What makes for a great true crime podcast can be highly subjective. Some people prefer podcasts that use all the bells and whistles available to the audio format: ambient sound, music, soundbites and recordings of things like "9-1-1" calls. Some people prefer shows that are, in effect, series, focusing on one case over an entire season; others want shows that highlight a different case each episode.
My list is fairly eclectic. I do like good intro music, but I’m not bothered if a podcast isn’t stuffed with sounds and recordings (sometimes those elements get in the way). Similarly, I like both types of shows: those that focus on one case over several episodes and those that cover a different crime each week. The most important features of a good podcast, for me, are excellent writing, a likable narrator (or narrators), and cases that boggle the mind. I tend to prefer shows that have been around for a while, as these have big back catalogues of episodes that can be binged. It’s a great feeling to stumble on a new show and discover it's already been going strong for a couple of years.
I’ve listed my Top 20 in descending order, meaning you’ll have to scroll down for my number one. The list includes old favorites from that earlier post, as well as new shows that have hooked me throughout the past year. Every podcast on this list is worth a listen (there’s no shame in being number 20 – the difference in quality from bottom to top is minimal). Click on the header to find the podcast’s URL.
20. Done Disappeared
This first podcast is not really true crime at all, but rather an inspired spoof of the genre. Host and creator "John David Booter" regards nothing as sacred. The main target is Payne Lindsey, the creator and narrator of the breakthrough podcast Up and Vanished, but this send-up, which stretches over two seasons, spoofs several other popular podcasts and all the ridiculous ads (like ZipRecruiter, for example -- I wonder what employers are looking to hire just now?). It's worth a listen just to hear the delicious take-down of true crime's own "Wicked Witch of the West:" Nancy Grace.
19. Crime Junkie
Host Ashley Flowers and her sidekick, Brit Prawat, know how to craft a good story. Consistency is a bug-bear that haunts many podcasts, but Crime Junkie is almost always good and often great. It would be much higher on my list if Crime Junkie hadn't been outed in a plagiarism scandal during the past year. The main accusation was that they were lifting lines from other podcasts and not citing sources. I'm open to forgiveness here. The way I see it, podcasting is an evolving craft and not everyone comes from a journalism background, where the rules on disclosure are clear cut. Unfortunately, instead of copping to the "crime," Ashley and Brit chose to ignore it (though they did apparently pull down a couple of egregious episodes from their site). They could have recovered some credibility in my mind if they'd simply released a statement saying they were aware of the concerns and would do a better job going forward. That would have pushed them into my top 10.
18. Dark Poutine
I've branched out in the past year into Canadian true crime, and this one of the best of the lot. Each week, the two hosts, Mike Browne and Scott Hemenway, discuss a new criminal case or some other dark historical topic from the Great White North in ways that both inform and show empathy for the people involved. An honorable mention from Canada would be The Nighttime Podcast, which is similar in quality but focuses mainly on odd occurrences in Canada's maritime provinces.
17. Radio Rental
Radio Rental, co-created by podcast mastermind Payne Lindsey, is a little different. It's not true crime per se, but rather ordinary people telling stories of the craziest, spookiest, scariest thing that ever happened to them. I love the premise and hope they carry on with future episodes, but this first season was hit or miss. It made my list solely on the strength of Episode Four. The story "Laura of the Woods" was, hands down, the creepiest thing I heard all year long, and it still haunts my thoughts as I write this now.
16. The Murder Squad
Podcast vigilantism, where podcasters crowd-source the task of solving crimes through unleashing their hordes of listeners, has obvious benefits, but also presents real dangers to the legal system and to the rights of persons close to the crime. How would you like to be an innocent person on the wrong end of a popular podcaster's suspicions and accusations? It's a tremendous responsibility that clearly not all podcasters grasp. The hosts of the Murder Squad, cold case investigator Paul Holes and journalist Billy Jensen, are acutely aware of these dangers. They promote podcast activism in solving crimes, but have clear guidelines for how listeners should behave in the real world, where entertaining stories collide with real people's lives.
