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Insider: September 24, 2021 — The Petito case and the true-crime wave

Y’all! It’s Aria! I’m back, and I’m now also at aria.bracci@voxmedia.com

Send me secrets! Or just send me scoops. Either way, my ears are open. Now, some analysis, then some news.

Gabby Petito, podcasts, and missing voices. Over the past few weeks, the internet made the disappearance and death of social-media figure Gabby Petito its business. On one side, people posted TikToks aggregating news updates, and on the other, major news publications maintained live-update pages, each ostensibly feeding the other as the focus on the story grew and grew. 

There’s a direct line from the rise of true crime podcasts to people’s recent investment in Petito. Serial set the precedent of becoming directly involved with suspects and trials, and many true-crime shows followed in its wake, though they often took the now-ubiquitous approach of recounting cases from decades past. These newer true-crime shows have ostensibly taken off for the same reason podcasts did as a whole: they lowered the barrier for non-journalists to enter the scene, weigh in, and even find entertainment.

The whole “loving crime” thing has always rubbed me the wrong way, so when I saw people who disclaim up front that they’re not experts reporting on Petito, I winced. Were they trying to be Sarah Koenig, or were they being murderinos? The potential to confuse the two is a product of the formlessness of podcasts, and it feels rife for missteps and misinformation — which, you know, we have a problem with.

That said, the net effect of the relentless exposure of Petito’s case appears to have been positive. In reality, podcasts “covering” the “breaking story” were likely already late to the game, summarizing existing coverage rather than adding potentially untrue information to it (the same can’t be said of TikTok and other social media, where there’s a faster turnaround). That ostensibly had the effect of increasing the number of people who cared about the story, talked about it to a friend, and so on. Then, as Delia Cai pointed out for Vanity Fair, another social-media couple was able to turn up useful information within their own video footage after being alerted to what they should be looking for. The noise had an impact. But the question remains: why the frenzy around Petito specifically? 

Petito’s large social media following probably set the ball in motion, and some people think her identity as a young white woman kept it rolling. Stephen King agreed with the unfortunate assertion that, if Petito were Black, the case wouldn’t have received the same attention. And it’s a part of a trend, at least in Wyoming, of almost twice as many white victims receiving press attention and calls to action when they disappear, as opposed to Indigenous victims.

Journalist Connie Walker has been trying to rebalance the narrative in the podcast space, reporting on the disappearances of Indigenous women from an Indigenous perspective, such as for the Spotify Original Stolen: The Search for Jermain and the series Missing & Murdered: Finding Cleo. When I reached out to Walker to get her thoughts, she was reporting in the field and wasn’t able to comment by the time of this newsletter, but users on Twitter have been directing interested people to Walker’s work.

Simmering podcast scene makes its Times debut. Something else that’s gotten some recent press coverage is the success of podcasting in Cuba, where lots of shows have launched, found excited audiences, and managed to avoid censorship. That’s despite many websites continuing to be restricted by the government and mobile internet access coming as late as 2018. Around then, a professor at Northeastern University (my former employer) was leading journalism students to Havana in part to learn reporting skills from local journalists, as they’d already conceived countless creative approaches to getting their voices heard, but not censored. Clubhouse filled a similar void for some in Saudi Arabia and China, before privacy concerns in the former and the banning of the app in the latter. If nothing else, Cuban audio production is worth keeping an eye on going forward since it’s already garnered an eye — and solid lessons — for years.

An update from the Ear Hustle team. Rahsaan “New York” Thomas, co-host of Ear Hustle as of 2019, has delivered another update in the trade publication Current about the approaches taken when producing shows in collaboration with people in prison. (Thomas is still incarcerated.) 

After previously documenting such things as what it was like to be on the “inside” during COVID, Thomas confirms that “[t]o date, Ear Hustle has been able to hire everyone who worked on the podcast in prison once they were paroled,” and that he hopes to follow in their footsteps. The first step would be receiving parole himself, then negotiating if he could continue to do the work he’s been doing, for which he currently gets paid only $36 per month.

Thomas also notes that the show Uncuffed (produced between KALW and inmates at California prisons) has taken cues from Ear Hustle in more ways than one, which feels optimistic, if anything: the Uncuffed team hired Eric “Maserati E” Abercrombie as its sound designer, who was partially trained by Ear Hustle’s sound designer Antwan “Banks” Williams, once he was on parole.

And then I’ve got just a few more things for you before we wrap up the week.

News ‘n’ notes

  • The subscription-based sports site The Athletic — which has a number of paywalled podcasts, including one produced with Wondery — has hired a firm to help it find a buyer that could meet its $750M+ asking price; this comes after reports of unsuccessful negotiations with Axios and The New York Times. A point of comparison is Spotify buying The Ringer, which also splits sports coverage between writing and audio and went for about $200M. While The Athletic brings in subscription revenue, its proposed price tag is still over 3x as high as The Ringer’s.
  • Apple TV Plus’ Foundation: The Official Podcast debuts today, the same day as the Apple TV Plus show Foundation (the kind you watch with your eyes). Since the latter is an adaptation of a book series, podcast host Jason Concepcion (former host of Binge Mode, currently of Crooked Media) along with David S. Goyer (Foundation showrunner and executive producer) will be exploring how that adaptation came to be. So… lmk when there’s a book about how the podcast was made, I guess? Also, this is part of a trend of Apple TV+ companion podcasts, though this one seems to have more layers to explain than usual.
  • Clubhouse introduced its “Wave” feature, which allows you to start one-on-one audio chats — and which looks a bit like the features other apps introduced to compete with Clubhouse. Anyway, whereas before you could only do the audio equivalent of flagging down a colleague while in an ongoing meeting, now you can just chat by the water cooler; just “wave” at them and wait for them to accept. You can keep it just between the two of you, or you can add more participants. Word.