Waking up this morning I followed my usual “get ready for work” routine and quickly selected a podcast episode to play in the background. I decided to skip my usual, more light hearted comedy podcast in favour a true crime series I’d hear a lot about: Phoebe’s Fall.
I managed to get through the first two episodes before the discomfort became too much - why was I listening to this morbid account of a young woman’s death, told by two men with the obvious agenda of needing to entertain? Did they make this podcast because they stumbled upon her case and felt compelled to address the inconsistencies? Was the aim to raise awareness? To change the laws that Phoebe down so horribly?
Sadly, if unsurprisingly, the answer to those questions is a fat, resounding no. In fact, in a Q&A with Phoebe’s Fall’s producers, when asked about the inspiration behind the podcast, producer Siobhan McHugh responded that host Richard Baker’s “antennae were raised” when he covered the inquest into Phoebe's death. He was working as a journalist when he heard Serial and thought “that’s a good listen, and audio is easy, so I’ll make a podcast.” That’s the impression I got too. When asked about the preparation that went into creating the series, the team talked about the editing process - how they added sounds for texture and experimented with pace for “maximum impact”.
I turned the whole thing off when I heard their call to the woman who’d found Phoebe’s body. She’d quit her job as a janitor, unconsolable and traumatised. She’d found Phoebe in a pool of her own blood, after she “fell” twelve floors, through a garbage shoot and rubbish compactor. She could not fathom working in the building any longer. The wannabe podcast hosts ring her up, “Hello? Hi, we wanted to talk to you about the Phoebe Handsjuk issue.” No reassuring build up, no empathy or compassion for someone they knew had been very seriously affected by what had happened. That “conversation” lasted all of ten seconds. She didn’t want to relive what was likely one of the scariest and most unsettling experiences of her life.
This is not a first by any means. As a society we have long glamorised, dramatised and sensationalised the acts of serial killers and murderers. There is a cultural obsession with murder mysteries - from Agatha Christie’s Whodunits to the Jack the Ripper tour buses that, to this day, will take you on a tour of all the places an uknown man assaulted and dismembered at least five women. However, with podcasts, this territory becomes more dangerous. To turn a murder story into a film and cast Zac Effron as your Ted Bundy (still not sure why this happened), you’d need a multi-million budget and the backing of a production house - just to start with. To make a podcast, on the other hand - well - anyone can make one. And it’d cost them virtually zero. So, if just about anyone can make a true crime podcast, who is vetting them? Can they really just find information from controversial stories, look up the victims’ friends and family and give them a call?
Just last month, the well known series Crime Junkie found itself involved in a rather ugly plagiarism scandal, as the producers were accused of ripping off the work of former reporter, Cathy Fry. In a post she left on the podcasts’ Facebook page, she got to the crux of the problem. “You relied on my series about Kacie Woody to air your podcast, which, I would assume, profits by the sharing of crime stories. At one point, you quoted a portion of MY copyrighted story almost verbatim,”. Another podcast based on existing research, leveraged to create a compelling story, ultimately, as a means to a financial end.
It would seem there are two types of True Crime podcasts. Ones that stem from a thirst for justice, and ones from the people who see an opportunity for a saleable narrative. Serial, the podcast that supposedly inspired Phoebe’s Fall, documents the efforts of a journalist to figure out the truth behind an extremely shoddy investigation. The family of a young boy incarcerated for the murder of his girlfriend reached out to Sarah Koenig, begging her to help them after seeing how her world class reporting had made a difference in a similar case. The podcast was downloaded over 250 million times - a huge commercial success. I can’t help but think that this is the part that the producers of Phoebe’s Fall found so inspiring.