Anyone who enjoys nonfiction storytelling has to be heartened by the current state of podcasting. It’s only grown since the days of Serial, with more networks getting in on the action and putting more resources into production. Likewise, the definition of “true crime” seems to have evolved beyond stories about someone getting murdered by their domestic partner (not there aren’t still plenty of those).
Podcasts are an intimate medium, something to listen to when you’re lonely, cleaning up around the house or driving to work. Perhaps because of that, this year’s crop of podcasts is more personal than ever. Yes, it’s great to hear a comprehensively reported story that offers new insight on already-well-told stories like the OJ Simpson case or the Golden State Killer (and again, some of those are on here too). But sometimes all you need for a great podcast is a good story about your grandma.
In short: Nothing seems to define the adage “a good story, well told” like podcasts these days. And 2019 was a banner year for the True Crime genre. Here are the best of the bunch.
10. White Lies
From NPR, White Lies is a podcast about the 1965 murder of Civil Rights worker James Reeb in Selma, Alabama. It has all the things that make podcasts great: it takes you inside a subculture (of the men who killed James Reeb), helps bring justice to a cold case, retells an old story with new insight, and busts a stubborn myth. Best of all, the reporters (Andrew Beck Grace and Chip Brantley) are locals, so you don’t have to hear some reporter from New York bumble around the South treating everything like exotic artifacts of our rural hinterlands.
Like almost all of this year’s entries, this podcast doesn’t skimp on the personal — and it is better for it.
9. Bad Batch
Bad Batch is a Wondery podcast from the same reporter (Laura Beil) who gave us Dr. Death. As illustrated by Dr. Death and Dirty John, podcasts are a wonderful medium for exploring the depths of a main character’s assholedom, and Bad Batch is another solid entry in the genre. In this case, that character is John Kosolcharoen — who runs a stem cell company that seems snake oilish at best and dangerous at worst. While his sociopathy might not go as deep as Dirty John‘s or his medical practices as dangerous as Christopher Duntsch in Dr. Death, one thing Bad Batch does have is Kosolcharoen himself as a frequent interview subject, fumbling, justifying, and contradicting himself.
This is possible because, unlike Dirty John or Dr. Death, he’s still out there running his business. To understand why that’s scary, listen to the show.
If Jon Ronson makes a show, it’s a pretty safe bet that it’s going on this list. Ronson, an owlish Englishman, has a voice that’s initially off-putting but quickly addictive. He also has a knack for doing humane reporting on offbeat stories most of the media would just as soon ignore. Case in point: The Last Days Of August, which begins with the suicide of porn star August Ames, which, thanks to the fact that she’d been dragged on social media just days before, seems like a perfect case study for the author of the indispensable So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed.
This could be a straightforward A-to-B story, only, as always, Jon Ronson isn’t interested in affirming widely held beliefs. He’s interested in questioning them.
7. Joe Exotic (the latest season of Over My Dead Body)
The latest season of Over My Dead Body concerns a murderous feud between two rival tiger enthusiasts and even that is just barely scratching (pun alert!) the surface of how weird things get. There’s a discursive quality to Joe Exotic that reporter Robert Moor calls “fractal weirdness,” where no matter how weird you think things have gotten, asking just a few more follow-ups takes it on an even wilder tangent. This is the kind of story that needs the podcast medium, because it’s just too strange and with too many compelling side streets to fit into a movie or magazine article.
The 30 for 30 team has produced a lot of great podcasts, but their five-parter reported by Ramona Shelburne, The Sterling Affairs, just might be their best. We probably all thought we knew all we needed to know about former Clippers owner Donald Sterling letting his dick expose his racism, but as Shelburne reports, there’s so much more to the story than that, from Sterling’s bizarre interactions with former players to his background in predatory real estate. It’s all wrapped around one intensely compelling main character, Shelly Sterling, who is Donald’s enabler, exposer, victim, and svengali all rolled into one.
Tenderfoot TV really hit their stride in To Live And Die In LA, reported by Neil Strauss, a murder mystery centered on a Macedonian model named Adea Shabani who disappeared in February 2018. Traditional true crime in the sense that it’s about a murdered woman, To Live And Die In LA does for Hollywood what Dirty John did for Orange County. Which is to say, expose it as a wretched hive of scum and villainy, where every character seems to have more dirty laundry than the last.
It also helps that, thanks to Google services, we have a pinpoint accurate tick-tock of the killer’s every move.
I’ll be honest, I’m not sure if Scattered, a show about comedian Chris Garcia trying to uncover the details of his father’s life in Cuba so that he can decide where to scatter the ashes, technically qualifies as “true crime.” Surely there must have been a crime in there somewhere? Defying the embargo, perhaps? Regardless, it’s one of the most touching, and funniest, narrative nonfiction podcasts of the year and I’d be damned if it wasn’t going to be on this list.
To me, there are few things funnier than white conservatives soberly reading raunchy rap lyrics and the latest season of Mogul, about the birth of “Miami Bass” and the obscenity trials of 2 Live Crew, is an absolute masterpiece of the genre. At one point, host Brandon “Jinx” Jenkins is interviewing a conservative activist who had apparently made a word cloud of all the references to “cum” in a 2 Live Crew record, intercut with clips from the actual songs, and it’s probably the hardest I laughed at a podcast this year.
2. Root Of Evil
TNT got into the podcast game this year with Root of Evil, a companion podcast to their I Am The Night series, a story about the Black Dahlia murders and the prime suspect, George Hodel. It’s reported by Hodel’s great-granddaughters, Yvette Gentile and Rasha Pecoraro, and if you like stories about fucked up families (and I love them) you’ll love this story of the Hodels, arguably the most fucked up family in history. Murder, conspiracy, corruption, celebrities, dark family secrets, and forced adoption, Root of Evil really has it all.
If you’ve made it this far, you already know how much I love personal stories, family secrets, and generational trauma, which makes it no surprise that The Ballad Of Billy Balls is my number one. From the team at Crimetown and reporter IO Tillet Wright, The Ballad Of Billy Balls attempts to unravel the 1982 killing of William Heitzman, a punk musician who performed under the name Billy Balls, shot dead in his East Village storefront apartment, allegedly by an undercover cop. Wright happens to be the child of Rebecca Wright, then-girlfriend of Billy, whose loss would haunt her life and by extension IO’s. Stories this personal are rarely so well reported, but Billy Balls succeeds in finding answers to the questions it sets out to ask at a level that’s rare in podcasting, or in nonfiction storytelling in general. It’s also a great listen for anyone who wants to explore that old, dangerous New York we saw in Joker and The Deuce, and meet some of the characters who actually lived there. And Rebecca Wright is nothing if not a character.