When journalist Mobeen Azhar returned to his hometown to make a documentary on a local murder, he had no way of knowing how it would impact his life. Now, Mobeen’s podcast Hometown: A Killing goes beyond the TV documentary and explores the deeply personal effect the series had on his own life. We talked to him about making the audio series, and what might be next.
POD BIBLE: Why did you feel it was important to revisit this story in podcast form?
MOBEEN AZHAR: Podcasts encourage a more intimate kind of story telling in my view. I wanted to tell the story of what I found whilst investigating the death of Yaqub and the story of what happened when I reported my findings. The podcast is about drugs, relationships, family hierarchy, police, honour and shame. When Hometown (the TV series) came out, what unfolded was like a soap opera. It involved backlash, threats and drama. The podcast allows that story to be told as well as the more pressing story of ultra-violence and drugs gangs.
PB: “True Crime” is a podcast genre often populated with programmes seen as more entertainment than investigative journalism. What is it like creating a podcast like Hometown that is so deeply personal, but still falls into the True Crime genre?
MA: I am not a snob about things being entertaining. I am a snob about stories being told well and with authenticity. Drama for the sake of drama is no good if it’s not real. There were just so many narratives and competing strands, so we wanted to find a way to build a flow whilst maintaining the reality of what unfolded. The making of the series was a story in itself and so we stuck to the real-life chronology of what unfolded. All the twists and turns make it genuinely jaw dropping in moments. It is entertaining but never strays from an exploration of true crime.
PB: How important was your relationship with your producer/editor during the making of Hometown?
MA: I loved working with the very talented Pete Sale. He produced the podcast along with the brilliant team at Forest. These relationships are crucial, especially with a project that is so personal. If you can’t tell your producer a story, how are you going to share it with the rest of the world?
I have a background in radio and television production so I tend to have an opinion on everything. The team at Forest is all about collaboration so it was a mutually beneficial relationship with the emphasis always on elevating the story telling and making something that we are all really proud of.
PB: How has exploring and expanding on the story told in your documentary through an audio-only formatted impacted your work? Did it present new or unique challenges?
MA: There are most definitely challenges, primarily because Hometown was such a visual story. The drug dealers, kingpins and whistle blowers who spoke to me with their identities concealed provided a view into a world in which speaking out can get you hurt – or worse. We could express that visually for the TV series, so we had to develop a shorthand to adequately express that in the podcast. That came with very specific challenges, for example, if you distort a contributors voice to keep them safe but you can’t use subtitles, how does the audience know what they are saying?
These are all nice problems to have and ultimately the strength of the material carried us through. For this reason, I also think anyone that had seen the series will probably enjoy the podcast and vise versa. There is enough space between them to warrant your attention.
PB: Are you interested in doing more work in the podcast space in the future?
MA: This was the second full length podcast series I’ve made. In 2019, I was part of the team that made the 10 part Fatwa, about the Rushdie affair, for BBC Sounds. Prior to that I’ve always loved telling stories on more traditional radio strands like Radio 4’s Crossing Continents or Assignment from the World Service.
Podcast is just a more intimate mode, I guess. I remember when we set out to make the Hometown TV series for BBC Three, we said “what if we make a TV series with podcast sensibilities?” So it’s almost poetic that the material has ended up in podcast form.
I plan on making more podcast content. I genuinely love the form and it feels that we are just getting started in terms of how we can tell stories in this medium.