The Lady Vanishes is an investigative podcast that -- like “Up and Vanished” -- tackles an unsolved mystery in the hope (and implied pay-off) that the mystery will be solved within the lifetime of the show. The mystery here involves the disappearance of Australian (Queensland) teacher Marion Barter, who vanished in 1997. The early episodes that detail the circumstances behind Barter's disappearance, her trip to England, some questionable withdrawals from her Australian bank account, and finally her odd, suspicious name change to "Florabella Natalia Marion Remakel," make for addictive listening. As the case has dragged on, though, episodes have tended to lag and gotten caught up in Australian legal procedures. What keeps me listening is the heart of Marion's daughter, Sally Leydon, who energizes the search, and the tantalizing prospect that the podcast will eventually break the case.
I often take podcasts with me to bed at night and host Nina Innsted has that perfectly soft, dreamlike voice to lull you to sleep. I'm not throwing shade here. I'm always upset when I realize in the morning that I drifted off before finishing an episode (thankfully, with podcasts you can just queue up the show again the next day). Nina mainly covers cases from the '80s and '90s that took place in and around her native suburban Detroit, which I find highly relatable having grown up in nearby suburban Ohio. When she starts out an episode with her signature "So come with me ... (to some place back in time)," I feel like I'm traveling back to my own adolescence.
Going West is a relatively new discovery. I like "buddy" podcasts, where the co-hosts react to and play off each other, and Heath and Daphne (a real-life couple) have an easy, jokey manner that makes them both fun to hang out with. Hey, they actually met on Tinder and started a true crime podcast a few months later. How cool is that? The podcast has the advantage of covering a different case each week, so there's no need to memorize complicated plot lines between episodes.
There's an unspoken bias in podcast-land in favor of amateur podcasters creating shows in their garages or basements, but it's occasionally refreshing to hear a professionally produced show by an established media outfit. The Thing About Pam is an NBC-Dateline production and has all of the smooth narration, high-quality audio and tight storytelling you'd expect. Over six episodes of approximately 30 minutes each, the show tells the jaw-dropping saga of a murder (and possibly series of murders), and one sick sister named Pam Huff.
I've been a fan for a couple years and I get excited every Sunday when I see a new episode of Casefile drop into my podcast feed. This is a good example of a podcast that often ignores the tricks available to the audio format. They only rarely employ ambient sounds or recordings to create "a sense of place." Instead, they opt for a more stripped-down, low-tech approach that works unusually well. The narrator, an anonymous guy with an Aussie accent, reads from a carefully crafted text that’s full of unexpected twists and turns. It's like listening to a very good bedtime story.
There's something in host Robin Warder's high-pitched voice that perfectly conveys a life-long nerd fascination with true crime and the old Robert Stack TV vehicle "Unsolved Mysteries" (which influenced him as a kid and continues to help guide his choice of cases). Like the Trace Evidence podcast (below), the best thing about The Trail Went Cold is Warder's easy pacing as he first outlines the main story and then laboriously retraces the main elements and suspects. I really enjoy his weekly episodes, each focusing on a different case, but his skills may be wasted in entertainment. He'd make a good police detective.
The best thing to come out of the Crime Junkie plagiarism scandal, for me at least, was that I got to discover this well-done and exhaustive podcast that covers a different story each week. Host Steven Pacheco (along with Robin Warder of the The Trail Went Cold podcast) had appeared on a different show to discuss the Crime Junkie allegations and he was so self-deprecatingly modest about the quality of his own show that I thought I'd give it a try. Turns out Trace Evidence is pretty solid. I love the rhythm of the show, with the first half of each episode dedicated to telling the story of what happened and the second half parsing the different theories. Episodes can easily stretch for an hour or longer, but that's just fine with me.
