Whilst our new columnist makes a compelling argument for the oversaturation of True Crime, it does continue to be one of the most popular genres of podcasts. And whilst I personally don’t listen to True Crime often, occasionally there’s a show so popular I can’t ignore. Father Wants Us Dead reached that level this summer. As well as reaching the top 5 in a number of charts – including Apple – it was showing up in a number of podcast recommendation newsletters.
The podcast covers the List murders of the 1980s, when a mild-mannered accountant and Sunday school teacher from New Jersey meticulously murdered his wife, mother and three children. So far, so true crime. But the aspect that intrigued me was the way this crime tied in to America’s Most Wanted (the television show so popular it set the tone for much crime coverage since it started airing in 1988).
I asked Father Wants Us Dead co-host Rebecca Everett about making the show, its success, and how she and co-host Jessica Remo approached the more sensitive aspects of the story.
Pod Bible: The show has seen massive success in the charts and downloads, as well as ongoing coverage. Can you tell us what that’s been like?
Rebecca: It’s been really encouraging, gratifying and also just unexpected. We knew the story of John List was unbelievable and heart-wrenching so it had huge potential. But as primarily print journalists, we weren’t sure if the jump from the page to podcast would be successful — or if it was going to reach enough ears.
But before two weeks were up, we were freaking out, texting each other screengrabs of the Apple charts. And it’s so cool to see that this story that we think of as such a local tale now has listeners from all over the world.
We knew there are tons of true crime podcasts out there, but I think this made us realize how many people are looking not just for that horror and suspense, but also detailed, careful research and real sources, dealt with compassionately. And we plan to do more of it in the future!
Which episode has been hardest to create, either from a personal perspective or due to the amount of work and research involved?
We completed nearly all of our research and interviews before we started coming up with our episodes, so a lot of the most intense moments in this whole process came earlier, when we were interviewing sources, including the friends of the List kids. I remember sitting on one friend’s porch for hours, so grateful he was open to sharing with us what the List family was like, even though it wasn’t easy. But I was also anxious, knowing the responsibility we had to take these memories and paint a full picture of the List family for our listeners.
When it came to creating the episodes, writing the first one was a real challenge. We know how to hook someone with the first few lines of a news story, but with this we were trying to create a first episode that drew people into the story, used some of our most powerful quotes from sources, but also didn’t give away the whole story or reduce these victims to just five bodies at a crime scene. We needed people to feel the momentum that was driving us towards the impending disaster — the murder of his family — and his flight to his new, secret life.
Episode four was also tough because that’s when we take listeners through the day List murdered his family. After getting to know the family, we knew it would be hard for listeners to hear their final moments described, so we carefully weighed what information to provide and what to leave out. For instance, we had new details from the autopsies and the crime scene that we’d learned from police documents. We decided to include some of the information about the victims’ injuries but kept it brief, and opted not to include some of the more gruesome things about the crime scene that ultimately weren’t that important to the story.
One of the things I found most interesting was the way the case intersected with America’s Most Wanted. Was that a part of the draw for you also?
Absolutely. On a basic level, in the late 80s, it was just one of the most interesting ways a bad guy could be caught. And as much as America’s Most Wanted is an important part of John List’s story, the reverse was true as well because his episode — featuring the creepy bust they made of his head — really raised the new show’s profile.
Getting to talk to the host, John Walsh, helped us to take listeners back to this time in America, when missing kids’ faces were first showing up on milk cartons and people felt like their safe suburban neighborhoods might not be that safe anymore. And then this show is communicating that there might be a killer on your block, hiding in plain sight. John List is one of the craziest examples of that.
True crime is consistently one of the most popular podcast genres – why do you think listeners find it so engaging?
Coming from the journalism world, I can tell you that crime is always one of the topics that people are most likely to read. The more surprising or mysterious, the more readers it gets.
In podcasting especially, I think people are really looking to get sucked into a story — I certainly am — and crime is something that has real stakes. It’s emotional and scary and enthralling.
I’m sure it says something about our nature as humans, that we want to observe but not be personally close to the horror and pain that comes from these real crimes. And I think that’s a fair criticism of the genre — that it can turn one person’s worst moment into others’ entertainment.
True crime, as you mention, is sometimes criticised – it’s been said it can glorify adject behaviour and disrespect the victims if approached wrong. What are your thoughts on this view of the genre?
I definitely think it is important to leave room for thoughtful criticism of true crime and the shows within the genre that may glorify perpetrators or ignore the impact on victims. I’ve done crime reporting for more than a decade and I believe we should all be thinking about how the stories we’re telling are affecting people, especially victims. We have to carefully choose those stories, make sure that victims have a voice if they want to participate, and carefully research and deliver the information.
But there’s such a wide variety of true crime content out there, I don’t think we should judge the whole genre as good or bad. You don’t have to look far to see all the good some of the newsier crime podcasts are doing, including shedding light on ongoing cases and problems in the criminal justice system. Season two of American Public Media’s In the Dark uncovered so much new information in the case of Curtis Flowers, who was tried six times for the same murders and kept having his convictions overturned due to prosecutorial misconduct. Some of that new information was used by Flowers’ lawyers in court, and he was eventually released and saw the charges dropped. I might just go back and relisten to it now! It’s really something.