Previously: Creepy Podcasts, February 2018.
It’s been more than two years since I’ve put together a standalone podcast recommendations list — time flies! — so, you know what? Let’s do that today. Here are 10 podcasts about scams, heists, and other mysteries — mostly of the true crime variety — that I think are pretty great. They’re all of the investigative journalism variety, so bear that in mind if that’s not your jam — but if it is, come on in! The water’s fine.
[Like what you read? Check out Dangerous Games To Play In The Dark, available from Chronicle Books now!]
Although I habitually include a few podcast recommendations in each year’s annual What To Do On Halloween post, I honestly haven’t been listening to podcasts as much over the year or two as I used to — hence the fact that I write about them less than I used to, as well. Why? I really couldn’t tell you. Fatigue, maybe; the podcast landscape is, frankly, over-saturated right now, and it kind of started to feel like a chore to keep up with everything.
But within the past few months, I started picking up show after show that I hadn’t listened to before — and before I knew it, I was blasting through them at an incredible speed. Most of them aren’t new releases, but as I listened, I did realize that I was zeroing in very specifically on heavily reported, investigative, true crime podcasts — the same sort of shows that originally got me listening to podcasts in the first place, all those years ago.
That’s interesting to me. I think our habits are often worth examining; when I find patterns in my own behavior, I like to think a little bit about what might be behind them. The conclusion I came to is that, although the conversational-style “comedy murder podcasts” that are so popular do have a place and serve a purpose, I personally have a hard time examining true crime from that particular perspective. The scripted, reported podcasts just tend to work better for me in these arenas.
Which brings us to today’s list: 10 true crime podcasts for those who also prefer the scripted, reported format for their listening purposes.
True crime, by the way, doesn’t have to focus on murders or serial killers. It commonly does, of course, but the genre encompasses just about any crime; indeed, lately, the kinds of true crime podcasts I’ve gravitated towards myself have focused less on murders and more more on scams, cons, heists, and unusual mysteries.
That’s also interesting to me.
So, those kinds of podcasts make up the bulk of this list. There are still a few more “traditional” true crime podcasts included within the mix, but if you’re looking for something that’s a bit of a different speed, you might find something worth checking out below. (I’ve included embeds of each one from Spotify, but they’re available pretty much anywhere you can get podcasts, so you should be able to find them all on your podcast player of choice, as well.) Here’s what I’ve been listening to lately:
Hamish Watson went by lots of names. Some knew him by his given name; others as Hamish McLaren; and still others as Max Tavita. He was charming, attractive, a surfer and a skier, and very, very wealthy. But Hamish Watson didn’t come by any of that wealth honestly: Over a number of years, he scammed numerous victims out of more than $7 million, many of whom lost their entire life’s savings to his plots and schemes.
He was caught eventually, arrested in 2017 at his home in Bondi, Australia (he was a surfer, after all), found guilty, and sentenced in 2019 to up to 16 years. But how did he get away with it for so long? That’s the story of Who The Hell Is Hamish, a podcast from The Australian and journalist Greg Bearup. Exhaustively reported, it unravels the story of Hamish Watson’s many crimes through the lens of the people who were the most affected by them.
In 2014, Elizabeth Holmes, the then-30-year-old founder and CEO of biotech company Theranos, was a bonafide star. After founding Theranos in 2003 at the age of 19, she had enjoyed a meteoric rise to fame and a reputation as the kind of genius that only comes along once in a blue moon. Her technology, claimed both Elizabeth and all of the fawning press she received at the time, would revolutionize healthcare, making blood testing cost-effective and accessible for everyone, no matter what their means might be or where they lived.
A year later, though, Holmes plummeted back to earth amidst the revelation that the abilities of Theranos’ technology had been wildly exaggerated. As the company crashed down around her, Holmes and Theranos’ Chief Operating Officer and President, Ramesh “Sunny” Balwani were indicted by a federal grand jury and hit with 11 charges.
From ABC News’ Nightline, The Dropout, which is hosted by Technology and Economics Correspondent Rebecca Jarvis,tracks the rise and fall of Holmes and Theranos in six deeply reported 45-minute episodes. For what it’s worth, I found John Carreyrou’s book Bad Blood: Secrets And Lies In A Silicon Valley Startup to be a more complete account of the story, but The Drop-Out is still worth a listen; the two pieces complement each other quite well.
In the wee hours of the morning on March 18, 1990, two men posing as police officers gained entry to Boston’s renowned Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. Within an hour, they had lifted 13 priceless works of art — paintings and sketches by Vermeer, Rembrandt, Degas, Manet, and Flinck, as well as an ancient Chinese gu and a French Imperial Eagle finial — and removed them from the museum.
