Investigative reporting has found a new home: podcasts

Jay Allison's housefloat in Woods Hole, Massachusetts. Photo by Stephan Junker.

It all started on a houseboat. Well, technically, a “housefloat,” clarifies Jay Allison, the veteran public radio producer. “There’s a whole community of these things; they look like tiny cottages.”

Allison lives in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, a tiny seaside village nestled in the southwest corner of Cape Cod. A year ago, he had an unexpected visit that led to an even more unexpected proposal. Raney Aronson-Rath, executive producer of the PBS series Frontline, and Andrew Metz, the managing editor, trekked down from Boston to persuade Allison of one thing: to help them create and launch the documentary program’s inaugural podcast. The trio took to the housefloat and discussed the idea as they bobbed in the sea. “I couldn’t find a compelling reason to say no,” Allison says.

This week, their vision materialized with the launch of a new investigative podcast, Frontline Dispatch, produced at WGBH in Boston and distributed biweekly by award-winning media company PRX. The six-episode series kicks off with an hourlong look at the prevalence of child marriage in the US. In a well-paced 52-minute stretch, listeners hear the intimate tale of an Idaho woman who got pregnant at 14 and then married a 24-year-old man after prodding from her family. “There are certain things that you just need to see to understand. We’re looking for important stories that can’t be told that way, like stories around mental illness where confidentiality is an issue, or like the first story on child marriage where you need to be sensitive to the principals involved,” explains Allison, the show’s senior editor and creative director.

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Frontline Dispatch is part of the growing ranks of investigative podcasts. There’s Reveal, from the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, arguably the grandmother of investigative podcasts. And APM Reports, the longform companion of American Public Media, now has a full suite of investigative podcasts, like the Peabody Award-winning In the Dark and its recent Educate series. The rise of investigative podcasts is a throwback to the early days of public radio. In the 1970s and ’80s, NPR invested heavily in longform documentary work, which disappeared as broadcasts became more segmented.

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Investigations have become a staple of the podcast world, due in large part to the fandom surrounding true-crime productions like Serial and Criminal, and to an extent, the gumshoe-inspired Mystery Show. On those shows, the hosts assume the role of detective, bringing listeners along for the ride as they unspool threads of the mysteries at hand. The new crop of investigative podcasts like Frontline Dispatch take a different approach. They aren’t solving mysteries, or even attempting to, but revealing truths—about abuses of power, environmental degradation, and so on. They’re full of twists and turns like Serial and Mystery Show before them, and entertain as much as they inform. But solvability is not the goal; accountability is. It’s the same logic heralded by a long tradition of print and visual investigative reporters.

“We ask the same questions: Why should I care about this? Who is that person? Has that chapter ended?” Allison explains. “I need something that makes me go ‘What?’”

Frontline Dispatch’s first episode is the kind of story the Frontline TV team hasn’t been able to capture visually—and also emblematic of the work they plan to tackle in the burgeoning medium. More than that, the first episode embodies the power of audio, specifically podcasting, to dive deep into an investigative narrative, one involving months, even years, of reporting. Investigative podcasters have the same end goal as reporters at places like ProPublica and Frontline. Their path to that goal just looks—well, sounds—a bit different. It’s less a reinvention of the wheel, more a technological advancement. “The successful long-form print piece, the successful television documentary, the successful podcast will all be built around storytelling and narratives of people who are affected by what’s being investigated,” says Stephen Smith, executive editor and host of APM Reports.

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What’s different about investigative podcasting is the approach. Like its counterparts in print and video, there both advantages and challenges inherent to audio. For one, voice matters more to the ear than to the eye. A single through-line character is key. The fewer voices in a story, the better, as it can be difficult for listeners to discern so many voices. “You can’t have multiple characters in a given story unless you’re invested in them,” Aronson-Rath says. “You understand who they are, and you remind people who they are all the time. I thought you’d be able to hear the difference, and I definitely underestimated how careful you have to be about choosing a protagonist.”

The word “intimate” is used a lot when discussing podcasts. And it applies to the investigative kind, too. In podcasts, you’re not only hearing real voices, but also the emotion behind what those voices are saying. That’s something that can be lost on the page or screen. In a way, there’s an implied accountability; the tone acts as de facto verification in the investigative context. “Ear is such a great discerner of truth,” says John Barth, chief content officer at PRX. The award-winning media company co-produces Reveal podcast with the Center for Investigative Reporting and is also the distributor of Frontline Dispatch.

People always say reading investigative news is like eating your broccoli. You know it’s good for you, but it doesn’t necessarily taste so good going down. So someone on our staff said, “Let’s make it broccoli tempura because it’s good for you and it’s delicious, too.”

