Authenticity and authority of voice in the post-serial investigative podcast genre. (2020)
Type of ContentTheses / Dissertations
Degree NameMaster of Arts
PublisherUniversity of Canterbury
AuthorsFletcher, Lewisshow all
In recent years, audio podcasting has become a massively popular medium for long form, non- fiction storytelling. In 2019, 62 million Americans listened to podcasts regularly, more than triple the number who did so in 2013 (Adgate). Commentators have attributed podcasting’s rapid rise in popularity to a confluence of technology and storytelling, originating with two developments in 2014. Firstly, Apple’s iOS 8 placed a standalone podcast app on millions of users’ home screens. Nuzum claims that Apple’s podcast app turned what had previously been a “clubby and isolated” medium exclusively for the technology-savvy into something easily and conveniently accessible to even the most “app-averse, effort-averse, and complexity-averse” listeners (248). Secondly, long-running radio show This American Life released a spinoff podcast, Serial, which reached a level of popularity unprecedented in podcasting with its reinvestigation of a real-life murder mystery. True crime had long been popular in other media including film and television, but the newly popular podcast apps brought it to the forefront of popular consciousness, and it is clear that “Serial would have never been Serial without the introduction of the podcast app” (Nuzum 247). Described as a “revolutionary new program of investigative journalism”, Serial received a Peabody Award in 2015 and eventually reached a listenership of 170 million (McCracken “Introduction” 1). Serial itself also played an important role introducing podcasting to a vast audience who may otherwise have remained intimidated or reluctant to try the new format. In the run up to Serial’s release, This American Life produced a promotional video titled “How to Listen to a Podcast with Ira and Mary”, in which TAL host Ira Glass and an octogenarian friend demonstrate exactly how to download, stream, and subscribe to Serial’s feed. “We’ve come to learn that many of you do not know how to get a podcast,” states Glass while an onscreen caption adds, “especially you older people” (Lind 00:16-00:20). In this video, Glass’s persona and the qualities of his voice seem to encompass not just that of a journalist and radio host, but also a teacher and a friend. It is emblematic, therefore, of the relationship of trust that Serial and podcasts like it establish with their audiences, and which, as works of non-fiction, they rely on to be able to speak with authority. Yet, despite the popularity and impact of podcasting, the relationship between voice, authenticity and authority in the medium remains understudied. This thesis will analyse the ways that Serial and three other American podcasts create a new model of trust and authority, drawing on a range of literary and journalistic traditions to create a new genre I call the investigative podcast.
Since the release of Serial, podcasting has emerged as a popular medium for episodic, non- fiction storytelling, and an alternative to broadcast radio. Serial and its host Sarah Koenig inspired a rapidly growing subgenre of long-form investigative journalism podcasts with high production values, including Brian Reed’s S-Town, Christopher Goffard’s Dirty John, and Jon Frechette and Todd Luoto’s The Polybius Conspiracy, all from 2017. Unlike other podcast subgenres, these podcasts have intricate sound design, complex editing, and catchy theme tunes. They are deliberately paced with plot twists and turns, rising tension, and cliff-hanger endings to episodes. The hosts all speak with an informal and personal tone, and often connect the story to a broader theme or message about American society. My thesis will examine these four American podcasts as literary texts through the lens of audionarratology, a term coined by Mildorf and Kinzel in their book on the “interfaces between sound and narrative” to describe the study of the relationship “between oral and aural forms of expression… and their narrative affordances, structures, and functions” (v). Specifically, I will examine the role of “voice” in these texts both as a literary concept and as a literal, audible characteristic. In his book Radio, Arnheim describes the unrealised potential of twentieth century radio as an aural storytelling medium. Radio, he argues, has been dominated by voices that lacked emotional effect, vocal authority, and a sense of authenticity. I will argue that by assembling complex authorial voices from verbal, paraverbal, and nonverbal elements, investigative podcasts realise this potential in ways previous audio media have not.
