True Crime: out with the new, in with the old
There is a line, in the final episode of the new Apple original podcast Project Unabom, taken out of the mouth of the Unabomber himself. “My bombing campaign ended 22 years ago, my trial was completed 19 years ago,” the anti-tech domestic terrorist wrote in a 2017 letter. “Yet all through the intervening years, over and over and over again ad nauseam, the media keep putting on these programmes about me: why?”
Why? Well, Apple’s new podcast, made with hot production company Pineapple Street and hosted by Eric Benson, is as good an explanation as any. The story of the Unabomber has all the ingredients for a hit true crime podcast: a puzzling violent crime, an enigmatic disinformation campaign, a multi-year manhunt, and, at its core, a protagonist fuelled by more interesting (if no more honourable) impulses than mere love of murder. The hunt for the Unabomber was gripping when it was in play, and after the story unravelled and Ted Kaczynski, a reclusive former math professor, was unveiled as the bomber, the tale was elevated to legend. This week, a fairly random week in the history of the Unabomber, Kaczynski’s Wikipedia page ranked as the 1083rd most visited on that site, just ahead of John Travolta and Cloud Computing.
Ranking 1083rd did, however, make him very much the second most interesting Ted. His namesake, Ted Bundy, ranked 513th. And the list is littered with morbid revelations, most notably how highly consumed the pages for various mass shootings are (some form of that represents 13th, 18th, 35th, 38th, 55th, 65th, 66th etc place on the list). Art and literature, the history of the world we live on, the science of how our home planet spins in the universe, are all subordinate, in the minds of Wikipedia users, to serial killers (and former child actresses).
Since his capture in 1996, the incarcerated Luddite Kaczynski has been the subject of numerous pop cultural reimaginings: a 1996 TV movie called Unabomber: The True Story, followed by a play, P.O. Box Unabomber, a 2017 docu-series, Manhunt: Unabomber, and a feature film from 2021, Ted K. Apple’s new podcast is only the latest high profile retelling of the story, and if I search ‘Unabomber’ in my podcast app I also turn up the following productions: episodes of Stuff You Should Know, Killer Pysche, Real Crime Profile, and a whole series of Wondery’s leviathon, American Scandal. The world needs another telling of the Unabomber story like it needs a new (perhaps gender swapped?) Romeo and Juliet.
And yet… I enjoyed Apple’s Project Unabom a lot. It was forensic, equivocal and packed with interviews from firsthand sources. It was exactly what a true crime podcast should be, even if it lacked the suspense of not knowing who the culprit was (and Benson set out his stall early on, acknowledging that anyone interested enough to listen to a Unabomber podcast knows, at this point, that Ted Kaczynski was the killer). It reminded me, in a very good way, of the Monster series of podcasts made by TenderfootTV. Monster: Zodiac Killer, Monster: DC Sniper and Atlanta Monster were, despite the somewhat trashy name, very interesting retellings of some of the more significant and thrilling crimes in American history, chock full of original research. The Unabomber and Zodiac Killer are probably two of the most over-covered men in American history, and yet there’s still space to do it well.
True crime is, after all, part of the foundation of podcasting. Even if you’re a cynical podcaster who is sniffy about the genre (how early it was on the scene and how big an impact it’s had) there’s no denying that Serial effectively reframed podcasts. Suddenly they were a medium that had important, original and water cooler content, which could no longer be avoided. If you wanted to be part of the zeitgeist, you had to be competent at accessing podcasts. And, for this reason, true crime still continues to be a dominant genre in our sector, even as we all witness the creep of comedy and business aspirational podcasts. But true crime is hard. It requires more than just a couple of charismatic hosts and a good guest booker. It requires months, if not years, of research and writing, sound design and scoring. And if you’re covering something that hasn’t been covered before, you need to establish access, firstly, and then see how the case unfolds.
True crime is expensive, difficult and fraught with creative uncertainties. Since Serial, the number of truly great true crime podcasts tackling cases that haven’t been given the full Unabomber or Zodiac treatment could probably be counted on a hand or two. S-Town (although that wasn’t really true crime), Root of Evil, West Cork and Bear Brook spring to mind (though the latter three all dealt with crimes that were pretty famous, albeit more locally than globally). But the idea of true crime podcasts as an investigative medium — a cliche that has been compounded by Disney+’s, admittedly excellent, Only Murders in the Building — is increasingly false. Indeed, even podcasts like Manhunt: Zodiac Killer and Project Unabom, which do original research and bring in expert voices and eye witnesses, are becoming rarer. Instead, the true crime model is moving over to something more akin to a dramatic reading of a Wikipedia page, where a couple of hosts, in a studio, tell the story of a crime and discuss some of its nuances. Jokes, diversions and digressions abound.
This is obviously a cheap way of doing true crime, though it relies on a lot of unpaid and unrewarded labour from the scores of internet detectives who make it their lives’ missions to catalogue and disseminate comprehensive timelines and evidence. And you can see why the risks with this approach are lower: a show that has a guaranteed audience of 200,000 listeners per episode is going to make the same money from reading out a Reddit thread as they will from spending months conducting original interviews and doing field recordings. This is not to mention the fact that, if you are doing original reporting, there is a strong chance that the project won’t come off. Serial, the ur-example in this genre, got lucky that their frustratingly ambivalent ending didn’t put listeners off (perhaps because it was huge hit long before people realised there would be no final act revelation). Many potential projects have been less lucky: every production company in the world has a show that got spiked or just fizzled out, either because the crime was solved too simply, or because not enough hard evidence has ever appeared. The perfect crime for podcast presentation is surprisingly rare.
Which is why I am supportive of a back-to-basics approach, like that employed by the makers of Project Unabom. An old story, well told, is always going to be preferable to a new story, told with more holes than Sonny Corleone. It’s a compromise that might just ensure journalistic integrity for the true crime genre going forward, because the alternative, from the American Scandal playbook, is unpalatable. We don’t need or want to reach the ad nauseam point with any story we’re telling, whether it’s Kaczynski or Bundy, Zodiac or Golden Gate, but, ultimately, audiences are best served by good storytelling. And good storytelling is easier when you know you’ve got a good story.
This is not to discourage pioneers in the true crime genre, and I truly hope there are people out there right now, skulking around crime scenes with a shotgun mic and a dream. I don’t doubt that the *best* true crime podcast I will hear in the next 5 years will tell the story of a crime I’d never even heard of. But if you want to push on into this genre, then you shouldn’t be afraid of going back on yourself, retracing your steps and telling a historical story. There are always interesting and new ways to approach even the most over saturated tales — just listen to Project Unabom for an example.