As the name suggests, Case Closed focuses on stories that have already been solved and for which the characters and outlines of the crime are already broadly known. Case Closed got slammed earlier this year by the New Yorker, which argued (unfairly) that these types of cases are inherently less interesting than open-ended cases, where the outcome is still uncertain. I'm not so sure. It's true that most true crime podcasts tell stories of unsolved crimes, but that can also be unsatisfying when you're left hanging at the end for a culprit. It's nice to be able to tie everything in a bow at the end. Season 2, that covers the story of the shooting death of devoted husband Rusty Sneiderman, is anything but dull.
This podcast easily cracks my top-show list for several reasons. First, would be the podcast's haunting intro music; second, the fact they’re based in my home state of Ohio; and third, the easy chemistry between the show’s co-hosts: Nic and "The Captain.” Many podcasts employ a buddy format, where the hosts play off of each other’s reactions. It works best when it’s genuine (and it’s obvious Nic and the Captain are friends) and when there’s a little friction built into the model. Nic plays the straight man (Freud might say the "super-ego"), while the Captain is all id. Each week, True Crime Garage focuses on a different case (and often drops two episodes a week). Don't miss their year-ending series on the unsolved 1996 murder of six-year-old Jon Benét Ramsay. One of their best.
As I wrote last year, host Marissa Jones has invented a podcast genre all her own, devoting each weekly episode to following the case of a person who's disappeared for one reason or another. Episodes normally begin with an audio clip of a friend or family member of the missing person extolling the virtues of that person and imploring the general public to help find him or her. If that sounds formulaic, it’s anything but. Marissa’s talent is to make each of the stories personal and to build bonds with the victims’ loved ones that are (or at least feel) very genuine.
My old outfit Bloomberg, together with podcasting giant Wondery, broke into the podcast ranks this past year in a big way with a show that bends the definition of true crime. Sometimes in journalism the best stories come to you, and that's what happened to reporter Joe Nocera when his next door neighbor in the Hamptons, a psychiatrist named "Ike," turned out to be nothing like how he first appeared. It's a cautionary tale for anyone who's outsourcing their mental health and well-being to professionals who may not have their best interests at heart.
4. Bear Brook
It's the perfect set-up to a true-crime, mystery-thriller podcast. The bodies of two unknown females are discovered in a discarded storage drum in Bear Brook State Park in New Hampshire in the mid-1980s. A decade or so later, a second drum is discovered nearby containing the skeletal remains of two more females. The premise is similar to the "Death in Ice Valley" podcast (below), but that's just the start of this amazing story of superior journalism, technology and modern investigative techniques. So, who were these women and how did they get there?
This sleeper by a guy in Ohio named Thrasher Banks was, by far, the best amateur effort in podcasting that I came across in 2019. No spoilers here. Let's just say a series of murders in rural Ohio in the late-1980s takes the narrator (and all of us listeners) to some surprising and highly unexpected places. An easy binge at just five episodes; let's hope Thrasher has another podcast up his sleeve in 2020.
There's no way not to binge-listen this mesmerizing tale of young love gone horribly wrong, set in both southern and (later) northern California. Journalist Neil Strauss turns in a Pulitzer-worthy performance as he meticulously documents the suspicious disappearance of an aspiring Albanian actress from Macedonia, Adea Shabani, and her relationship with another aspiring actor: her all-American boyfriend Chris Spotz.
It's the 1970s -- the Cold War is raging -- and the charred remains of a woman's body are discovered in a remote valley in Norway. Despite a thorough police investigation, which includes finding the woman's belongings in a storage locker at a nearby bus station, her identity is never determined. The only thing the authorities can say with certainty is that she's not Norwegian. So who was she, where did she come from, what was she doing there and, finally, what happened to her? These are the questions this gripping collaborative podcast between NRK (Norwegian Public Radio) and the BBC hope to answer. In a year of outstanding podcasts, this is the one that will likely stay in my mind the longest as we move into 2020.