I have listened to a very few podcasts over the years, but just recently I began listening to more of them. I realized that I had strong opinions about how the podcasts were handled, so I thought that occasionally I would review some of them. So, this week I start with my first podcast review of four podcasts about unusual occurrences or true crime.
I found all four of these podcasts in a Marie Claire article listing the 60 best current true-crime podcasts.
These four podcasts fit very neatly into two groups. Two of the podcasts are limited series about one specific crime. The other two podcasts are series that continue indefinitely in which each podcast discusses one or two unusual cases. I’ll discuss the limited series first.
Tom Brown’s Body
Tom Brown’s Body is a very professionally produced podcast by Texas Monthly. It features their seasoned reporter and published author, Skip Hollandsworth, in a series of eight 45-minute episodes about the effect of an unsolved crime on a small Texas town. Or was it a crime? A popular high school boy first went missing and then was discovered dead, but it’s not clear whether the death is a suicide or a murder.
Of course, with this powerful magazine to produce it, there is not a glitch in the production, but also impressive is the writing and interview technique of this scripted podcast. Everything about this podcast is interesting and professional. I don’t mean to imply that I am biased toward a professional vs. unprofessional podcast, just that there is nothing to criticize. I found this podcast very interesting.
Paper Ghosts is also a scripted podcast produced by iHeart Radio of ten half-hour episodes. It features true-crime writer M. William Phelps (at one point he asks a witness to call him M), and is about the disappearances or murders of several young girls and women near his home town in New England during the early 1970’s. It is also professionally produced.
While Hollandsworth’s interviews in Tom Brown’s Body had the more conventional purpose of just investigating the history and current status of the case, and the effect the case has on the town, Phelps is actively trying to solve the murders, or at least the podcast gives that impression. He is also very self-promotional and constantly brings himself into focus during the podcast. (I don’t mean he interviews people; I mean he talks about himself and his efforts a lot.) One serious negative for me as a grammar nerd was that, although this podcast is also scripted, he makes a few but consistent grammatical errors. I am not familiar with him as a true crime writer, but I hope he has a good editor. I found this podcast interesting, but I felt it was more repetitive than Tom Brown’s Body and less impressive. I’m also not clear on the meaning of the title.
And here’s a bitchy remark: We all know from studying “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” that using an initial instead of a first name is pretentious. The M is for Matthew. There’s nothing wrong with the name Matthew Phelps, M.
And That’s Why We Drink
And That’s Why We Drink is a weekly half-hour podcast featuring Christine Shiefer, a writer for Nickelodeon, and Em Schulz, a prop designer. Its focus is the supernatural and true crime, and it is much less formal than the other podcasts. It’s format is a couple of friends sitting around with drinks and telling each other spooky stories. It is produced by Kast Media, but I doubt that it is scripted, and at least the episode I listened to had none of the interim musical effects of the others or anything like that.
I have to confess that while I listened to the entirety of the first two podcasts, I could only stand listening to one episode of this one, despite the podcast being very popular. I found the format and unscripted nature of the podcast troublesome because the two women spend a lot of time chit-chatting about things that only they are interested in (like what their mothers are going to say about their podcast) and making lame jokes. Now, I listened to the first episode, and it’s very possible that they got better at this as they went along. However, this is a criticism I have had of all the two-person podcasts I have listened to.
I have more serious criticisms, though. One in particular about the first episode is that they selected some topics that most people know a lot about already, that is, the history and building of Winchester House and the Jim Jones tragedy. Contrast that with the other series I’m reviewing next, which told me about cases I’d never heard of. Again, this is just one episode, though.
What disturbed me more than that was my impression that they spent about ten minutes researching each topic. (One of them even said she looked it up the day before.) They showed an astounding ignorance of the time periods and settings of these events. For example, they made the fatuous assumption in the first story that because someone was known as the Boston Medium, he was the only medium in Boston at the time that he was consulted by Sarah Winchester. In reality spiritualism was very popular at that time and there were probably hundreds of mediums in Boston. Similarly, they basically boiled the 60’s down into sex and drugs. I would think that these two women, who (probably ironically) exclaimed that they had Master’s degrees could have put a little more effort into exploring the context of their stories.
OK, in this podcast, the two girls knew that hardly anyone was listening yet and they were just basically entertaining themselves. To be fair, I should have probably listened to a more recent episode. However, these women seemed so silly and superficial to me that I couldn’t bring myself to do it.
Supernatural with Ashley Flowers
Supernatural is a weekly podcast hosted by Ashley Flowers, a radio personality from Indiana and the creator of another podcast, Crime Junkie. My research on her, let me say right away, has indicated that she has been accused of plagiarism for some of the Crime Junkie episodes, in particular of copying other podcasts word for word. As an ex-writing instructor, I find this kind of behavior atrocious (apparently what she said in her defense was that people had copies from her as well), but I was not aware of this issue until I researched her name just now, and I didn’t see any similar allegations about Supernatural.
This podcast is concerned with unexplained cases, some of them true crime, that may involve the supernatural. I listened so far to two-and-a-half episodes. I found this series, which is produced by Parcast, to be very professional.
This podcast is clearly scripted, and in each half-hour episode Flowers covers one unusual case. Both of the complete episodes I listened to involved possible alien activity. I had not heard of either of these cases and found them interesting. One was a true-crime case about two men found dead wearing lead masks on the top of a hill near Rio de Janeiro. The other case was about possible alien abductions in 1980’s Maine. This podcast is professionally written and produced.
I ask myself “Would I return to this podcast?” for the weekly podcasts and “Would I listen to another podcast?” for the limited series that I have finished listening to.
In order from best to worst:
- Tom Brown’s Body: Would I listen to another podcast from Skip Hollandsworth? Yes
- Supernatural: Would I return to this podcast? Maybe, if I just consider the podcast and not the plagiarism charge
- Paper Ghosts: Would I listen to another podcast from M. William Phelps? Probably not
- And That’s Why We Drink: Would I return to this podcast? No
I just started out listening to these podcasts for my own amusement, but if there is interest in more reviews, I will take it on as more of a research project. Did you enjoy these reviews? Are there any podcast topics you would suggest I look into? Of course, the next review will be of book podcasts.