True crime podcasts draw listeners from all over the globe and are some of the most well-known podcasts about, just think Serial. As our #YEPS campaign continues, this week we talk to local journalist turned true-crime podcaster, Richard O Jones, who relays crime stories in a historical context, about how he got his show off the ground and what keeps him going.
True crime podcasts are a really big thing in the audio, but your podcast has a different perspective that makes it different from the others. In your opinion, what is that special thing which differentiates your podcast from all the other true crime podcasts around?
Seems to me most true crime podcasts are either interviews with authors of true crime books or a couple of true crime fanatics sitting around dishing about murders they’ve been reading about on Wikipedia or in the newspapers. There is often alcohol involved. I hear a lot of sick humor and inappropriate banter about what is clearly a tragedy in the lives they are talking about. Another common element in other true crime podcasts are people trying to “solve” old crimes with wild speculation.
True Crime Historian does none of that. This podcast is not about the host, but purely about telling the story using as a source the newspaper and magazine accounts that reported the story as it was happening (or occasionally other source documents such as trial transcripts). I like to think that this is a history program about crime more than it is a “true crime podcast”.
Thinking about your background as a local journalist and the deep research you have undertaken for the job, how did the idea come to mind? What’s the story behind how your podcast began?
When I took a severance package from the Hamilton Journal-News, it came about rather suddenly and I had no plan for a second career. I had done some research about five years previously for a documentary film about a famous murder in my hometown. It never came to fruition, but I had a ton of research and enough to write a book, so that’s what I set out to do.
I have not sold that book yet, but in the process, I wrote and published two other books about historical crimes. Around this time, the podcast “Serial” was just beginning to break and give the general public a heightened interest in both true crime and podcasting in general, and it crossed my mind that doing a podcast might help me sell books, but it looked like a lot of work, so I toyed with the idea of creating a podcast that sounded like “Serial” or “This American Life,” using actors to read the quotes from old newspapers and making an anachronistic documentary. But that sounded like a lot of work and would take more time than I had.
Then one Saturday night while I was researching one of my books, I stumbled across a headline, “MAN BEHEADED-DENTIST SOUGHT”. It intrigued me, so I started going through the archives looking for the story where they found the body. My girlfriend was watching television, and I kept interrupting her to read passages from this story because, with each new article, it got stranger and stranger. She told me I should write a book about the case, and so I did, but more importantly, in reading the story to her from these old newspaper pages, I came up with the format for the podcast: I would simply read the news of the past. Of course, it takes a lot more than that. It involves crafting a story from these old newspaper accounts that give it the flavor of the “golden age of yellow journalism”.
You publish two episodes per week, one on Thursday and one on Sunday. How do you plan the work you need to do for recording new episodes? How far in advance do you plan the next topic?
Every time I work on a story, I stumble upon one or two others, so I keep a running list. Currently, I have about 25-30 stories on the list. When I finish one episode, I go to the list and see what strikes my fancy at the moment.
So really, I just work on the stories one at a time. When I finish Sunday’s podcast, I pick one for Thursday. I’ll pick the articles to read from and do the recording one day, then edit and mix it the following day.
Choose one of your episodes: either the one which you feel most personally attached to, or the one which took the longest to create or the one which has a particularly special memory for you. And tell us why!
You’re asking me to pick a favorite child!!! But if you force my hand, I’d say it would have to be the seven-part series on “Crane Neck Nugent: Prohibition Trigger.” It’s about a thug who went on trial in my hometown (Hamilton, Ohio) for a murder, got off when the only eye-witness reneged on his testimony, then the thug went on to become one of the machine gunners in the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre. The story involves a Prohibition gang war that took place in my hometown, and a personal rivalry between a prohibition agent and a gangster George “Fat” Wrassman that ended with a wild west showdown in the streets of Cincinnati. The story is action-packed and funny at times and really paints a picture of what it was like to have lived through “the great experiment.”
Tell us one thing that you learned after starting your podcast and that you wished you knew before starting it. It could be useful advice for new wannabe podcasters that are reading this!
I wished I had planned ahead to have 250 episodes to keep track of. Since I get a significant number of listens/downloads from my back catalog, I am still actively engaged with every episode, but unfortunately, I did not set up a suitable management system.
Also, I kinda thought that I could just “phone it in.” I recorded the first episodes on my cell phone, but soon felt dissatisfied with the quality, so I bought a new microphone and other gear to make it sound better, and I now cringe when I hear the sound quality of those older podcasts.
In doing my research to get this going, I read an article that gave the best piece of advice I heard on the matter: “Make a podcast that you would listen to.” That’s what I try to do.
How did you start finding and growing an engaged audience?
So back when I was thinking about doing a “Serial” type documentary and putting it off because it just seemed like so much work, I did a radio interview with a station in Chicago about a case there, the first trial where fingerprints were used as evidence to convict a murderer. I wasn’t satisfied with my performance in that interview, so I wrote out the story, recorded it on my cellphone, and posted it on a free podcast hosting site so they could download and use that instead of my stuttering interview. That was in May 2015. They didn’t use it and I promptly forgot about it. I was reminded of it several months later, around Thanksgiving time, and went back to the site and discovered that the post had gained several thousand listens without me doing a single thing to let the general public know it was there. It had no music, no introduction, no production values whatsoever, but thousands of people still managed to find it.
So I started podcasting twice a week in January 2016. I have spent a couple thousand dollars on advertising and boosting Facebook posts, etc., but honestly, I haven’t been able to tie even a single extra listen to any of these efforts. I don’t have the money for a big media campaign, so the only answer I have to that question is: “I just put it out there, regularly and consistently, and let them find me.”
By April, I had a network reach out to me because they had heard my podcast. I was a little embarrassed to tell her I was only getting about 20,000 listens a month, and she told me that was pretty good for someone who wasn’t famous going into it.
On the Facebook podcasting groups I lurk on, just about every day someone asks the question about how to pick up listeners. There are only two answers: Be famous outside of podcasting, or keep putting out good shows that people want to listen to.
Which is the most interesting feedback you remember receiving from your listeners?
With a degree in creative writing and having endured many brutal workshopping sessions, and having spent 25 years writing for a newspaper where every typo is laid out there for public indignation, I have pretty thick skin when it comes to criticism from the general public, so I like to read the iTunes reviews. One person might say, “He’s too monotone. He sounds like he’s reading it for the first time,” and another say, “He’s too dramatic. He sounds over-rehearsed.” One will say, “If it wasn’t for that horrible music,” and another go on about how the music brings out the drama. One reddit reviewer compared me to Garrison Keillor, calling it “Murder In Lake Wobegone,” and another compared me to Paul Harvey. I take those as a compliment. But my favorite was the woman who said that my voice gave her comfort during the dark lonely nights, and when my feed went haywire a couple of weeks ago, a woman reached out to me in panic because she was going into labor and wanted to listen to my murder stories to help keep her calm. Can’t beat that!!!
Have you got an interesting story behind your podcast? Think it might be something other podcasters would be interested to hear? If so, we want to know! Click here to be a part of #YEPS.