Researchers have claimed that after 2014, “the market for serialized true crime podcasts had been established and on the coattails of Serial came a raft of others” (Yardley et al. “Forever Trapped” 504). Yardley et al. identify at least five podcasts released shortly after Serial that investigate historical murder cases in a similar style, including In the Dark (2016), Accused (2016), and Bowraville (2018). Violent crimes like murder and kidnapping, particularly of young women, have indeed proved popular subjects for podcast journalists “in the vanguard of the [true crime] subgenre” (505). However, many podcasts that have adopted or built upon Koenig’s investigative style and format tell stories that do not involve crime, or do so only peripherally. Brian Reed’s S-Town and Dan Taberski’s Missing Richard Simmons are just two examples of podcasts that mention the possibility of an unsolved crime in their early episodes, but depart from this focus in favour of the inner mysteries of a subject’s personal life. ABC’s Finding Drago concerned a mystery as innocuous as an anonymous fan-fiction author, but was described as “Serial for Rocky fans” by reviewers nonetheless (Williams). To say that Serial’s legacy is the popularization of true-crime podcasts is, therefore, only part of the story. In this thesis I will argue that the subgenre born from Serial’s success is better encapsulated by a term like “investigative” podcast than simply “true crime”. This is because Serial’s stylistic resemblance to non-crime-centric podcasts like S-Town is much stronger than its relationship to true-crime texts in other media, and the form it pioneered is defined not by its content, but by its approach to the investigative process and the act of truth-finding.
A full picture of the investigative podcast subgenre is beyond the scope of this thesis. I will therefore focus on one of its most critical aspects: voice, both as a literary device and an aural feature of human speech. Typical characteristics of the investigative podcast genre include a single host, who both narrates and conducts interviews with subjects to explore a central mystery. The podcaster therefore takes on a multifaceted role as not only a detective figure in an investigation, but also as the story’s author, narrator, and often active participant if not protagonist. These roles are combined into a complex authorial voice that works to build a relationship of trust with listeners. The term “podcasting” was coined in 2004 to describe what had previously been referred to as “online radio” (Hammersley). Radios have historically spoken to groups, acting as focal points of communal spaces. Throughout the twentieth century, broadcast speech was directed at the “audience as ‘the family’”, rather than the individual listener (Forty 31). “Podcast” however, a term derived from the words “iPod” and “broadcast”, emphasizes an individual listening experience, played through headphones on personal devices. In their emotional effects, podcasts are therefore more akin to reading a novel than to listening to broadcast radio. This is reflected in the voices used by podcast hosts, who often strive to build trust with listeners through not just perceived authority but emotional authenticity and intimacy. Podcasts combine “the intimacy of voice… and the convenience and portability of an MP3 download” (Hammersley). Serial’s host Sarah Koenig achieved a “mainstream prominence and respectability” undreamt of by “more traditional texts” of the true crime genre in print or television (Buozis “Doxing” 357). The podcast’s listenership included many “highly educated, culturally literate fans who might not normally consume” true crime (357). I will argue that this is because of Serial’s manipulation of the audience’s trust relationships. The podcast’s authority comes from the way its authorial voice facilitates and tacitly encourages listeners to take part in the investigation process themselves. Listeners are led to question the authority of certain voices in the podcast, but not the journalistic authority of the podcast itself.
Investigative podcasts also typically feature a central, individual subject, whose voice is scrutinised and analysed by the podcast host as part of the investigation. This thesis will explore the vocal relationships and hierarchies in Sarah Koenig’s Serial (2014), Brian Reed’s S-Town (2017), Christopher Goffard’s Dirty John (2017) and Jon Frechette and Todd Luoto’s The Polybius Conspiracy (2017). The respective central subjects of these podcasts are the alleged murderer Adnan Syed, eccentric clockmaker John B. McLemore, conman John Meehan, and conspiracy theorist Bobby Feldstein. In each podcast, subjects’ voices are fundamental to their characterization in every sense. Podcasters can build trust in - or cast doubt upon - different voices through editing and acoustic manipulation, and even if a podcast “depicts events that actually happened”, listeners are “immersed in a carefully crafted storyworld” which informs how they interpret the people, places, and events portrayed (DeMair 28). The investigative podcast, therefore, is as much literature as it is journalism. The podcasts mentioned above use conventions from fiction genres as diverse as Shakespearean tragedy, Southern Gothic, noir, horror, and science fiction to filter complex and ambiguous true stories into accessible entertainment. Their depictions of plot, character, and setting are informed by these genres, and the podcasts deliberately evoke these genres’ associated characters and voices to interpret the voices of real subjects. Although these literary influences are integral to the podcasts’ narrative structure and effects, I will argue that this reliance on fiction texts for reference points and narrative elements is problematic for the genre’s often-stated goals of objectivity, realism, and plurality of voice.
