Paige St. John: I do not like true crime by the way. Because I think it tends to be voyeuristic. I think it makes women cardboard cutout props on the stage. It's typically a story of a hard boiled detective against some mastermind criminal.
Dessa: There are a lot of reasons why Man in the Window was a hard sell. It was about a difficult subject -- a serial rapist and murderer in California. There were tons of characters...and thousands of documents to sift through. Plus, the main character was “Society” with a capital S.
I’m Dessa, and this is the Werk It: the podcast, a compilation of some of the best moments from the live event.
Find out how this unruly print journalism project became a compelling, hit podcast that pushed the boundaries of the true crime genre.
Paige St. John: Good morning. Welcome to Werk It. I'm Paige St. John. I'm a reporter from the Los Angeles Times. I'm a print person. I shunned TVR during my academic track. Um, but I'm an investigative reporter. I've earned a Pulitzer a number of years ago for international financial fraud in the insurance industry. And two years ago began working on this story of a serial killer in California and my partner here. Oh, go ahead.
Karen Lowe: Okay. Yeah. My name is Karen Lowe. I come originally from print for a decade or more than I accidentally ended up in radio. Basically because I wanted to stay in Los Angeles and the only job that was open that sort of fit my credentials was the foreign editor at Marketplace Radio. I said, good, that'll work. Um, so I was there for another eight or nine years, um, taught radio documentary at USC, and then got a call from the founder of Wondery before Wondery sort of was on the sort of, uh, you know, really visible, um, asking me to do the podcast Dirty John. Uh, and that's how I got into podcasting. It was, uh, with again, with the Los Angeles Times. Um, Chris Goffard Dirty John, uh, and then a year later--
Paige St. John: This introduction is very important because you have to understand that we come from completely different worlds, worlds that don't speak to one another. Well, Karen actually had a, you know, has her beginnings in print and, and made that transition and that became very, very important for some conflicts you're going to see arise because we're going to walk you through why Man in The Window should have flopped, should have failed, almost did many, many, many times. Because I think we, we, we were set up for disaster from the beginning. First, the first set up being the immense success of Dirty John. Because if you do one, the editors think, oh, this is easy and we can put any print reporter, throw any print reporter into that pod sphere and it's gonna work. Um, so I'm gonna play for you first a sampling of the material of Man In The Window.
This is a story not just of a serial killer 13 murders, 50 some rapes, but from 1976 to 1986, uh, plus a decade worth of crimes prior to that, plus the social context of the 1970s, the rise of feminism -- I managed to, to get that in there -- the silence of women, the stigma of rape, public policy on criminal justice policy in California, which shaped the nation, two strikes and three strikes laws, et cetera. So, um, you'll hear a little bit of that in the sample. And then we're going to talk a little bit more about this sprawling contextual piece that I was seeking to do. But, uh, let me see. Okay. original score by Allison Leyton-Brown.
[AUDIO CLIP] It's a sweltering California day and Bonnie Caldwell is climbing the steep Hill of the old family farm. It was right here, 48 years ago, that Bonnie told her fiance their engagement was over and what woke you up? Tap on the window and I, I just pulled the, just a thin cotton curtain on the window and I pulled it back. And the first thing you saw -- was the gun, a phantom stock to California in the seventies and eighties at first unnoticed and then unstoppable. It was a heavy atmosphere, I remember that. Where there’s death you always know it. The man was telling me to shut up. He was going to kill me if I made a noise. I remember thinking, “Jesus here I come.” You know, after the rape from a 15 year old’s perspective, I watched everybody's reactions and for the most part it was about how they were handling it. If no one talks about it, I don't talk about it. The Sheriff's Department won't talk about the latest rape on camera. Any publicity just causes panic. The only way they're going to catch him is if he strikes again. [chanting] Stop Rape. Stop Rape. We believe the rapes cannot continue the way they have and that we don't want to stand intimidated. One of the main reasons that I've organized this rally is I see rape is a violent crime and it's not being treated that way in the courts. I'm like, what the hell happened? And they said, “We can't really tell you right now, but it was a double homicide and it was brutal. Like, again? If you want to link it, this is what you're going to get. You're going to get a hundred newspaper people sitting on your front steps, TV cameras up and down your streets. Every reporter worth their salt wants to solve the case. What good would it do to identify as East Area rapist? He says, when you look at this, you can, you can believe in the devil because evil is out there among us. Evil is on, is stalking us all the time. I'm Paige St. John and this is Man In The Window. The untold story of the origins of the Golden State Killer and why he was never stopped [static] I’m going to kill you. I’m going to kill you. [END AUDIO CLIP]
Paige St. John: This is all real tape. We're going to have to put up with slides that, that, that, that have their own. It's a ghost in the machine here. So that gives you a sample. If you want to listen to the podcast, it's LA times.com/mitw or Man In The Window or go to Apple or Spotify or your favorite listening app. I learned those words many, many times. Um, and, and uh, and it gave you a sample of the kind of material we're working with. Um, the, I had like 10,000 pages of raw police of confidential police records. I had FBI that's a recording from the FBI.
