True crime has long been a popular genre in print and television, but since the runaway success of Serial in 2014, true crime has exploded in the podcasting world as well. What draws people to stories of deception, theft, and even murder? Is it a thirst for adrenaline? A way to cope with the horrors lurking in the world? Whatever your reasons for listening, we combed through the many true crime podcasts out there, assembling a list of the very best.
For those looking for different fare, we also put together a list of the best podcasts in general.
For many Americans, organized crime may seem like a relic of a distant past. The past informs the present, however, and as Crimetown shows, the roots of organized crime run deep in some cities. In season 1, hosts Marc Smerling and Zac Stuart-Pontier take listeners on a fascinating tour of Providence, Rhode Island, a small city with a surprisingly large mafia presence. Each episode tells a different chapter in the city’s sordid history, tied together by two giants: Mob boss Raymond Patriarca and Mayor Buddy Cianci. Crimetown is a polished, confident production, which should come as no surprise given that its creators also worked on HBO’s The Jinx.
The show that brought podcasts into the mainstream (and won a Peabody Award), Serial follows journalist Sarah Koenig and the show’s staff as they investigate a single story over the course of a season. The show’s serialized nature gives the storytelling an added dramatic weight, as episodes often end on revelations that leave listeners wondering where the next episode will go. Season 1 examines the case of Adnan Syed, a prisoner serving time for the murder of his ex-girlfriend, Hae Min Lee, but who claims to be innocent. Season 2 explores a more recent story, the capture and negotiated release of U.S. Army soldier Bowe Bergdahl, who was eventually charged with desertion. Serial is unique not just for its production values — Koenig and her fellow producers originally worked on This American Life, and that experience shines through in the audio — but for its insight into the journalistic process; as episodes are recorded as the investigation progresses, so listeners hear Koenig and company grappling with new evidence.
A Peabody Award-winning podcast, In the Dark follows the story of the abduction of Jacob Wetterling, whose disappearance in 1989 prompted a federal law implementing sex offender registration. Wetterling’s fate was unknown until 2016, when a man confessed to killing him. The first season of In the Dark follows Madeleine Baran’s exploration of the case, with a focus on the police investigation, and the ways in which it changed society and law enforcemen. It’s a distinct approach to the true crime genre.
Despite its glamorous facade, Hollywood has always had a seedy side, and among the acting world’s most infamous unsolved mysteries is the death of Natalie Wood, an acclaimed actress who drowned in 1981 while on a yacht with her husband, actor Robert Wagner, and Christopher Walken, with whom she was starring in the film Brainstorm. The limited podcast series Fatal Voyage explores the strange circumstances surrounding Wood’s death. She was notoriously afraid of water, neither of her companions could account for when exactly she left the boat, and according to the autopsy report, there were bruises on her body. The podcast makes use of interviews with experts and those close to the case, and it also makes use of an incredible primary source: Wood’s unpublished memoir, in which the actress bares her secret anxieties about the falsehoods of the celebrity world. Fatal Voyage is a fascinating tale, not just one of murder, but of an actress’ personal struggles with the corruption of Hollywood.
Many true crime podcasts have a decidedly American bent, but as Casefile demonstrates, murder is a global phenomenon. Produced out of Australia, Casefile tells crime stories from around the world, using creepy music and sound design to unsettle listeners. Episodes touch on a variety of topics, including serial killers and kidnappings gone wrong. The content is disturbing, but despite Casefile’s dramatic flourishes, it never feels ghoulish.
While murders and kidnappings make for enticing stories, some of the biggest crimes in history are carried out not by men and women with knives or guns, but people in boardrooms. Swindled explores the world of “white collar” crime, which, although nonviolent, can be devastating for people and even communities. Each episode investigates a different case, such as an attempt to rig a lottery or an environmental disaster caused by a company recklessly dumping toxic chemicals. The stories are remarkable and often enraging.
Murder is depressing. Listen to enough stories of people murdering people and strewing their limbs around in strange patterns, and it takes a toll on you. Thankfully, My Favorite Murder adds a dash of levity, making even the most gruesome crimes fun to hear about. Hosts Karen Kilgariff and Georgia Hardstark both have backgrounds in comedy, and they have a lively rapport, with the podcast often veering into improv. The show recognizes that humor has its limits, however, treating the victims in its stories with appropriate gravity. While the juxtaposition of murder with laughs may seem odd, many find it therapeutic. My Favorite Murder is a delightfully macabre addition to any true crime podcast rotation.
Having worked as a crime reporter and novelist, Christopher Goffard has experience with the darker elements of humanity and a knack for storytelling. Both of those qualities are on display in Dirty John, a six-episode series (and accompanying written feature) in which Goffard tells the story of Debra Newell, a 59-year old interior designer who meets a man named John Meehan on a dating site. Meehan comes on strong, but Newell falls for him, even as her daughters suspect something is off. Goffard interviews Newell and her family, among others, constructing a multifaceted narrative that may surprise listeners. It helps that Goffard has a measured, professional voice, making Dirty John feel at times like an audiobook.
In 2008, news broke that Bernie Madoff, a respected stockbroker and former chairman of Nasdaq, had been running a hedge fund that was essentially a giant Ponzi scheme, a revelation that blossomed into one of the biggest financial scandals in decades. What possessed Madoff to commit the crimes that led to his 150-year prison sentence? Steve Fishman goes straight to the source to find out in Ponzi Supernova, interviewing Madoff and the people in his life to construct a portrait of the man who became one of the greatest villains in modern finance.
Author and psychology expert Maria Konnikova delves into the world of con artists with her podcast The Grift, which provides a detailed look into the minds of people who run scams. Each episode focuses on a different con artist, running the gamut from card sharks and art forgers to even a cult leader. The Grift lays out not just the art of the con, but what makes people susceptible to such schemes.
If you’ve begun to find true crime stories a bit grotesque, that’s not surprising. You can only listen to so many stories of stabbings, shootings, decapitations, defenestrations, and scaphism before the whole genre starts to feel a little tasteless. The Onion’s A Very Fatal Murder brutally guts true crime podcasting, telling a satirical tale about a reporter on the hunt for a murder case that will titillate audiences. The story takes place in the small town of Bluff Springs, where prom queen Hayley Price was found dead with a cascade of injuries (she was shot, stabbed, strangled, and drowned, among other things). Onion Public Radio reporter David Pascall ventures to Bluff Springs to investigate and make compelling radio. A Very Fatal Murder is particularly biting when it comes to the somewhat exploitative nature of true crime storytelling; Pascall is looking for a murder that will tie into larger themes about the decline of the American economy, and expresses some sadness about not being present to capture the victim’s parent’s grief when it was fresh. It’s funny stuff, and the series is short enough that it doesn’t overstay its welcome.
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