There are over 18.5 million podcasts episodes available on iTunes. Over half the US population has listened to a podcast, and over a 100 million people listen to a podcast every week. As podcasts continue to proliferate, true crime has seen a huge surge in popularity as a genre.
Academics have pointed to a few different reasons for this. Dr. John Mayer, a psychologist specializing in violence in media, believes exposure to true crime topics is a way for people to build up a tolerance to something frightening. Social psychologist Dr. Amanda Vicary conducted a study that suggested it had more to do with the alluring psychological content implicit in cases of true crime. A simpler explanation might have to do with the fact that humans are narrative-driven creatures, and true crime’s tales are some of the most engrossing you can find.
Podcasts like Serial set a new bar for the genre. Suddenly, true crime podcasts weren’t just guilty pleasures: they were educational, Peabody-winning stories that could have an impact on precisely the topics that they were exploring. Serial was just the beginning, and there are countless other true crime and forensics podcasts that are just waiting to be discovered. Below, we’ve picked ten of the best.
In selecting our top true crime and forensic podcasts in 2020, we strove for diversity, quality, and originality. Our list touches on all the main areas of the true crime and forensic podcast map. We have comedic shows, scientific examinations, episodic seasons, and individual vignettes. These podcasts cover the hard forensic sciences, the evolving digital forensics scene, and even the institutional systems which prosecute and sometimes perpetuate injustice.
We didn’t just pull the most listened-to podcasts off of the charts, because you’ve probably already listened to those yourself, but we’ve still included a few heavy hitters, in case you missed them. After some lengthy (and enjoyable) research, these podcasts are the ones that had us going back for more.
Hopefully, you’ll find your new favorite from the list below. We know we did.
For fans of Serial, Bear Brook may be one of the few imitators that’s worthy of taking up the throne. The Bear Brook murders reference what was once a cold case wrapped inside another cold case, involving bodies found skeletonized inside barrels in a New Hampshire park. Decades later, the podcast, a product of New Hampshire Public Radio, helped push the case forward. Reporter Jason Moon, who produced the show, was himself sucked into the story back in 2015.
In a story that spans several decades, Moon pulls apart the numerous threads at work in the Bear Brook case, with particular attention to forensic science. Several investigators, police officers, and amateurs (many of whom were women), contributed to the case. Forensics experts also played a critical role, as the podcast explored and popularized genetic genealogy, a forensic method which helped break the Golden State Killer case in 2018.
Catch and Kill, from Pulitzer Prize winner Ronan Farrow, blurs the line between investigative journalism and true crime. It’s based on his book, which is, in turn, based on his reporting on Harvey Weinstein, which helped created the #MeToo movement. This goes deeper than the Weinstein trial in New York City. This is the story of a journalist’s investigation into a seedy world that includes Ukrainian double-agents, Israeli private intelligence, and numerous victims who were brave enough to do the right thing in the face of retribution from nefarious criminal elements.
This isn’t an audio version of Farrow’s book, either. The podcast, Farrow says, has presented an opportunity to revisit the interviews with those brave sources who helped break a story that led to a social revolution. Drawing on original recordings, the podcast has a visceral yet narrative feel, and it’s unfolding at a time where the events it discusses are still unspooling in the news.
If you actually want to educate yourself on the ins-and-outs of forensic science, there aren’t many podcasts that can scratch the itch as well as Double Loop. Hosted by forensic scientists Glenn Langeburg and Eric Ray, the show goes into significant detail about latent prints, bloodstain analysis, and scientific articles related to forensic science. They also do in-depth reviews, from a forensic point of view, of mainstream true crime series such as The Staircase and Making a Murderer.
It may be a little dense for casual listeners, but if you’re a true crime fiend who’s also interested in the hard forensic sciences, Double Loop should be on your list.
Part of the successful Gimlet Media network, Crimetown explores how organized crime has shaped different cities. So far, it’s looked at Providence and Detroit, and it goes into how individuals and institutions sometimes work together to foster an environment that blurs the line between politics and crime. As one of the interviewees says in season one, when describing a prison fight he initiated: if you want to be bad, you have to be good at it.
Crimetown is produced by Marc Smerling and Zac Stuart-Pointer, the duo responsible for the film Catfish and HBO’s The Jinx. But Crimetown itself draws more comparisons to wide-lens podcasts like Serial and Netflix miniseries like Making a Murderer. It’s one of those shows where it sounds like fiction, but isn’t: it’s true crime. And, like the best true crime shows, it redefines who the perpetrators really are.
Where many true crime podcasts could arguably be reclassified as history, Darknet Diaries is firmly rooted in the present. Hosted by Jack Rhysider, this podcast explores true crime on the darknet. Hackers, kingpins, cryptocurrency lords, it’s all here. It’s easy to mistake Rhysider’s voice for Ira Glass of This American Life, but only part of that is due to auditory similarity. The other part has to do with how well-researched the show is, and how cleanly its complex elements are explained in a tightly-knitted narrative.
There’s little, if any, blood in these tales from the dark side of the internet. But they’re firmly rooted in the pulse of the future. Listening to an episode about a darknet drug dealer is akin to taking an intro-level course on onion addresses, PGP encryption, DDoS attacks, and cryptocurrency tumblers; but it feels as engaging as any other story you’re likely to find. After listening to Darknet Diaries, a whole lot of other true crime podcasts begin to seem as if they take place in an era when the world was black and white.