Chapter 1 will examine the first season of Serial, which follows host Sarah Koenig’s reinvestigation of a 1999 Baltimore murder case through an intricately edited arrangement of interviews, old police and courtroom recordings, and narration by Koenig. The podcast’s central subject is the man convicted, Adnan Syed, whose voice is heard over a phone line from inside prison. Serial is the defining text of the investigative podcast genre, against which it is helpful to compare all subsequent examples to better understand their use of voice. This chapter will explore the ways Serial constructs voices of authority by extending and challenging the conventions of the literary genres with which it bears the most similarities: superficially, true crime and detective fiction, but also Shakespearean tragedy. Scholars like DeMair have described how Koenig’s podcast creates a relationship of trust between speaker and listener, and how voices are coded with different values based on features like regional accent and gender. I will argue that these depictions of voice are consistent with the podcast’s styling of the Syed case as a “Shakespearean mashup” (Koenig “The Alibi” 06:10), which highlights the literary influences on the investigative podcast genre. Koenig’s own complex authorial voice, encompassing nonverbal elements like editing as well as verbal and paraverbal ones, is the one with which listeners are most encouraged to identify. Serial’s many constituent voices are presented with varying levels of authority by an authorial voice which always controls who is heard, and in what contexts. Serial creates a new formula for investigation narratives– one where cases are not solved conclusively but opened and reopened by new detective figures in the belief that previous investigations were flawed or incomplete. Chapter 2 builds upon this discussion of investigative storytelling by examining S-Town, a seven-part podcast written and presented by Brian Reed. S-Town follows a similar style of literary podcast journalism to Serial, but does so in ways that depart from the strictly true-crime subject matter of its predecessor. This supports the notion of the investigative podcast as a distinct genre. S- Town is also a spinoff of This American Life, and begins with a broadly similar murder mystery to Serial. Reed is invited to Woodstock, Alabama by an eccentric local clockmaker named John B. McLemore who asks him to help solve a rumoured local murder. Reed soon determines that no murder has taken place, and instead concerns himself with investigating a more abstract or emotional truth about life and Gothic decay in the American South. At the end of Chapter II, Reed reveals that McLemore has committed suicide, and the podcast transforms into an investigation into McLemore’s life and death, and the feuds that arise over his estate and legacy. This chapter will argue that S-Town’s creators try to do justice to its deceased subject by emphasising McLemore’s own deliberate and complex use of voice to exert authorial influence on the story. However, S-Town exposes a tension inherent to the investigative podcast genre between a desire to authentically represent the voices of subjects, and a need to manipulate those voices to create a compelling narrative. For S-Town, this tension between author and subject voices has even manifested in the legal arena. In 2019, McLemore’s estate filed a lawsuit against S-Town’s producers, claiming that the podcast amounted to a violation of McLemore’s right to privacy. Producer Julie Snyder claimed, instead, that McLemore was “absolutely an active and consenting participant in the documentary” (qtd. in Maddaus). I will argue that this ambiguity in the author-subject relationship is a result of S-Town’s move towards a more novelistic interpretation of the podcast format. Consisting of simultaneously released “chapters” rather than serially released “episodes”, S-Town draws inspiration from Southern Gothic writers like William Faulkner and Harper Lee in its depiction of Alabamian people, places, and institutions. S-Town’s literary inspirations show how voice interacts with genre conventions to create authoritative or authentic-seeming narrative, while actually undercutting the agency of the real people whose voices it features.
