Tricia Sans Chan
A shiver runs along your spine and the hairs on the back of your neck stand up as you break into a light sweat even though you’re glued to your seat. The floorboard creeks in your empty house, sending your brain into a frenzy of flight or fright. You reach for your trusty Louisville Slugger before you come to the realization that … The podcast is coming from inside your own phone!
True crime has always been popular, from Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood to Anne Rule’s personal account of her time with Ted Bundy working at a suicide hotline in The Stranger Beside Me and Michelle McNamara’s spot on profiling of the Golden State Killer that led to his arrest, people have always had an interest in learning about the darker side.
And now we have entered an era where the true crime genre has found its niche in the digital age of podcasting. Gone are the days of the noir and broody pulp magazines. Catching that late-night Dateline episode is no longer a priority. Now your true crime fix can be satiated anytime by simply pressing play on your mobile device.
But how did true crime become such a major player in the podcast world?
“Humans love human stories, and these are the worst kind of human stories,” said Canadian True Crime podcast host Kristi Lee, an Australian who now lives in Toronto, found the genre in her early 20s when a friend recommended the now defunct website crimelibrary.com. Having grown up in a conservative Christian household, her exposure to grim and gruesome tales was lacking and it was actually an infamous Canadian murder case that stuck with her.
“Before you knew it I was completely engrossed in it. I was just reading it during my free time and that’s when I first read about Paul Bernardo and Karla Homolka and straight away I was just gripped by that story. I thought ‘How can a sister do that to her own sister?’”
While the Bernardo and Homolka story made a significant impact, Lee left true crime behind to move on with things like her career, her family and to move halfway around the world. But, just like criminals always return to the scene of the crime, so will true crime lovers. Lee says she was back into the genre full force after a friend recommended the widely successful Serial podcast, and after consuming several other podcasts, she noticed a lack of Canadian content.
“I was listening to all these true crime podcasts and I was in all these Facebook groups for true crime podcasts and I just kept seeing a lot of posts from people asking ‘Who is covering the Canadian cases? Can someone cover some Canadian cases?’ And at the time there were really only two podcasts in Canada that were covering Canadian true crime,” she said.
So she asked herself, why not me?
Lee got to work writing a script for the first episode of her show. Since she was covering Canadian True Crime, it only made sense for her to cover the story that started it all for her: Karla Homolka and Paul Bernardo.
“Basically, as soon as I dropped that first episode people started downloading it straight away. So I think people were going into iTunes and typing in Canadian true crime looking for anything that was covering those cases and since I called my podcast Canadian True Crime, it came up and then things just kind of snowballed,” Lee said.
Lee has become a leading voice in the Canadian true crime world. Her delicate and caring approach to her narratives has inclined the family members of victims to reach out to her, hoping she can shed some light on their tragedy.
Most recently she teamed up with Jordan Bonaparte of the Nighttime podcast to create a special two-part episode about the death of Daniel Levesque, a 20-year-old British Columbia man who was murdered by his deceptive acquaintance, Joshua Bredo in 2011.
Together, the pair took a unique approach to the format where Lee told the story through her researched account while Bonaparte interviewed Levesque’s mother, Stacey Thur. The interview offers a human component, reminding listeners that while this story might be their entertainment, it is a family’s real-life tragedy.
“I like to think of it as I’m there more so to introduce the story and then facilitate someone telling their story or telling the story they’re involved in. So when I do an episode or an interview or something I just try to stay the heck out of the way and help the person get their story out,” Bonaparte said.
The Nighttime podcast began in his basement as a creative outlet and a chance to expose an audience to eastern Canadian lore. The show was picked up by CuriousCast, Chorus Entertainment’s podcast network, but still remains independently produced by Bonaparte who uses some very old school methods of research for such a modern medium. He begins by scanning through old newspaper archives to find a lead on a story. “And then trying to figure out who was still alive, going through obituaries and death records, finding out who was alive and trying to contact people. Basically writing letters and calling them and trying to get them to talk to me. So, very early on the majority of my research was first hand, meaning I’m getting on the phone with people or going to their house and interviewing them. So that’s how the style of my show accidentally happened.”
Not all podcasters fall into their jobs
accidentally. Ryan McMahon spent a year in northern Ontario reporting on the systemic failures of the police and social services to protect Indigenous youth and their communities for his podcast, Thunder Bay. It is categorized as true crime, but McMahon himself sees the genre as problematic.
“I would say true crime as a genre is a very, very troubling genre of podcasting because you run the gambit from something like Serial or Thunder Bay or podcasts like that, to literally, you know, podcasts that read Wikipedia pages and put scary music behind it,” said McMahon.
McMahon is turned off by podcasts that simply re-read and exploit the macabre details of someone’s personal tragedy and trauma. His approach to producing his podcast was to explain how the city became so corrupt and why disenfranchised people suffer at the hands of those corrupt establishments, even journalists.
“Much of the reporting that was happening in Thunder Bay was done by a handful of journalists that were resource strapped, working on their own. And we felt like we could go in and do something that hadn’t been done before or tried before in Thunder Bay so podcasting allows for a longer form discussion and the medium itself really personalizes the stories in a way that print or digital doesn’t.”
This long form structure seems to be a trend rising in professionally produced, network owned podcasts, who have staff on hand to conduct in-depth research, find sources to interview and have the industry knowledge and tact to cover a story of such magnitude with a thoughtful angle. McMahon sees this as a good direction for the genre to take.
“What’s more interesting to me is the way both seasons of Missing and Murdered, and Thunder Bay have sort of subverted the genre itself. And subverting the genre and using true crime as a vehicle to tell stories about real issues I think is really good.”
One of the downsides to first-hand research and reporting is that if you do your job better than the police, they will come knocking on your door. Bonaparte has recently learned this lesson after producing a six-part series on Canadian James Gamble and American Lindsay Souvannarath, who conspired to commit an act of mass murder in Halifax in February of 2015.