And, and it gave you a sense of the sweeping scope that, that I originally wanted this to, to deal with. I started this, uh, after writing a four-part series for the paper that we decided we would hold and run in conjunction with the podcast. They thought I would have the podcast done in a month because, because one of the editors had Siri read my print story and it sounded good. So, um, but my concept for the podcast was very different from what we did with Dirty John, where what you heard and what you read were essentially the same copy. I wanted something complimentary to an investigative print report that was documents and, and, and a lot of factoids, right? Not a lot of voices. Very few actual quote voices in the piece. Even though I had like 40 hours of tape.
I was thinking something along the lines of Ken Burns. I was thinking, uh, I do not like true crime by the way. I was thinking, uh, because I think it tends to be voyeuristic. I think it makes women cardboard cutout props on the stage. It's typically a story of a hard boiled detective against some mastermind criminal, right? That's how I've often thought of true crime. So I didn't want anything in the genre. I didn't want spooky music. I didn't want, um, this and I didn't want the fans of the Golden State Killer. I wanted an NPR kind of crowd. So, um, and my main goal was to give a voice to a generation that had been silenced and women who had been raped in the 70s at a time when rape was not taken seriously, when penalties for rape, uh, were less than those for burglary. When more than half of all convicted rapists in California walked out of jail the day of their conviction just for time served while awaiting trial or were sent directly to parole or probation.
And therefore we had this, this, um, boom in serial rapists in the 70s that that bled over into the 80s. You had, you had loosening sexual mores, you had changing attitudes toward women and femininity and sexual assault. You had the pill. And you had a whole society not yet ready for the consequences of that. You had, uh, the rise of the Equal Rights Amendment. You had marches, um, take back the night marches were starting the very same time this predator was preying on women. And people for the first time were demanding that police do something because Sacramento already had half a dozen serial rapists who had raped 30 to 40 women unsolved. So, so that's where I'm starting. And um, that's what Karen was, was, was handed.
Karen Lowe: Alright. How many people here are producers and or editors? Raise your hands. Okay. So imagine an investigative reporter for the LA Times comes into your office and says, I want to do a Ken Burns-style documentary, right? And you're like, Oh, really? Because this is radio. This is audio. Uh, Oh. And I wanted to go in, it's going to go over decades and it's going to involve like 30 people. And you're like the, each one of those things set up alarms in my head. Okay. So I came off Dirty John, which was a pretty simple, straightforward murder crime story. Boy gets girl, boy loses girl, boy commits murder to get girl back. Um, you know, pretty safe, straight forward. This was way more complicated. Um, and then in addition, um, I had a really stubborn but talented reporter to work with. Uh, and I thought I was stubborn. So you have like two immovable forces kind of coming at each other.
