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Online True Crime’s Not Doing So Hot

Elizabeth Technology October 6, 2022

You go to your computer. You see a headline for something clickbait-y, maybe “Insane murder finally solved thirty years later”, or “Who did it? Murder Analysis” or “Was [This Missing Person]’s Case Actually a Murder?” The thumbnails range from people making the stereotypical Youtube thumbnail ‘shocked’ face to pictures of the victim, the suspect, and everything in between.

Seems a little weird, right? Feels a little wrong? The same format used to post and boost recipe hacks on Youtube is being used to advertise true crime podcasts, chase clout, and earn fame, and listeners are beginning to realize what the bottom chunk of the true crime community is turning into.

The Idea Is Sometimes Good

Blasting the details of a missing persons case around town or across the internet is nothing new. The more people know something’s amiss, the more likely that amiss thing is to be corrected. Missing kids might be reunited with their families if some stranger recognizes them from the back of the milk carton, and sometimes calls for witnesses who may have seen or heard something produce useful information.

The original concept for cold case podcasts was similar – if enough people hear about it, one of those listeners might actually have some useful info that leads to the case being reopened and the mystery solved! And sometimes it did. There are a scattered handful of cold cases that were solved (or at least got a very probable answer) thanks to the wide reach of the True Crime genre. True Crime picked up a sort of altruistic bent to it thanks to this mindset, but it also subconsciously gained the far more damaging idea that a case is always eventually solvable if only enough people hear about it. If a tree falls in the woods, someone heard it.

Here is where the problems start. While some people reach out to these podcasts in order to spread the word about their case, many of the folks involved in cold cases don’t, not for a lack of knowledge about the good they could do, but because they don’t want to. They don’t believe the internet can solve it, and they want to move on.

The Victims’ Families

And that’s their right as the survivors. Treatment of the victim’s families as another willing part of the show is one of the biggest reasons all of Online True Crime’s flaws are coming to a head. People chase entertainment. They chase recognition. They seek out Q and As by authors and writers. Whodunnits always end with the bad guy thrown in jail. But that’s fiction. True Crime is, literally, true crimes. Nonfiction. Stuff that’s only public knowledge because of how crime reporting laws work. The effect is worse if it’s an unsolved cold case.

Because the cold case is a cold case due to lack of evidence, the first solution True Crime fans come up with is to procure new evidence. Given the case has already been touched by police and P.I.s, there may not be any new or overlooked evidence. Sometimes, rarely, there is – but if there is, it’s likely somewhere civilians can’t reach it, either in an evidence locker somewhere, the bottom of a river, inside private property, etc. Lacking new physical evidence, all they have left to explore is witness testimony.

This has, in some cases, lead to the victims’ family being treated like part of an ARG or an escape room where a neat and tidy answer not only exists, but exists within reach of the true crime community, and they’re supposed to be able to find it. If they could just find one or two more pieces of evidence, they could solve a murder! If the family could just reveal one or two more juicy details over Twitter DMs to a total stranger, they could win the game and solve the crime like they’re supposed to. As a reminder, not all of the victims’ families and friends have been asked beforehand if they want to be a part of this. If they’re unlucky enough to be findable, and the show’s big enough for some fans to ignore common sense… well.

While sometimes families are eagerly waiting for new info, anything at all that a podcast might dredge up, some are just trying to move on with their lives when a stranger pops into their DMs asking them to recount the worst day they’ve ever had, reopening old wounds only to get nothing new out of it.

Major props to the true crime groups that actually ask first if living relatives want a case covered – not all of the shows do.

Lies and Speculation

This desire for a neat and tidy answer can still create problems even if it doesn’t turn into interrogating the family.

As I covered in another article, sometimes the facts of the case aren’t consistent across shows… because some of them are stretching the truth, failing to research a claim, or otherwise omitting or including something that would re-frame the case. Other shows speculate, and they speculate for so long and so confidently that fans, who sometimes have no previous knowledge of a given case, believe the speculation to be more, even if the hosts didn’t mean for it to be interpreted that way. (This is not universal, but pops up sometimes even in reputable shows.)

