Last month, the Pulitzer Prize Board announced that there will now be a Pulitzer for “audio reporting,” further proving that podcasting has become an unignorable cultural force. In the announcement, Pulitzer Administrator Dana Canedy explained that “the renaissance of audio journalism in recent years has given rise to an extraordinary array of non-fiction storytelling.”
That renaissance has been driven by a new kind of investigative format: podcasts that chronicle the recorded experiences of the host as they investigate a question or mystery. They don’t just present the findings of an investigation but also document them as they unfold.
The first truly viral podcast, “Serial,” pioneered this format in 2014, when millions of people tuned in weekly to learn the latest in host Sarah Koenig’s search for the truth of Hae Min Lee’s murder. Koenig isn’t just reciting a story — she inserts herself into it and brings us along for the ride.
In the five intervening years, this form of investigative podcast has rapidly evolved. (Disclosure: This reporter works on The Washington Post’s podcasts.) Here are six to get you started.
If you like mysteries involving the Internet: “Reply All”
Each episode in PJ Vogt and Alex Goldman’s show is premised on a different mystery related to the Internet, often posed by listeners: Who was that boy in that one meme, and whatever happened to him? Who hacked my Snapchat account, and how do I get it back? What’s so satisfying about this show is that by the end of each episode, we almost always have an answer. It makes Vogt, Goldman and their staff one of the most prolific investigative teams in podcasting, with more than 150 episodes in their archive. Start with No. 102, “Long Distance,” in which Goldman gets a call from a telephone scammer and goes to extraordinary lengths to understand why.
If you like investigations into the criminal justice system: “In The Dark”
Season 2 of this podcast focuses on the case of Curtis Flowers, who has been tried six times in the killing of four people in a Mississippi furniture store in 1996. Each time his trial ended either with a mistrial or a conviction that was subsequently overturned.
The host, Madeleine Baran, moves to Mississippi and spends a year exhaustively re-examining all the evidence: re-interviewing key witnesses; retracing steps; and scrutinizing every player involved, including the prosecutor. Most impressively, Baran and her team compile an exhaustive database of jurors struck by the prosecutor, and discover stark conclusions.
This incredible body of research is enough to help elevate the Flowers case to the Supreme Court, which led to Flowers’s release on bail after 23 years in prison. It makes “In The Dark” one of the most impressive investigative podcasts to date.
If you like pop-culture mysteries: “Missing Richard Simmons”
Host Dan Taberski tries to reconnect with his former fitness instructor, who happens to be the celebrity workout guru Richard Simmons. The show turns on a simple mystery: Why did Simmons abruptly shut himself off from the outside world? Taberski manages to weave together his own pursuit with the larger narrative of Simmons’s origins and legacy. He reveals an intimate and complicated portrait of a man who’s often reduced to caricature.
If you like cold cases: “Bear Brook”
This podcast dives into the decades-old unsolved murders of four bodies found together in Bear Brook State Park. The victims remain unidentified, and host Jason Moon explores the resulting investigative challenges, along with the promises and ethics of forensic genealogy. Moon’s investigation also crosses paths with the official investigation in a surprising way.
If you have lingering questions from your past: “Heavyweight”
Each episode of this podcast tries to solve a haunting question from a different person’s past, such as: Is my vivid memory of breaking my arm as a child real? Will Moby ever give me credit for helping to launch his music career? These questions might start out small, but they unfailingly lead to deeply emotional places. Check out episode No. 24, “Jimmy and Mark.” It’s about a man with many questions about the time he went on a 240-mile bike ride with three friends when he was just 10 years old.
If you want a new kind of murder mystery: “The Clearing”
“The Clearing” inverts the traditional murder mystery construction. Instead of starting with an unsolved murder and trying to find the perpetrator, it starts with a known murderer — serial killer Edward Wayne Edwards — and tries to find his victims. The show also explores the childhood and trauma of Edwards’s daughter, April Balascio, who becomes an active investigator alongside the host, Josh Dean. Dean spends years investigating Edwards and records his reporting journey along the way. What emerges is an engrossing odyssey, with twists and turns throughout.