We were on a family trip in 2018, five adults driving hours in a Jeep from Las Vegas to the Grand Canyon, and voted to listen to a podcast. That’s how “Dirty John” came into my life.
The investigative series by the LA Times’ Christopher Goffard, and the accompanying six-part podcast, reads and sounds like a mystery story: The fast courtship and then marriage of a successful Southern California interior designer to John Meehan, who she thinks is a doctor with two homes. What does she really know and what doesn’t she know? The story — recently made into a TV series with Connie Britton — was infuriating and haunting. We were yelling in the car, “How could she do that?” We were audibly sighing. We were riveted to our seats in the closing chapters when her youngest daughter arrives home from work and finds herself confronted by her mother’s husband.
It was an old-school “in the driveway moment.” We didn’t want to leave the car.
Hearing voices of individuals affected by the story, listening to natural sound and music — and the journalistic storytelling that makes an investigation memorable — are hallmarks of podcasting. Fewer people might be listening in their cars, as we did, because of the pandemic, but podcast production continues unabated.
“If I were queen of the world now … I would be telling my reporters to keep an eye open for an (audio) story that could be extracted, like a little jewel,” said Susan White, who edited Pulitzer Prize-winning stories when she was at the San Diego Union-Tribune, ProPublica and InsideClimate News. Many print and online stories are filled with facts and have heft, but she said podcasting “expands the reach.”
White worked as an editor on “Room 20,” an LA Times podcast released last year, with reporter Joanne Faryon, who had more than two years’ worth of recordings from her investigation into the identity of a longtime nursing-home patient, believed to be unconscious and known only by a nickname, “Sixty-Six Garage.” While Faryon worked on the story, she asked herself the central question, “What did I really want to know? And what I really wanted to know is: When he smiled at me whether he was really in there.”
“I would literally record every day in Room 20,” Faryon said. “I would set it on the tray table and I would just record and watch. … every now and then someone would come into the room or something would happen spontaneously, and that was the moment you were waiting for.”
White said that because Faryon had so much material, “there was nothing re-created. That’s why I keep thinking, if there is a story that you see, then you just turn on your recorder.”
Faryon’s early reports about “Sixty-Six Garage” were online at inewsource San Diego, KPBS, the San Diego Union-Tribune and the Los Angeles Times before she created the podcast. Faryon thought she could turn “Room 20” into a book, but 23 rejections from major publishers led her on a different path.
She describes the best podcasts, including “Serial,” as “telling one story over time.”
“I believe investigative journalism is really like you are solving a mystery,” she said, adding, “I think this is why we’re hooked.… We’re taking the listener with us as we discover, at the same time we make the discovery.”
For reporters to move from print and online to developing scripts for podcasting, “you almost have to release your mind,” Faryon said. “In writing news, we’re telling you everything right in the beginning: Once upon a time, there was this poor little girl, Cinderella, who ended up marrying a prince and she was happy.”
Instead, podcasting requires hints of what’s to come but not nearly as directly.
And she learned from doing “Room 20” the purpose of even getting buy-in from the principals involved can be a part of the story.
“What I learned is that I rushed ‘Room 20,’ she said, explaining that she might have had 12 episodes instead of six had she let the reader in on even more of the backstory. For example, at one point, she accused the nursing-home director of not doing enough to help his patients. She later apologized, which led to a longer conversation with him. “He really took all the risk,” she said. Even without that conversation included, though, “you see his humanity,” she said. She has enough material left over that she’s considering bonus episodes and weaving additional research she has done on other patients and on consciousness.
White has worked on investigative and long-form narratives throughout her career. “I’ve always been thinking in that structure — scenes, cliffhangers,” she said.
The key to podcasts is clarity, said Paige Hymson, a podcast producer at the LA Times, who also fact-checks, interviews and occasionally reports from the field. She said the challenge with podcasts is that they have “to be so clear,” in part because they know people often are doing other things while listening. Episodes rarely run longer than an hour and most are 30 to 45 minutes.
More than one-third of Americans now listen to podcasts every month, according to Edison Research, and 75 percent of Americans 12 and older are familiar with the format, an increase of 7 percent over the last year. Society and Culture and True Crime categories continue to be popular. Edison Research earlier this year showed that those who had their jobs reduced or eliminated were listening more, and, perhaps predictably, people whose hours working from home had increased were spending less time with podcasts. However, by the end of the second quarter of 2020, podcast listening had largely returned to normal, said Tom Webster, senior vice president of Edison Research..