Pointing at someone and saying “this is the most suspicious guy” isn’t necessarily a crime by itself, but if nothing is proven, and there’s not an obvious source of corruption or flaws in the case that could have led to that guy being wrongfully cleared, then it’s just more speculation. This is generally fine if everyone has been dead for some time, but doing it to people who are still alive can create problems for them, to nobody’s surprise. Are most murders and kidnappings done by someone close to the victim? Yes. Is it right to start pointing fingers just because there’s not another tidy answer? No. This isn’t a whodunnit – there doesn’t have to be a ‘solution’ within reach. Grabbing at straws does not a case solve.

General Attitude

While it didn’t start this way, many newer online true crime shows have some sort of gimmick. Some of the hosts do their makeup, some eat food, others show animations on screen while describing the case. The depersonalization of listening to someone describe a cold case as casually as they’d describe their workday while doing something like mukbang turns the case from a genuine rehashing of events into a dash of entertainment, a little sprinkle of someone else’s tragedy to get through boring homework or a commute. The attitude of True Crime as a genre has come into question because some of the hosts are treating it like show fodder first and real life events second. As a reminder, many cold case victims have family that is both alive and online to witness these videos. A casual giggle over a detail of a case isn’t so casual for them.

True crime can’t continue the way it’s going. The lack of care and mindfulness in covering the cases is starting to rot away the foundations of online true crime. Nobody wants their loved one best remembered as covered by “Boyfriend Kills Girlfriend for Saying Ex’s Name – Spicy Noodle MukBang” videos. The genre is serious – but not all of these show hosts are treating it with the care it deserves.

Podcasts, Podcasts Everywhere


Tech advancements leading to podcasts being everywhere. What happened?

There was a time when podcasts were an obscure form of entertainment. After all, in the early days of the internet, storage space for mobile devices was precious.


The Before Times


Podcasts used to be pretty rare, back when CDs were the main method of data storage. You could get okay-ish radio recordings of professionals who had advice to dispense on a CD, or you could listen to an entire album instead on that same CD.

Podcasts as a format just didn’t make sense. It’s like a radio show, but never aired live? It’s like a TV talk show, but with no footage? It’s… sort of like an audio book… but without premade content. What is it bringing to the table that’s new, exactly? The podcast’s first form was as audio-blogs, and audio blogs existed, but the people making them had to be pretty darn interesting to compete with the other entertainment available.

Especially with what a hassle it was to even get the things and store them!

It took til downloadable files could be accessed by anyone for podcasts to start growing in popularity, in the 2000’s. In the peak era of talk shows, sitting down to watch an interview was more convenient, and easier to parse. The format was tried and true! The interviewees were always interesting, and always previously vetted. Recording those off of TV could be like a podcast, but recording it from there meant recording the entire thing, not just the audio, so stripping the video just didn’t make sense if it was all already there. Format transfers were a pain for the average person with an average desktop.

Speaking of average desktops, recording equipment and studio space were also prohibitively expensive. If someone in 2004 wanted to record something, they’d have to either go to a specialty shop or settle for consumer grade microphones from Best Buy. The recording space, unless they were lucky, wasn’t soundproofed. Echoes, interruptions, editing, distributing – this is all studio-level stuff at that point in time, and studios just weren’t interested. Talk shows were live, on the radio, and sometimes available for download on the radio’s website if the radio’s host company wanted to go through the effort. That was a very powerful if. As a result, the best of the best is what most people got, classic Abbott and Costello bits and tips from self-help guides who were actually professionally trained and licensed to help people. Even then, those aren’t really like podcasts because they weren’t episodic or predictable.


The Now


Now that high-quality microphones are cheaper than they used to be, and many people have the internet speeds necessary to upload hour-long segments, nearly anybody can start a podcast. Audacity, a sound-editing program, is free to download! A decent-quality mic with a pop filter no longer costs as much as a gaming console. Of course people are going to try and get into the business.

The problems begin to arise when things like soundproofing or room noise or echo aren’t considered. Inexperienced beginners set out in echo-y rooms with audible distractions popping in every now and again. If they have the right set-up and a quiet place, they still have to jump the hurdles of adjusting their own mix, making an intro or scripting one, cutting out dead space and breathing noises, editing the final file, and finally, uploading it. It sounds so simple to just ‘make a podcast’ when there’s a ton of work hidden behind it.