“When listening to an audio story, you’re usually listening by yourself, most of the time by yourself through headphones, or going for run, or at work, or in the car. It’s speaking directly to you, not to an audience,” explains Madeleine Baran, host of In the Dark. “There’s something really personal about that.” Her nine-episode podcast, a production of APM Reports, is the best true-crime podcast since Serial (some will say it’s even better). Unlike Serial, it’s not a whodunit, and it doesn’t focus on the crime itself. Instead, as good investigations do, the podcast weaves the story of Jacob Wetterling, an 11-year-old boy who went missing in October 1989, into a larger commentary about how law enforcement mishandled what became one of the most notorious child abductions in history. For Baran, the trick is to write in a way she’d speak to a friend: “You’re telling one person this story, not 10 people.” To spend so much time on the reporting and not as much on writing is always a mistake.

One challenge in audio storytelling is the inability for listeners to reread a paragraph for clarity. But podcasters have developed a clever workaround that has its roots in radio: signposting.A signpost is a sentence or two marking the transition of one thought to the next. Sometimes it’s a reminder of who character X is, other times it marks the end of chapter à la “We’ve tackled this, now let’s move on to this other thing.” The goal is to repeat key information without being too repetitive or dull. “We’re a medium people can consume when they’re doing something else,” Smith says. “It’s an opportunity to lose their attention.”

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There’s a nimbleness to podcasting, at least compared with TV documentary investigations. In podcasting, fewer people need to be in the room for an interview, usually just the reporter and maybe a producer. A microphone is less intrusive than an entire camera crew, though, of course, more apparent than a pencil and pad of paper. You can take a walk with an interview subject, or sit beside them on a couch. After a while, the microphone seems to disappear. Aronson-Rath calls this a “light footprint,” one not possible with Frontline’s traditional documentaries. “There are multiple people in the room and you get a different type of intimacy than you do in audio where you can just go in on stories that people want to tell an individual,” she explains.

It’s a less intrusive style of reporting, which means podcasting allows for a different type of investigative story to be told. “Things that happen in the dark, that are secret, things that require a feeling of a person’s soul,” Allison says. “There some things that are communicated beautifully through audio. Just taking away the eyes kind of leaves your heart open a little bit, because you’re not making judgments in the same way.” The eye is prejudicial, and isolating the voice can translate in a more palatable way.

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A big issue in traditional investigative reporting is its inability to transcend the wonkiness. “People can’t remember numbers; they’re boring,” Baran jokes. In print and film, the reporter is able to break down data and research with visual cues—charts, graphs, infographics, GIFs. With podcasting, you don’t have that, and it’s a challenge to communicate the scope of an investigation without the quantitative support. That doesn’t mean podcasts exclude numbers and data in their stories; they’re just forced into being a bit more creative about how they present them. You can’t just say the numbers, you need to plan for them.

One workaround is to treat the data as a character, like the APM team did with In the Dark. The show’s eighth episode is a case study in creativity, During their investigation, Baran and her team discovered the Stearns County Sheriff’s Office had a shockingly low clearance rate. That means they weren’t making arrests or solving many crimes over the years. One of APM’s data reporters, Will Craft, spent months analyzing municipal data, and instead of just listing off the rate, they incorporated his quest for the data into the storyline. So, when you hear Baran react to Craft’s discovery, it’s genuine. She acts as a surrogate for the listener, someone hearing the information for the first time. “We are in anticipation in data,” Baran says. “By the time we get there, it’s a suspense moment.”

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Another suspense moment happens later in the episode when Baran heads to the sheriff’s office. There she presents her findings to the sheriff, who, as it turns out, didn’t know his own department’s clearance rates. “This takes way more than five minutes to unfold in story, and we build to this moment to where you’re really caring,” she explains. This structure was intentional; the audience needs to care about the data before you even tell them what it is. The episode inspired listeners from across the country to investigate their town, city, or county’s clearance rates. “You go into these things with an eye toward bringing something out into public domain that might create conversation, create debate and create a change that’s for the good,” says Chris Worthington, managing director of APM Reports.

At Reveal, the team has experimented with inventive ways to translate data and numbers into an audio-friendly device. In one of its early episodes, about the rate of earthquakes in Oklahoma, the team took an unconventional approach: they sonically showed the data. The team ran the data through some code to translate the time and magnitude of the quakes into keyboard notes. Reveal’s sound engineer then ran those notes through a synthesizer to enhance the musicality. Each of the “plinks” is a single earthquake. The bigger the earthquake, the lower the pitch and louder the note. “People always say reading investigative news is like eating your broccoli,” explains Kevin Sullivan, Reveal’s executive producer. “You know it’s good for you, but it doesn’t necessarily taste so good going down. So someone on our staff said, ‘Let’s make it broccoli tempura because it’s good for you and it’s delicious, too.”

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Investigative podcasting, like the medium itself, still is in its nascent stage. There are so many lessons to learn, and patterns to discover. “It’s moments after the Big Bang,” Barth jokes. Every story, and every podcast, is an opportunity to advance the medium. The challenge is to not only to tell new stories, but to tell them in a way that’s compelling and meaningful. “We don’t want it to flatten out or sound all the same,” Barth says. Investigative reporting has become a staple of journalism, and podcasting is the newest way to experience it.

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Meg Dalton is a CJR Delacorte Fellow. Find her on Twitter @megdalts.