Paige St. John: Yeah. Yeah. Karen, Karen and I, and this is, this is a great story because we're not only coming from different cultures, we're both very strong willed. We're both certain about what we do because we're professionals, we're talented, we're at the top, you know, of our careers. So, so it's not just ego that's involved here. We, she has every reason to think and believe what she says. And I have every reason to say you're wrong or no, you know, and I do what I do and I'm successful at what I do because I fight back and object to everything along the way. So, um, so for me, uh, I, we had a couple of things in the bag to start with. We had Bonnie, I had the fiance of the killer during one of the crimes he sobs into a rape victim’s pillow, “I hate you, Bonnie.” That was the only tip that cops ever really had. And, and Bonnie was not talking to anybody but me. And she spent a year talking to me. I have 20, 30, 40 hours of Bonnie, you know, audio and, and, and it tells, tells really the, the roots, you can actually see in her experience with her fiance, all of the beginnings of the later crimes -- hypersexuality, attitudes toward women, coercive control, abuse of relationships. It's all, it's all there. Um, but, um, I don't want to go in too far except to say that, that, um, we can talk in the Q&A later about how I got these women to open up and talk who had spent an entire generation never talking. You know, they, these are not women who are like, come -- they didn't even think Me Too applied to them, the, the, the, these women because of what of, of their, where they come from in their concepts of, uh, as, as rape victims. But, uh, one of the other big problems that Karen saw--
Karen Lowe: Okay. So, uh, the writing style, uh, is very different. The pacing is very different. So Paige as writer for the LA Times, which has pages and jump pages, you know, to go on, um, and really illuminate, uh, at a very leisurely pace. Had to suddenly like, um, sum all that up in a sentence or a paragraph and use active verbs and get rid of all the passive language and find like key visual descriptors so that we could sort of see what was happening and all this, uh, was new, uh, to Paige and she wasn't immediately receptive.
Paige St. John: Well, I do narrative, I wrote the print story in narrative style, which narrative for print is very different than narrative for podcasts. And what I have learned and what helped me through this other than the editing process of going through Karen, but I had to come from ground zero up to the hundredth floor immediately is I, and this is the advice I give to writers that are approaching me now at the paper and some other papers about podcasting is download the scripts. Don't listen to a lot of podcasts, read them because you're used to, as a writer, the written word, and you need to know what that actually looks like then on the page. How many paragraphs? How many words in a sentence, you know? Where are your breaks? How do you turn? How do you lead into a quote? How do you create these of George Lavender's taught me this wonderful thing about writing in things that are unspoken. Uh, he actually puts them in parentheses, in the written script, and you don't say them, but you do with your voice and, and, um, but it's, they're written in, in the script. So, so there are a lot of shortcuts to that. But also, um, the issue of characters -- = in print, you can always refer back who was that person? I mean, I'm listening right now to A Hundred Years of Solitude. I'm having no problem, you know, but how many, that seven generations. So, um, Man In The Window, though, that was a big, big problem.
Karen Lowe: Right. Um, and the other thing is, uh, when you're, when you're writing a story for, for a newspaper, you're doing things, um, pretty sequentially, uh, and chronologically, which we try to do in the podcast, this particular podcast, because there were so many characters because it went over such a long period of time, we had to simplify as best we can and focus on just a few particular characters. Um, just so we wouldn't lose the listener. But on top of that, because it's separated into three segments and six, seven, eight episodes as it turned out, um, in order to keep the listener hooked, and you all know this, but, uh, at the end of each segment, you have to essentially create a tease so that listeners will go through those unbearable ads to listen to the next segment. And so that requires, um, I mean each segment becomes a sort of a, a capsule in itself in creating, you know, that arc of tension and then release and then at the end, a little bit more attention to carry them over. So, um, that was also a sort of a new concept. Right?
