commute — a strong listening context for morning news podcasts — has shrunk substantially during pandemic lockdowns, though that may well change as the country opens back up to whatever extent. (And then maybe change again when it has to re-lockdown, a distinct American possibility.)

Boodhoo believes Axios Today’s relative brevity will serve as a possible check against these hurdles. Ten minutes is short enough to squeeze into a daily news podcast mix, and its briefness gives listeners a lower-friction option for those who might prefer a brisk catchup as opposed to an involved emotional engagement.

The team behind Boodhoo is considerable: senior producer Carol Alderman, who joined Axios from The Washington Post’s audio team; associate producers Cara Shillenn, who comes from Radio America, and Nuria Marquez Martinez, most recently an intern at NPR; and sound engineer Alex Sugiura.

Another detail worth noting: The push to get the show off the ground — and Axios deeper into audio more broadly — was said to be led by Axios executive editor Sara Kehaulani Goo, who joined the company earlier this year from NPR, where she most recently served as managing editor.

When we spoke, Boodhoo emphasized the team’s diversity and how she feels that will be central to the value of the show. “The past two weeks have brought into sharp focus for me just how proud I am of my background, to be a woman of color hosting this show, and to have a team this diverse producing this show,” she said. “I’m not black, but I’m a brown woman in America…when I left The 21st, I remember there were a number of people who told me that they appreciated my perspective and what I brought to the story. I think that’s incredibly important, and more diversity is something this space needs, and I’m proud to be working for a place like Axios that appreciates my lived experience.”

Again, Axios Today officially launches next Monday. You can find it here.

Lemonada Media raises $1.5 million in seed funding. This came in last week: the seed round was led by venture capital and private equity firm Blue Collective, and the new cash will be used to expand Lemonada’s programming slate and recruit a few executive-level hires, including VP roles for production, finance, and growth.

Lemonada was launched last year by Pod Save the People executive producer Jessica Cordova Kramer and author Stephanie Wittels Wachs, and it specializes in creating programming about difficult situations that, as Kramer puts it, is meant to “get you out of bed in the morning and to foster connection and ultimately equity, empathy and wellness.” The company currently has six shows, including Last Day and In The Bubble with Andy Slavitt, and it’s said to get about 700,000 listens per month across the network. Texas-based Paper City Magazine profiled Lemonada back in January; you can pull more context from there.

You don’t see very many content-focused podcast companies raising venture capital these days. According to Kramer, part of the reasoning behind the raise was to keep up with demand; she claims that Lemonada’s audiences have been growing about 70 percent every month. “We decided to do a strategic raise to keep pace with the demand, the ideas, and the desire to make life suck less, one podcast at a time…but have the podcasts come faster than we originally planned, without losing the quality,” she tells me.

Meanwhile, in Chicago… I don’t have a firm grip on what’s going on here, but keep an eye on this: There appears to be a growing wave of troubling accusations against Cards Against Humanity, the Chicago media company, primarily facilitated over social media under the #CAHisOver hashtag. The wave seems to stem from this June 6 Twitter thread by a former employee, Theresa Stewart, who accused the company — and in particular, one of its co-founders, Max Temkin — of creating a toxic workplace culture that has especially affected people of color in the past. The Twitter thread was followed up two days later by a Medium post from feminist media critic Anita Sarkeesian, who saw Stewart’s narrative as consistent with previous whispers. Sarkeesian ended the post by calling for business partners and collaborators to break ties with the company.

Posts under the #CAHisOver hashtag went on to swell over the past week or so, but curiously enough, there hasn’t appeared to be any media coverage of this development since the hashtag flared up. Neither Temkin nor the company have responded publicly to the accusations.

I’m flagging this story because Cards Against Humanity is somewhat relevant to podcasting. Aside from being a unique media company — among other things, it recently acquired Clickhole from G/O Media — it also operates the Chicago Podcast Cooperative, the city-specific collective whose most famous alumnus is Hello From the Tavern. The company’s offices also serves as a physical hub of sorts for the city’s podcast community.

Here’s how one Chicago-based podcaster described the relationship to me: “I would not describe the Chicago podcast scene as terribly cohesive, but when it comes to comedy and pop culture shows in particular, many roads lead back to Max Temkin and Cards Against Humanity…CAH has its own well-established shows; they’ve opened their recording studio for independent shows to use; and of course there’s the Chicago Podcast Cooperative.” The source cited another example of Cards Against Humanity’s influence in Chicago podcasting: the fact that the hosting company Transistor was co-founded by a CAH alumnus.

