Streaming now: Audio investigations

Person wearing headphones (IRW illustration)

By Lucas Smolcic Larson

We might be living in the golden age of podcasts.

Investigative journalists, from reporters in the world’s largest newsrooms to independent producers striking out on their own, are using audio to tell stories previously reserved for 5,000-word stories.

At IRW, we’ve curated a list of some of the best investigative podcasts for your binging pleasure.

In the Dark – Season one of “In the Dark” by APM Reports examines the kidnapping of 11-year-old Jacob Wetterling in rural Minnesota in 1989 — a case that drew national attention and resulted in the first federal laws establishing sex offender registries, but also one that remained unsolved for 27 years. “We didn’t see ourselves playing the role of detective in the case,” lead reporter Madeleine Baran told Esquire. “We saw ourselves as investigating the investigation.” It’s an ethos that “In the Dark” has carried into its second season, an exploration of the repeat trials of Curtis Flowers, a black man in Mississippi who has been tried six times by a white district attorney for a set of murders in 1996 he says he didn’t commit. The Flowers case is now before the U.S. Supreme Court, and lawyers have cited APM’s reporting in their briefs. “In the Dark” is a meticulously told indictment of the failures of the criminal justice system — and has quickly become the gold standard for long-form audio investigative journalism.

Bear Brook – “I am not a crime reporter,” says New Hampshire Public Radio’s Jason Moon in the first episode of Bear Brook. That is, until 2015, when he went to cover a press conference about two sets of unidentified bodies discovered in 1985 and 2000, just 20 minutes from his newsroom in New Hampshire’s Bear Brook State Park. The assignment sent him down a rabbit hole that resulted in the “Bear Brook” podcast, in which Moon and his team examine every aspect of the case. Without spoiling too much, the series ends up taking a deep look into genetic genealogy, the combination of DNA testing and traditional genealogical research that has recently helped crack cold cases like that of California’s Golden State Killer but has also provoked criticism from civil liberties advocates worried about the power it gives law enforcement.

Caliphate – A year in the life of Rukmini Callimachi, ISIS correspondent for The New York Times, has its ups and downs. In “Caliphate,” slickly produced by the Times’ Andy Mills, there’s dark humor (“Fat shamed by ISIS,” Callimachi says while discussing her experiences with teenage trolls in an Islamic State chat room) and legitimate danger (at one point, the FBI warned Callimachi of credible threats against her life, she reveals). “Caliphate” follows Callimachi to Mosul, where she dashes into bombed-out buildings occupied moments before by ISIS fighters, stuffing any documents left behind into trash bags she carries. The series also centers around a relationship Callimachi develops with a former member of the Islamic State, a Canadian who calls himself Abu Huzaifa, who reveals intimate and gruesome details about the life of an ISIS recruit, inspiring both the sympathy and revulsion from the listener.

Serial – At the genesis of the so-called “podcast boom” in 2014, Sarah Koenig pioneered the behind-the-scenes approach to audio investigations that now defines the genre with “Serial.” The podcast’s third season fashions a main character out of a place, the 26 floors of Cleveland’s Justice Center. For one year, “Serial” producers follow public defenders, prosecutors, cops and those wrapped up in the everyday workings of the legal system in Cleveland — chosen because of its lack of restrictions on journalists’ recording in courtrooms. Season three’s revelations may not surprise — it’s a story that repeats itself day after day in jurisdictions across the country — but the series stands as a compelling examination of “ordinary” American injustice.

Threshold – Stories from the far north usually center on ice and barren glacial landscapes, but 4 million people live in the eight Arctic countries. Amy Martin and the team behind the independent podcast “Threshold” spent 18 months reporting and spoke to hundreds of Arctic residents, including indigenous peoples and polar scientists. The result is a human portrait of a place that’s been experiencing the effects of climate change for decades. Along the way, Martin visits Shismarerf, Alaska, an island being consumed by the sea and also spends time with the Aleksandersens, a Sámi family struggling to continue their traditional practice of reindeer herding in northern Norway.

Missing and Murdered: Finding Cleo – Cree journalist Connie Walker has reported extensively on the epidemic of missing and murdered indigenous women and girls in Canada, who are six times as likely to be victims of homicide than non-indigenous women. For season two of “Missing and Murdered” from the Canadian Broadcasting Corp., she digs into the case of a young Cree girl, Cleopatra Semaganis Nicotine, taken by child welfare workers in Saskatchewan in the 1970s. Cleo and her siblings were adopted into different white families across Canada and the U.S. as part of the “Sixties Scoop,” when provincial governments separated thousands of First Nations children from their families. Alongside Cleo’s siblings, Walker uncovers new details about their sister’s life.

Headlong: Running from Cops – Dan Taberski and the team at Headlong take a look at “Cops,” one of the longest-running reality shows in history — and a cultural phenomenon that has profoundly shaped how Americans understand policing. But as Taberski, an ex-reality TV producer himself, chronicles, many featured on the show during the “worst days of their lives” have paid the price for its success. The team behind “Running from Cops” watched hundreds of episodes, talked to “Cops” producers and interviewed people featured on the show. Their conclusions are fascinating, whether you’re a diehard “Cops” fan or you’ve never seen an episode.

RevealNews, from the Center for Investigative Reporting, one of the first investigative podcasts, continues its work this summer with a two-part series called “Hate in Homeland.” Reveal’s radio show and podcast are co-produced with PRX.

MORE OF OUR FAVORITE PODCASTS:

  • USA Today’s “The City,” a portrait of Chicago corruption. ABC News’ “The Dropout,”a deep-dive into the rise and fall of Theranos founder Elizabeth Holmes.
  • ProPublica and WNYC’s “Trump, Inc.,” an ongoing investigation of the Trump family business.
  • The Intercept’s “Murderville, GA,” an examination of law enforcement’s failings around a string of brutal murders in a small Southern town.
  • WBEZ Chicago and the Chicago Tribune’s “16 Shots,” the story of the police killing of Laquan McDonald.
  • Minnesota Public Radio’s “74 Seconds,” about the traffic stop shooting of Philando Castile by a police officer.
  • KPCC’s “The Big One,” a look into the catastrophic earthquake predicted to hit southern California in the coming decades.
  • The Los Angeles Times’ “Man in the Window,” about the Golden State Killer.
  • WBUR and The Boston Globe’s “Last Seen,” delving into the still-unsolved art heist at Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in 1990.
  • NPR’s “White Lies,” the retelling of the 1965 murder of a minister by white segregationists in Selma, Alabama.

Did we forget your favorite investigative podcast? Tweet at us (@irworkshop) and let us know.