Among the most popular podcasts: “The Daily” from The New York Times and “This American Life.”
White is working on another podcast with reporter Sandra Dibble, who covered the city of Tijuana for the San Diego Union-Tribune, living there for seven years, then moving back to the United States. She has since led what White describes as a “bilateral life,” going back and forth across the border to report on Tijuana for 18 additional years.
“The podcast will be about this extremely violent and international city, where people come with hopes and dreams and they try hard to push ahead … and yet it’s in the grip of the cartels,” White said. The Union-Tribune is producing “Border City.”
The approach for this podcast had to be different because Dibble’s job in Tijuana was covering daily news and writing occasional enterprise and weekend stories — not compiling notes and recordings for an audio series.
Dibble said she wanted to bring people along on her journey as she grew to love a city richer than the violence behind the headlines, and said the chance to work in a new medium is “a privilege.” But it also meant she had to do additional reporting and, of course, record interviews. What helped drive the narrative, she said, was “finding people who really understand their own story and know what they’re about.”
To do that, she tried to stay away from experts, politicians and influencers.
“I try to make it very human,” she said, which led her to interview the sister of two men who were caught up with a cartel. She had met her source previously but didn’t know her well.
“She’s very eloquent,” Dibble said. “I start to connect the dots. I was just like anybody else. Oh, yeah, right that incident, and oh, yeah, a lot of violence, and then to kind of go back and realize, wow, the effects of the violence still continue to this day for this one family, right? And this is just one family,” she said. “ Isn’t that sort of what life is about? Your family and what happened to it.”
It may sound appealing to be able to take much of your life’s work and reflect on it, but it’s also been a huge undertaking, more than a year and a half and counting. Dibble had some experience writing long pieces while at National Geographic earlier in her career, but this was harder. She had to figure out: “What’s the story? What are you trying to tell me and why should people listen?” She’s now in the studio working on the final episodes.
“I feel like I’ve gotten a lot more in-depth sort of emotionally, not just journalistically,” she said. “And if people can connect to that, I think it humanizes the city.”
All podcasts take time, sometimes years. But at Reveal at the Center for Investigative Reporting, Executive Producer Kevin Sullivan said what’s especially challenging with investigative stories is not only that they take so long to report “but that they can change as you move through them.”
He sometimes likens producing podcasts to “trying to land an airplane on a sidewalk or something because I have a massive thing.” Reveal works with its own staff and freelancers, who sometimes already have audio. But Sullivan said he likes their team involved from the beginning if possible. Often, they include digital stories on the site as well as part of the final package.
These deep investigations, such as the most recent one, “American Rehab,” which exposes how treatment for drug addiction has led to a shadow, unpaid workforce, are marked by key findings and revelations. Then the question becomes: How early do you tell your listeners what you’ve found?
“There’s a very fine line of trying to figure out how much you let people know at the very beginning versus how much you reveal over the course of this,” Sullivan said. “And that can be a difficult line to walk because you do want to establish what the stakes and the story are. Why is this important? You know, why should I spend the hour listening to your show? So I think that’s something that we fine-tune every time. And there’s not a perfect way to do it.”
In developing stories for Reveal, reporters are tasked with capturing those moments of discovery so “the listener can be in on it.”
Demand is great for these stories — Reveal airs on 500 public radio stations each week, has produced more than 250 programs since 2015 and another new show will air later this month. It will be about the impact of U.S. immigration policy in Guatemala and is being developed with a reporter who has lived there for more than 15 years.
White, too, is already at work on other podcasts. She recently finished “The Plot Thickens,” a new documentary podcast about Hollywood legends. The first in the series is the story of filmmaker Peter Bogdonavich, and executives at Turner Classic Movies asked her and Faryon to apply journalistic principles to the storyline.
“All newsrooms do really well in terms of podcasts,” Hymson of the LATimes said. “In a newsroom, you can say here’s a crime and here’s what happened and here’s all this nuance. We end up a lot of times doing bonus episodes.”
Either a bonus episode or a new podcast could bring Faryon back to “Room 20” because she became fascinated by Sixty-Six Garage’s roommate, Omar.
“It just became my life,” she said. “I have so much about Omar that really is not in the podcast. I became obsessive about learning everything I could about Omar and tracking down people in his life. … I didn’t have a choice. All I had was this story, and I didn’t have a choice but to tell it.”
Susan White is an IRW contributing editor.