Again, a troubling development. We’ll continue to track this story.

As the fourth season of Slow Burn wraps up launch week, I’m told it’s the franchise’s most successful launch yet. That is to say, first-day downloads for the season, which focuses on ex-Klansman David Duke, hauled a bigger number than the previous season’s, and it’s also projected to beat its first-week numbers. The second episode drops tomorrow, unless you’re a Slate Plus member, in which case you have already access to the first three episodes of the season.

For the Peter Kafka-heads in the crowd: He’s hosting the new season of Vox Media’s Land of the Giants, which focuses on the rise of Netflix. That’s out June 23.

Notes for future past selves. Another pod that’s making its debut this week: Rose Eveleth’s Advice for/from the Future, a futurist advice show which is something of spinoff from Eveleth’s main program, Flash Forward.

Shout-out to Chenjerai Kumanyika, who recently appeared on Intercepted with a two-part interview with Ruth Wilson Gilmore on prison abolition even as he’s seeing out the fourth season of Scene on Radio, which saw him reunite with John Biewen. I think he’s also popping up on another show today. What a prolific dude.

From me, in Vulture: a conversation with Running From Cops’ Dan Taberski and Henry Molofsky about the cancellations of Cops and Live PD.

On a related note, here’s a piece we commissioned on a parallel issue.

How true crime podcasts perpetuate the myth of an effective criminal justice system [by Charley Locke]. In 2014, Serial subverted the true crime genre. Rather than assume the role of the sympathetic police detective by investigating the tragic death of Hae Min Lee, Sarah Koenig took advantage of the singular rapport between a podcast’s host and their listeners to do something more radical: examine a second tragedy in the form of Adnan Syed’s possible wrongful conviction, exposing deep flaws in the criminal justice system along the way. The show asked millions of listeners to think differently about how crime and justice work in America.

It also inspired quite a few of those listeners to make true crime podcasts of their own, as you probably know by now. In the six years since Serial, the genre has positively bloated. Some of the entries, like APM’s In the Dark, similarly subvert TV crime procedurals, digging deep into the injustices of the criminal justice system rather than extending the myth of its competence. But there have been a great many more that settle into the facile perspective: a whodunit, as experienced by a detective.

These podcasts can take different forms — the irreverent banter of My Favorite Murder, the grandiloquent revelations of Up and Vanished, the ripped-from-the-headlines pulp of Dirty John — but the listener is generally made to follow the same narrative arc: We enter into the story at the scene of the crime, as the police detective does, and we consider the case closed at an arrest, as they do. The formulaic structure enables a steady churn, but much like the criminal justice system, it values efficient resolution over nuanced truth.

Many of the genre’s most popular shows follow a conversational format: one host explains the case, and the other reacts as an emotional foil for the listener. More summary than original investigative work, these shows often use official accounts from law enforcement as the factual backbone of a story. (These police accounts also typically make up the backbone of the narratives propagated in media coverage.) Relying on police records as the established historical narrative gives these podcasts a rote, familiar structure: the sympathetic victim, the grisly crime, the dogged detective, the suspicious lead, the arrest. That makes them easy to digest, and easy to binge for “true crime addict” listeners who get their fix in an episode of Crime Junkie, Court Junkie, or True Crime Obsessed. But it also oversimplifies complex, tragic cases: The good guys find justice for the victim, and the bad guy gets what he deserves.

True crime shows from larger podcast studios — like Wondery, which produces several shows with Dateline NBC, and Tenderfoot TV — tend to raise both the production quality and the investigative approach, elevating the host and listener to the role of a crusading detective obsessed with an unsolved mystery. There’s a participatory thrill in what’s being offered; the original detectives may not have been able to solve the case, but the right sleuth — the podcast’s intrepid host, often aided by listeners posting on a message board — can crack it.

While these narratives can include moments of inept police work, they usually explicitly aim to solve the whodunit through detective work. “I think every listener wants there to be a completely buttoned-up, ‘here’s exactly what happened to this person,'” says Payne Lindsey, co-founder of Tenderfoot TV and host of several of the network’s shows. In season one of Up and Vanished, Lindsey investigated a cold case on his own. In season two, he collaborated with an “awesome agent” at the Colorado Bureau of Investigations. “We were working together,” says Lindsey. “He has resources I don’t have, and I have a deluge of information coming my way.” This approach glorifies the detective’s role, whether or not they’re involved in the podcast. If solving the whodunit is the ultimate goal, then the detective is the hero.