Not to mention the marketing and ads, which is why so many people try to jump into podcasts in the first place. Many people misinterpret ‘audio-only’ as ‘easy-money’ but it’s really not. The effort to produce something as cleanly made as any of the top podcasts on Spotify is a full-time job in and of itself – and with so many new podcasts, content consumers aren’t going to settle for poor-quality ones anymore. This is bad news for hopefuls aiming at ad money!


The Money


Ad-reads took over Youtube after what is termed the ‘adpocalypse’. Essentially, Youtubers with good records and decent subscriber counts could be solicited to read an ad directly within the video, bypassing the Google Ads system altogether, as the Ads system was much less profitable once advertisers pulled away en masse. The format, however, was tried and true long before in early podcast break-ins. Many podcasts from the 2010’s contained ad reads as their standard, the same way radio shows did.

Ad-reads are a very good source of money. Incredibly good. Unlike Google Ads, the ads can never be pulled from the video or audio, which is good for the creator. The ad is also always tied to the content, unlike Google’s rotating reel of pre-roll ads, which is good for the advertiser! The ad’s perpetually advertising for them, even if relationships with the creator crumble. They’re worth more money because of this stability, and as a result, they’re more difficult to attain than the standard Youtube Partnership.

The bigger the podcast, the more likely it is to be approached by an advertiser, and the more potential money one could earn. Unfortunately, because so many podcasts are so opaque about their total listener counts, it’s much harder to gauge how big a channel needs to get before they can start pitching their show to the advertisers. There’s also a sort of wariness around new and upcoming shows because followers and download counts can be purchased from shady folks who specialize in bot-action. 5,000 subscribers might not be 5,000 sets of ears ready for advertisement – the efforts to cheat the system have made the system more wary, and made the bar higher for new entrants along the way.




Of course, the only consistent way to get those necessary followers is to produce consistently good content on a schedule. Not every podcast that does that succeeds, but all of the successful podcasts do that. One good episode? Easy! Two good episodes? Maybe! Three, or four, and then five when you really don’t feel like recording? Episode 6, when you’ve gotten a total of three listeners? It’s tough to find the motivation to continue. The NY Times says that between March and May of last year, only a fifth of existing podcasts released a new episode. That’s abysmal.

The question is if they can keep it going in spite of the work, or in spite of a rocky start, and many just can’t. It’s easy to talk with friends for an hour, for some people. It may be easy to spend an entire night together gabbing about whatever the current events are. It’s not easy to guide the conversation using pre-written topics, day after day, week after week. How often did you spend two solid hours just talking to people before the pandemic struck? No breaks. Very little dead space.

I would wager most people overestimate the time they can talk about something before repeating themselves, which is why so many podcasts also feature friends and interviews, a niche that’s become overdone. Having another person to bounce info off of is a great idea, but so many podcasters treat interviews as a marketing method instead of an actual interview that sorting out interesting interviews is like finding a needle in a haystack.

And then there’s the ‘friend group’ podcasts, which have the same core members, week after week. Every issue with scheduling recording time, having a quiet studio, and finding relatable talking points is magnified. That being said, they are much easier to run (and more appealing to listeners) than single-person podcasts, or rotating interview podcasts if the host is mediocre. Most radio shows have two or three people for that exact reason. Even then, running out of content is still a very real threat, and if one of the members leave? The show is as good as over.

Shows like My Brother, My Brother, and Me rely on Yahoo Answers as well as audience send-ins to build out content. Beach Too Sandy, Water Too Wet does the same, but with reviews of various locations. Other podcasts with similar formats have all but consumed the niche, and now others trying to get their own podcast off the ground are having to do “X – But With a Twist!” style content. The number of dead shows with premises like the Youtuber Mark Fischbach’s Distractable podcast, or the Joe Rogan Experience, is in the hundreds, because it’s so incredibly easy to make one episode and then bail. People starting podcasts now might only be able to get a reliable viewer base if they have their own built in off of other projects. Distractables, Very Really Good, Schmanners, etc. all come from people who have successful channels somewhere else.