Okay, listen. I love Karen and Georgia as much as anyone. But it’s 2020. There might no longer be a world outside our apartments, but there’s a wide and wonderful world beyond MFM to scratch your true crime itch. Whether you’re into monster-of-the-week style murder pods or deep dive journalism into the worst monsters in history, there are enough true crime niches to supply podcasts for years to come. Here are some of my favorite lesser-known true crime podcasts.
The Murder Squad
Billy Jensen and Paul Holes are two of the three legendary investigators who worked together on the capture of Joseph diAngelo, aka Golden State Killer, aka East Area Rapist, aka Original Nightstalker, aka Visalia Ransacker – the third, of course, being the late Michelle McNamara. Billy Jensen is a crime journalist who focused exclusively on unsolved crime; Paul Holes is a retired forensic investigator who specialized in cold cases. In each of these hour-long episodes, they focus on an unsolved case or group of related cases, bringing their expertise to bear as they analyse the investigation and clues that are available to the general public and give you a peek inside how their brains work.
Which honestly would be cool enough! But the podcast takes it a step further. The Murder Squad doesn’t refer to Jensen and Holes…it refers to their audience. At the end of each episode, they give a list of pieces of information that they’d like to see crowdsourced, and give a number of communication resources to make sure that the information gets into the hands of the people who need it. They handle everything from virtually unknown small-town murder cases to a recent multi-episode dive into the Black Dahlia case, but always with the shared theme that there’s some piece of info that has at some point been in the hands of an unknown civilian – the recovery of which could be the break in the case.
Small Town Murder
This is a companion to the podcast Crime in Sports, which is also lots of fun, but despite their disclaimer I really think that one gains a lot from being a sports fan, which I am way, way not. But Small Town Murder taps into something which virtually everyone can appreciate: gentle, loving mockery of America’s small towns and the shenanigans people get up to. The hosts, Jimmy Whisman and James Pietragallo, are both stand-up comedians with surprisingly sharp research skills, and damn, do they deliver an in-depth crime story.
Every episode takes place in a small town, usually with a population of a couple thousand (one particularly memorable murder happened in a town with only dozens of occupants…yeah, there wasn’t the biggest gap between crime and arrest in that one). They first give an exhaustive profile of the town’s demographics, and then use that as a jumping-off point to talk about the most notorious thing that’s happened in that town’s history. Sometimes they go back decades, sometimes they talk about something that’s still working through appeals, but they always find something fascinating. And most importantly, they make me laugh out loud every single episode. Their humor definitely skews toward the dark and off-color, but considering we’re talking about freaking murders here, I feel like that’s just gallows humor. They’re surprisingly good at keeping it tasteful and avoiding making fun of the victims – as they’ll remind you every episode, “we’re assholes, but we’re not scumbags.”
Obviously it’s impossible to get enough murder, but it’s also good to expand your crime horizons. Scam Goddess is a weekly podcast hosted by comedian and former (current?) scam artist Laci Mosely, focusing on the greatest, or on occasion dumbest, scammers in history. This one actually features a few every episode, and has extensive show notes if you want to keep researching on your own. I’d say most of them are fairly recent, but she definitely features more than one historical scam as well. And of course, as a former professional, she can’t help but offer her expert opinion on the execution of the scam.
Laci herself is hilarious, and she has a parade of pretty incredible celebrity guests to react to her stories. (Or maybe I just have a habit of way overestimating how famous Paul F. Tompkins is.) The stories are generally pretty light on the violence and general mayhem – after all, murdering is a fast track to getting your scam outed. It’s pretty much all about the money, prestige, and many, many fake IDs.
The Ballad of Billy Balls
There’s tons of content out there about how cold cases are cracked. But what is it like to live a cold case? To wait for years, maybe decades, to find out what happened to the most important person in your life? The Ballad of Billy Balls takes us on the journey to find out. Billy Balls was a musician in New York City who made ends meet with drugs and eventually (apparently) became one of the many anonymous victims of the cocaine trade in the 80s. But is that really what happened? The question has haunted his girlfriend for decades, driving her into her own substance abuse habit and mental illness. But Rhonna has an adult son now who is a gifted writer and researcher, and he’s determined to bring his mother peace by helping her find the truth.
The Ballad of Billy Balls is utterly heartbreaking and fascinating, and while the crime is the framing narrative, it’s really a story of a son learning an unbelievable compassion for his extremely difficult and extremely broken mother. Rhonna is hard to listen to, and it’s easy to imagine how hard she was to grow up with. But iO has apparently boundless capacity to understand how the broken people tick, and his telling of this story is a desperate attempt to help bring his mother just a little bit closer to the light. The scenes between them are devastating and beautiful and 100% worth sinking the hefty 16 hours into this limited series. (If you’re interested in reading more about Rhonna and iO, you can pick up iO’s autobiography Darling Days which tells the story of his childhood as a transgender kid.)
The Dark Histories Podcast
If you’re like me, you enjoyed Lore but always wished it was a little bit…more so. If that’s the case, you’ll fall for The Dark Histories Podcast hard. Dark Histories is a biweekly podcast that tells paranormal and all-around creepy tales from history. While there’s plenty of ghosts and ghouls to sink your teeth into, the host, Ben Cutmore, knows that behind every terrifying legend is a perhaps equally terrifying human being. The episodes are long, sometimes over two hours, and Ben dives into everything. He features lengthy quotes from source documents, every available piece of evidence, and sometimes even personal experience with the locations mentioned in the story. (Ben lives in England, where the majority of the stories are sourced.)
And if you’re itching to play amateur sleuth, Ben also manages a Discord channel where vigorous discussion of the case is encouraged. The nature of the stories means that the case is left unsolved as often as not, and there’s an active and enthusiastic fan community that does its own research into the cases, following the massive troves of source documents that Ben makes available in the show notes.