Every piece of media has a perspective. Which is to say, there’s no such thing as objective storytelling about a crime. Some podcast hosts have acknowledged that and used it to encourage listeners to sympathize with perspectives beyond that of the detective and the victim. Through her feelings of doubt and confusion about Adnan Syed, Sarah Koenig communicated the unjust experience of someone convicted for a crime. In the second season of In the Dark, Madeleine Baran embedded in Mississippi for almost a year to share the experiences of witnesses and community members who lived through the aftermath of the murders. In Undisclosed, lawyer and advocate Rabia Chaudry carefully explains the legal framework of a criminal case and the slow process of the appeals system.

The advantages of the podcast medium create an opportunity for both narrative and complexity. Chaudry’s experience with Undisclosed can serve as an example of this. As Serial played out its now-legendary first season, Chaudry published a contemporaneous blog examining the legalities of Syed’s case, but the format turned out to be relatively ineffective. It wasn’t until she started a podcast of her own that she was able to reach a broad audience.

“We found that there was an audience for this in-depth podcasting,” she says. “You need the time and space to explain the complexity of the system. Why can a district attorney do this but not that? How come this person wasn’t granted bail?”

As a former lawyer, Chaudry also recognizes the value of a well-told story. An adept litigator crafts stories that sway jurors; sensationalistic newspaper headlines shift popular opinion; vicarious TV shows like Cops instruct viewers about who the heroes are (and sometimes inspire audiences to become police themselves). In the end, says Chaudry, “the person who tells the best story wins.”

The structural bias of true crime podcasts matter, because they shape how listeners perceive the criminal justice system. Audiences’ trust in news coverage has declined, but they don’t bring that skepticism to entertainment media. “In some ways, it’s easier to be influenced by popular culture, because you don’t have your guard up,” says Kathleen Donovan, who studies how pop culture shapes an audience’s understanding of crime. “People think, they’re not trying to make me think a certain way or persuade me, it’s just for fun.”

In a study she co-authored, Donovan found that people who watched crime dramas were more likely to believe that police were more successful at clearing crimes, that police mostly used force only when necessary, and that police misconduct doesn’t often lead to false confessions. The study focused on TV dramas, but listeners absorb similar messages from true crime podcasts. When we hear two friends chatting about how a suspect got what he deserved, or we help a host investigate new leads on a cold case, we strengthen narratives about the effectiveness of the criminal justice system.

Listening to these stories also reinforces beliefs about who we should empathize with and who we should fear. As Rachel Monroe explores in Savage Appetites: Four True Stories of Women, Crime, and Obsession, true crime fandom skews female across mediums. When these stories focus on a female (often young, often white) victim, it reinforces the erroneous belief that they’re most at risk. “The demographics of people who tend to be fearful of crime are the exact opposite of who should be afraid,” says Donovan.

For listeners who see themselves in the victims, this skewed representation of crime is comforting. “White women’s consumption of true crime — of media about other white women — allows us to tell ourselves a story where we remain society’s victims,” says Sarah Marshall, who dismantles popular narratives of true crime on You’re Wrong About. “We detract from more intersectional modes of trauma, and from stories about people other than imperiled white women.” If white women are victims, detectives are decent, and people in prison are one-dimensional bad guys, then for a white female listener, the criminal justice system is reassuringly effective.

When hosts rely on police narratives and put themselves in the role of a detective, that expresses confidence in law enforcement as the solution. But the opposite is true, too. The oft-touted abilities of the medium — to bring a listener into a host’s perspective, to tailor length to what a story calls for, to find an audience without a production company or a book deal — make it possible for podcasts to challenge our preconceptions, acknowledge uncertainties within the flawed criminal justice system, and help us sympathize with less-heard perspectives. That’s what makes a podcast like Ear Hustle so radical: It uses the abilities of the podcast to share the humanity of people who have committed crimes.

At their best, true crime podcasts serve as a check against oversimplified TV crime narratives, drawing back the curtain on systemic abuses of power. But that means pushing away from the bingeable formula: the reassuring, familiar story of a good victim, an evil suspect, a case closed. Solving a whodunit might offer a satisfying answer, but in the American criminal justice system, it’s not the right question to ask.

Charley Locke writes about podcasts for publications including Wired, New York Magazine, and Texas Monthly. She also produces live stories for Pop-Up Magazine.

How to wind down a pandemic podcast [by Caroline Crampton]. When the lockdown orders started in March, everyone I spoke with in podcast-land articulated the need to do something to meet the moment. In the following weeks, new and spinoff projects were launched and listeners could find podcasts of all kinds catering to different aspects of the pandemic.

These days, I’m interested in a different question: How do you know when to end your pandemic podcast?