Forensic Transmissions is absolutely terrifying, and it’s like no other true crime podcast. It’s a straightforward presentation of the facts, but the sum adds up to far more than the parts. These episodes feature no outside narration, no cogent summary, no musical interludes: they’re simply unedited, public domain audio of interviews, monologues, and soundbytes pertaining to criminal cases. Think of them as collections of evidence.
The art of Forensic Transmissions lies in the quiet curation of its public domain audio. In one episode, the chilling monologues of incel shooter Elliot Rodger in Santa Barbara are set next to police interviews with incel shooter Alek Minassian in Toronto. The terror is in what’s being presented, in its purest form. For most of the show, you have the voice of a mentally disturbed murderer in your ear. As a listener, you’re left to draw conclusions, make connections, and find your own semblance of closure.
If you have an interest in working in a forensic field, this might be the sort of thing you’re exposed to in the course of your job. Or, if you have a burning curiosity to listen to what investigators listened to, and less interest in hearing other people’s regurgitated commentary, then this is the show for you. Just be careful. It can’t be overstated how disturbing Forensic Transmissions can be, so listen at your own discretion, and wash your ears out afterwards.
How can you beat that title? Here, researcher Marcus Parks, radio personality Ben Kissel, and comedic actor Henry Zebrowski create an atmosphere that reminds one of three best friends on a starlit camping trip, holding flashlights under their chins as they collectively tell the stories of some of the creepiest, goriest, most fascinating true crime stories. Luckily, those best friends have a few cans of beer, a whole host of conspiracy theories, a killer sense of humor, and a surprising grasp of both history and the occult.
Last Podcast on the Left is one of those podcasts where you’re embarrassed if your headphone falls out, because someone might hear what you’re listening to, but it’s compounded by the fact that, if such an event does happen, you’ll probably be laughing, too, despite the horrific reference material.
Over the last six years, the narrators of LPOTL have developed a real camaraderie and a flawless knack for comedic rhythm. Despite the bend towards humor, the episodes are incredibly well researched, so you might learn something while you listen, despite your best efforts.
Science suggests that while violent criminals are more likely to be male, true crime fans are more likely to be female. So if you think that the Last Podcast on the Left is a little too much of a boy’s club, check out My Favorite Murder, hosted by Karen Kilgariff and Georgia Hardstark. These two comedians, LPOTL fans, and true crime aficionados met at a Halloween party and bonded over a story of a lethal car accident, so if that sounds like a context that would draw you in, you’ve found the right true crime podcast. Karen and Georgia will make you feel a whole lot less alone in your true crime obsession.
It might be a little less factually correct or doggedly researched than other true crime podcasts (some episodes include a segment specifically devoted to correcting their errors in other episodes), but the informal and comedic style make it easier to stomach, and fully bingeable.
Karen and Georgia often say that the podcast is a form of therapy for themselves, a way to deal with their own anxieties. They’re not the only ones: with over half a million downloads per episode by loyal fans (who call themselves ‘Murderinos’), the podcast has been hailed as a type of mental health support group by The Atlantic. As the podcast’s sign-off goes: stay sexy and don’t get murdered!
Dr. Ruja Ignatova, the subject of The Missing Cryptoqueen and investigation, was the face of a new kind of cryptocurrency before the mainstream public even knew what cryptocurrency was. What she might have lacked in scruples she made up for with charisma and good timing: by 2017, the cryptocurrency market had taken off, and Dr. Ruja’s OneCoin project had soared along with it. The only problem was that OneCoin didn’t actually have a cryptocurrency, something that investors didn’t realize until after Dr. Ruja disappeared. Was she murdered, hiding, dead?
In this podcast, the BBC’s Jamie Bartlett takes us into the case from the very beginning, breaking much of the story as he reports on it. The show goes beyond the fundamentals of cryptocurrency, and susses out the details of what differentiates an opportunity from a crime in this field. All the elements of a compelling story are here: white-collar crime, cult-like leadership, cutting edge tech, and global scale. It’s easy to get caught in the narrative, and, while listening to speeches from Dr. Ruja, you may wonder if you would’ve been able to avoid the trap, too.
Parcast is a controversial podcast network. Their shows seem almost puritanically dedicated to a stripped-down style. Even the names of their shows—Conspiracy Theories, Cults, or in this case, Serial Killers—get directly to the point. The content is no different: hosts Greg Polcyn and Vanessa Richardson speak in the predictable, occasionally cheesy cadence of late night news reporters. At times, you might find yourself chuckling and wondering if it’s all on purpose. We may never know. It makes the show even more engrossing.
Where the podcast is concerned with detail, though, is where it counts. Polcyn gets into forensic specifics of the crimes, and Richardson gets into psychological analyses of the criminals. Their coverage of Ted Bundy (who had one of the first murder trials to ever be televised) is comprehensive enough to give you a sense of where this true crime craze started, and how, for better or worse, the media exacerbated it.
Matt Zbrog is a writer and freelancer who has been living abroad since 2016. His nonfiction has been published by Euromaidan Press, Cirrus Gallery, and Our Thursday. Both his writing and his experience abroad are shaped by seeking out alternative lifestyles and counterculture movements, especially in developing nations. You can follow his travels through Eastern Europe and Central Asia on Instagram at @weirdviewmirror. He’s recently finished his second novel, and is in no hurry to publish it.