None of the 13 pieces has ever been found. Nor have the thieves been identified. The theft remains one of the most notable heists in art history.
I was only five years old when the theft was carried out, so my memories of it from the time at which it actually occurred are hazy. Having grown up both in the Boston area and as the child of a museum professional, though, the heist loomed large in my life — and perhaps unsurprisingly, it continues to preoccupy me even now, when I haven’t lived in Boston for many years. Last Seen scratches that itch; a joint production of WBUR — Boston’s NPR station — and the Boston Globe, it examines everything we know about the case, from how exactly it all went down to the numerous possible culprits who have emerged over the years.
Not everyone might classify the subjects of the first two seasons of The Dream as scams or cults, but I certainly do — and so, I believe, does podcast host Jane Marie. An alum of This American Life whose work I’ve been following forever (RIP The Hairpin), Jane tackles in The Dream two topics about which people tend to have… uh… strong feelings: Multilevel marketing schemes, or MLMs, and the wellness industry more generally (which, it turns out, has quite a lot of overlap with the MLM world).
By digging both into the history behind the modern MLM and wellness industries — in the case of MLMs, actual pyramid schemes like the Plane Game; in both cases, the investigations and court cases that ultimately led not to regulation, but the lack thereof; and so on — and the machinations of how they work today, The Dream lays out the nuts and bolts of these two industries, both of which are generally much less transparent than they often appear to be.
But it also looks at the bigger picture of what it all means for us and our society — why we’re so often willing to believe things that are hooey, what they represent to us, and how they keep the myth of the “American dream” going, even when it’s to our own detriment, rather than our benefit. The Dream is one of my favorite new podcast discoveries — I really can’t recommend it enough.
Since 2011, Ross Blocher and Carrie Poppy have done a lot of… unusual things in the name of research. They’ve gotten their ears candled. They’ve attempted to use essential oils to heal all their ills. They’ve hunted ghosts on the RMS Queen Mary. They’ve covertly joined conspiracy “truther” groups. And that’s just scratching the surface. Their podcast, Oh No Ross And Carrie, has a motto, you see: “When they make the claims, we show up so you don’t have to.”
Unlike most of the other podcasts on this list, Oh No Ross And Carrie typically features a new topic each episode, rather than choosing a single topic and pursuing it for an entire season. In the podcast’s nearly decade-long lifespan, these topics have ranged from the relatively innocuous to the downright sinister — and sometimes, they do warrant a multi-part series. Their 10-part audit of Scientology, for example, is both exhaustive and considered essential listening for anyone who’s interested in what actually goes on when you join the Church of Scientology, but doesn’t, y’know, actually want to join the Church of Scientology.
I will say that there’s an episode early on in the first season that didn’t sit quite right with me; an examination of a particular religion that doesn’t seem to fall under the same umbrella as, say, Scientology (that is, it’s a legit religion that’s been around for thousands of years), the whole investigation came across as a couple of white people pushing their way into a community of already-marginalized people and othering them even more. It was actually uncomfortable enough for me to stop listening for a while — but I think as the show has gone on, they’ve gotten a little better about approaching some topics with more sensitivity. The angle of the show remains appealing to me; Blocher and Poppy are skeptical, but willing to try anything.
Reply All isn’t exactly a true crime podcast; nor is it really a mystery podcast. But it can be both — sometimes simultaneously — depending on the subject matter of the episode in question. Consider episode 136, “The Founder,” which tracks the life and times of a computer programmer-turned-cartel boss. Or episode 147, “The Woman In The Air Conditioner,” which starts out as a tale of spooky, nighttime occurrence and turns into something much bigger — and, thankfully, more explainable — than that. In fact, a lot of the time, the episodes start out as if they’re telling one story, only for it to become apparent as it goes on that it’s actually telling an entirely different story. It’s the kind of twist-y, turn-y radio journalism that characterizes a lot of NPR shows — which, it turns out, is no surprise: Hosts PJ Vogt and Alex Goldman previously hosted TLDR for New York NPR station WNYC.
The Guardian once described Reply All as “‘a podcast about the internet’ that is actually an unfailingly original exploration of modern life and how to survive it” — which is, in fact, the most accurate description of it you’ll find anywhere. If you dig weird mysteries and online oddities, this one is for you.
I’m late to the Someone Knows Something party, but now that I’m here, I’m trying to figure out why it took me so long, and I… have no answers for that.
In any event, if you, too, are late to this one, Someone Knows Something, from CBC Radio and documentarian David Ridgen, re-investigates cold cases — a different one each season — with one very important idea behind the new investigation: The idea that, as the podcast’s title implies, someone knows something. The hope is that someone who may not have been able to come forward with a key or piece information at the time of the crime might be able to now. That something which didn’t seem important back then might be cast in a new light that makes all the difference today. That someone no one thought to follow up on or interview might offer a new way to look at things.