What initially felt like an acute emergency has now warped into a new normal. We’re now several months into stay-at-home measures, and recent protest movements have added a new context to the way podcasters are working. It’s already been a long time to stay in a heightened state, subject to so much creative, professional, and personal stress and risk for burnout.

Many teams are now contemplating winding down those pandemic shows — both as a reflection of how the world has changed and as a way of taking care of employee health. To understand how this is happening, I spoke with two teams that added substantial coronavirus output and are now transitioning to a more sustainable arrangement.

The first was Freakonomics Radio, which has been all in on covering COVID-19 in their weekly episodes from mid-March onwards. They’ve now dialed that back, driven largely by the needs of their team.

“In all honesty, [the decision] was largely driven by our need for a break,” executive producer Alison Craiglow told me over email. “We have more COVID-related episodes in production now, but we feel they will withstand a delay of a week or two, and everyone on our staff (which is very small) was pretty fried. Going forward, we’ll keep covering COVID quite a bit — it’s right in our wheelhouse of data, economics, and human behavior — but we’ll be publishing episodes on other topics as well, that don’t require such a quick turnaround.”

However, “aside from the obvious burnout” and the technical challenges of working completely remotely, she said the past few months have been a largely positive experience for the show, and that there are some practices that have emerged from this time that the team will be taking forward into future production. “We are pretty unaccustomed to turning things around in a week or less, which is what we’ve been doing these past few months, every week. It has been great to flex those muscles and to learn from the breakneck pace,” she explained. “There are lots of efficiencies we’ve had to institute — both in terms of streamlining some of our production processes and in approaching the research and interviews — and I think we’ll retain some of those even when we get back to a more normal production schedule.”

The biggest takeaway has been that they can be more discerning about how they allocate resources, especially in pre-production. “In the past we mostly didn’t distinguish between interviews that require deep background research and those that don’t require as much,” Craiglow said. “Producers worked under the assumption that they needed to deliver those really robust packets for every single interview. But the reality is, some don’t need that.”

Doree Shafrir and Kate Spencer, who host the self care podcast Forever35 and have recently started executive producing other shows, went a different route with their pandemic coverage. After initially making a special episode of their main show that featured interviews with an epidemiologist and listeners quarantined in Italy, they then launched a new daily show called Here For You on its own feed. These episodes were about 30 minutes long and had the explicit mission to “help you get through the global pandemic without going completely bananas.”

The first episode dropped March 23, and the show continued to put out episodes every weekday for the next 10 weeks. From the start, hosts were explicit about how they weren’t seeking to monetize Here For You, and if sponsors did ever come along, they’d donate the revenue to charity.

Shafrir told me that the decision to wind down the show after 50 episodes felt right. “When we launched, we naively assumed that lockdown would last two weeks, maybe four weeks at most. Now we’re going on 10, 11 weeks? Who knows, I’ve lost count,” she said.

“The point is, we had never planned on doing the podcast indefinitely, and it seemed like after 10 weeks and 50 episodes, that it would be nice to end on a high note before everyone got sick of us. Also, it turns out that doing a daily podcast is a lot of work. Who knew?”

Shafrir and Spencer had been making seven podcast episodes a week during this time, with their usual two Forever35 installments on top of the five weekday Here For You check-ins, so it isn’t surprising the work was a lot to handle. However, Shafrir said that even though Here For You has now come to an end, they would be importing some elements of it into their main show going forward.

“We learned that people actually enjoyed hearing from us every day, which we honestly weren’t sure would be the case,” she said. “We also learned that people wanted to hear more about our day-to-day lives. So we tweaked the schedule and format of Forever35 to accommodate what we’d learned.” Forever35 will now move from two episodes a week (a main edition and a shorter mini episode) to three, with the two shorter episodes structured like the erstwhile daily show.

“We’ll be doing a catch-up with each other in the beginning of the episodes, followed by hearing from listeners, followed by another short segment we did on Here For You — a word, activity, theme for the episode. We found that people liked the sense of community that these fostered, in addition to giving people ideas for things to do during quarantine,” Shafrir added.

It was encouraging to hear from both teams that avoiding or mitigating burnout was a primary factor in deciding to step back from these pandemic projects. This is a story line I’ve been tracking in the podcast industry for a while, and it has definitely not always been the case that mental health concerns inform these kinds of decisions. More than that, I think there’s now a recognition that things won’t just snap back to where they were at the start of 2020. The short-term choices must now be refined and modified to work for the long haul.

POSTED     June 16, 2020, 12:24 p.m.
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