In Chapter 3, I will examine how these constructions of authority and authenticity are variously perpetuated, extended, or subverted in Christopher Goffard’s Dirty John. Dirty John was released simultaneously as both a six-part podcast and a series of web articles for the LA Times, and has since been adapted into a television miniseries. This allows for an analysis of how podcast audionarratology effects audiences in different ways to other media. Dirty John tells the story of Orange County interior designer Debra Newell and her relationship with violent conman John Meehan. Like Serial and S-Town, it draws upon genre fiction to create its representations of character and plot. Genre influences on Dirty John include horror, in its depiction of Meehan as akin to a slasher movie villain or inhuman monster. He is the story’s monster, an “uncomplicated dream of evil” in Goffard’s words. Goffard’s narration and his cynical depiction of the Southern California setting also draw on the work of writers like Raymond Chandler and Joan Didion. Like John McLemore in S-Town, Meehan died before the podcast’s production was complete. I will argue that Goffard, like Reed, effectively constructs a composite voice for his central, absent subject. Letters and messages written by Meehan are read aloud for the podcast, and an authorial decision is made each time as to whose literal voices should depict Meehan’s literary one. The role of the investigator is also complicated in Dirty John, as the central investigative voice is not Goffard himself, but the character Jacquelyn. Dirty John is rich in interplay between different kinds of voice: literary voices are contrasted with literal ones, masculine with feminine, verbal with paraverbal, deceptive with authentic. Dirty John is further evidence that investigative podcasts do not contain a plurality of voice as they often suggest, or, if they do, they subordinate them to a unified authorial persona. This manipulates real voices to elicit emotional responses in listeners, thus inherently fictionalising the subjects.
Finally, Chapter 4 will explore how the investigative podcasters can use the previously described relationship of trust between speaker and listener to blur the boundaries between fiction and non-fiction. I will focus on Jon Frechette and Todd Luoto’s podcast The Polybius Conspiracy. This podcast follows Frechette and Luoto’s investigation of a mind-altering video game which supposedly appeared in Portland, Oregon arcades in 1981 before mysteriously vanishing. Both the podcast and the urban legend that inspired it contribute to a recent revival of interest in 1980s American popular culture and science fiction, epitomised by Netflix’s Stranger Things, or the novel Ready Player One and its 2018 film adaptation. Frechette and Luoto interview key figures from Portland’s retro-gaming community to try and piece together whether there is any truth to the Polybius legend. After the series finished, producers acknowledged that several key figures in the podcast were in fact fictional characters played by voice actors. This includes the central subject Bobby Feldstein, whose claims of having played “Polybius” are investigated at length in the podcast. Over the course of its seven episodes, The Polybius Conspiracy can therefore be read as not just an investigation into the original urban legend, but a reflexive examination of how online hoaxes and conspiracy theories form, spread, and evolve. This chapter will argue that The Polybius Conspiracy serves to challenge and deconstruct conventions of the investigative podcast genre. The central character Bobby is a subversion of the relationship between podcast host and subject as established by Serial, and questions the role that the voice of an investigative podcast’s “protagonist” should play in the story. I will also argue that The Polybius Conspiracy’s use of place creates a relationship of trust between the listener and the authorial voice. By depicting arcades, the city of Portland, and the Pacific Northwest more broadly as mysterious and unknowable settings, the podcast encourages listeners to question the authority and authenticity of all voices in the podcast, except the authorial voice itself. The Polybius Conspiracy comments on forensic fandom, problematising the paranoid ways in which online communities obsess over missing details and unsolved mysteries. The many investigating voices in the podcast deliberately make it harder, not easier, to discover any kind of authentic truth, and an individual voice’s authenticity becomes almost impossible to determine. Thus, Frechette and Luoto use the investigative format established by Serial, S-Town, and Dirty John to explore the fictionality inherent to the genre by making the authority and authenticity of its different voices much more ambiguous.
As such, this thesis charts the rapid development of a distinct genre of nonfiction storytelling in podcasting, from its emergence with Serial, experimentation in S-Town and Dirty John, and reflexive examination in The Polybius Conspiracy. Situated at the intersection of literature, journalism, and technology, the investigative podcast introduces new and compelling ways of listening and experiencing a range of voices. The examples discussed here showcase the potentials of different voices and voice-relationships for eliciting trust in a wide audience, which is a crucial area of study in an era where journalistic and investigative voices across all media are struggling to retain or reclaim their authority of voice.