Someone must know something — and if they do, then Someone Knows Something hopes to uncover it.
What makes Someone Knows Something stand out from the crowd is the sensitivity with which Ridgen approaches his subjects. Indeed, the first season’s focus hit close to home for him; he took a new look at the disappearance of Adrien McNaughton from Holmes Lake near Calabogie, Ontario — where Ridgen himself grew up. But no matter how close to or far away from himself the cases he investigates might be, Ridgen’s thoughtfulness and compassion
On Feb. 23, 2018, Adea Shabani, a 25-year-old Hollywood hopeful who hadn’t been living in LA long, went missing. She had left her apartment carrying a couple of suitcases, which she then loaded into her boyfriend’s vehicle, so clearly she was planning on taking a trip — but she never came home.
A few days later, a PI, Jayden Brant, contacted journalist Neil Strauss about Shabani’s disappearance, asking if he might be able to write a story on it.
To Live And Die In LA is the result. Strauss reported the story as the case unfolded, and it’s… quite a ride.
As I remarked on Twitter a month or two ago, I was less fond of To Live And Die In LA that I was of, say, Someone Knows Something; to me, it felt like the podcast focused too frequently on the investigators and not enough on the people actually impacted by the crime; I worry a little about the ethics of the whole thing, as well, considering that the case was active throughout the entire reporting process. It does, however, highlight a side of Hollywood that’s often overshadowed by the glitz of the film industry — one that deserves more attention than it typically gets.
On Feb. 13, 2017, 13-year-old Abby Williams and 14-year-old Libby German hitched a ride with Libby’s sister, Kelsi, to a trailhead near Deer Creek and the Monon High Bridge in Delphi, Indiana. When they didn’t come home that night, the community launched a search to look for the missing girls. But on Feb. 14, the worst possible outcome came true: The remains of the two girls were found about a half-mile from the bridge, just 50 feet from the bank of the creek.
Three years later, an arrest still hasn’t been made — despite evidence located during the investigation including both a photograph and an audio recording of the person believed responsible for murdering the two girls.
It’s a horrific crime, but, as writer Nicole Cliffe commented recently in her Substack newsletter, Down The Hill is “as tasteful a podcast you can make about such a horrible topic,” with careful reporting and compassion for the community of Delphi. Its format, though, is a little different than most true crime investigative podcasts; although there is, as you’d expected from any deeply reported piece of investigative journalism, a lot of on-the-ground work, including a wide variety of interviews with those involved in the case and the community, there’s also a sort of round-table discussion that occurs between segments from time to time with hosts Barbara MacDonald, Dan Szematowicz, and Andrew Iden. It comes across like a table of news anchors commenting on a report on a television news program, which is perhaps unsurprising, given that Down The Hill is a CNN podcast, but a little odd to hear all the same.
But the case is still relatively recent, as far as things go, so hopefully with the podcast raising its profile, it might generate some new leads.
Like Someone Knows Something, each season of the CBC Radio podcast Uncover focuses on a single story, person, or event, and delves deep into it over the course of five or six 45-to-60-minute podcasts. Exactly what those cases might be, though, varies dramatically. The first season, Escaping NXIVM, focused on the NXIVM cult; the second, Bomb On Board, on the 1965 bombing of Canadian Pacific Flight 21; the third, The Village, on a rash of missing and murdered men in Toronto’s LGBTQ community from the 1970s up to the present; the fourth on the 1998 disappearance of Joan Lawrence, aka The Cat Lady, in Huntsville, Ontario; the fifth, Sharmini, on the 1999 murder of 15-year-old Sharmini Anandavel; and the sixth, Satanic Panic, on the Satanic panic of the 1980s.
I find the reporting of Uncover to be a little more disjointed than some of the other podcasts on this list, but they’re still careful examinations of their subjects; I also appreciate that the series covers both widely-known cases and ones that may have fallen out of the public eye. Also, there’s a terrific bonus episode featuring four true crime podcast hosts and producers — Justin Ling, who hosted Uncover: The Village, Connie Walker of Missing & Murdered, Natalie Jablonski, producer for the excellent In The Dark, and Amber Hunt of Accused — speaking panel-style about the ethics of true crime podcasts (which, as you may have noted, is something I feel strongly about). Topics on the table include what a good true crime podcast should aim to achieve, what to consider when you’re creating a podcast around a story that actually affects real people, and how to avoid sensationalizing what you’re investigating.
What have you been listening to? Feel free to leave your own recommendations in the comments below!
[Photo via StockSnap/Pixabay]