Paige St. John: Right. Um, and it became very important for me because of my mission in this, that you get to know the victims. So I picked I've, I distilled it down to two victims who talk a great deal with me and open up their hearts. And in, in cold opens or wherever those women are introduced and made sure we introduce them as people first, victims second. So you know something about them, you know that Phyllis plays volleyball in the local league. You have an image of them before they are the, the cardboard victim of the killer. And then, and then that helps bring you through later. Because for us, we're following Phyllis and Chris, we're following them through today, through the day of the arrest and how it affected them. So you have to have this intimacy. So, so distilling the number of characters down. Um, the detective became actually a badge or a handoff, like think of a relay race between the original detective, the middle detective, another detective, and the final and, and then the great Paul Holes at the end. So, so, um, there's actually four people or five detectives that play one role: the detective, right? And, and so it became important. It's, I'm, as I'm writing the script to be aware of how much we flesh out a person versus a character. Some I brought very forward and some I pulled back on. It's a balance.
Karen Lowe: Just a comment on the production part of this. So, um, when, when Paige’s project was presented to me, there was like a good news, bad news scenario. Uh, the good news was that that Paige had, was a very strong talented writer and had already recorded the interviews and like, uh, okay. So the first part turned out to be true, very talented writer, but having recorded the interviews and I,
Paige St. John: 40 hours of interviews.
Karen Lowe: Yeah. Uh, and sadly, so much of it had to be re-recorded be -- Um, so if you work with the newspaper, the very first thing I would insist upon is that the reporter before they do any interviews is they get some training in recording, um, once and Paige was learning as she was going and she was so determined that this would be fabulous, that she went out to re-record stuff, uh, interview she'd already done and maybe more than once or twice. Um, and I remember her going out to get the, the sound of bullfrogs because the sound of bullfrogs that she originally gotten, we could hear some street noise in it. And I'm like, no, Paige, you don't really have to go out at 2:00 AM to do this. She did it, you know.
Paige St. John: I hopped the fence of a defense contractor because I wanted the frogs that Bonnie would have heard 50 years ago. And I found the swamp. And, and the, in the defense, the, the, the, the, they have security at the defense contractors, by the way. The guy sees me, I'm, it's 2:00 AM I've got my shotgun mic and my headphones on and my husband's sitting in the car going like. And I'm over the fence and the guy goes, what are you doing? I said, I'm recording frogs. And he says, okay, how long do you need? And he laughed. And I thought, well, okay, right. This is it. Yeah. So yeah.
Karen Lowe: And the other thing, well I was told that she finished the reporting, which was totally not true.
Paige St. John: I’m never done.
Karen Lowe: She's never done choose reporting as we were like recording the last episode and --
Paige St. John: We had gold mines. And, and this is the thing I really loved about the people at Wondery is they were so comfortable with this fluidity. I was fighting to get as an investigative reporter, you know, people say, no, I don't stop. And, and I was fighting to get released the original TV archives that we made great use of. I've got like 13 hours of original TV audio. It was released while we were in production, like a week before the first episode is supposed to launch that they finally turned that stuff over. And it's an amazing resource, only like $12 a second, which I was outraged over. I thought, how dare you?! But then when I asked NBC what they would charge as like, Oh, okay, $12 is great. So I think all of the, the actuality, the archival audio and we use a ton of, it still was under a thousand dollars for the entire series. So, um, yeah, yeah, the equipment is a big deal. And reporters are, are now coming to me in the newsroom and I say, okay, get an H5 zoom, shotgun mic, headphones. I resisted. I refused. I mean at first. And then when I heard what my audio sounded like versus what it sounds like now, everything I record is now in the, in that stuff. And transcripts immediately, everything is immediately transcribed.
So the next, next a little bit, um, about why it shouldn't have worked. We talked about too many characters, also not one main character. And in some of the early podcasts reviews as disappointed to see that one of the reviewers said doesn't have a main character. Well, duh, because he's not been tried or convicted. And nobody has Joe DeAngelo on tape, let alone the serial killer except for that one FBI tape that you listened to. And for me, the main character is society. In this podcast. I mean, you're, it's, it's a great story. Um, the story of these women have and the struggles -- but what you're really listening to is what it was like to be in the 70’s during the dawn of feminism, during these attitudes toward rape and sexual assault. And, and you're immediately thinking about today, this is a very modern story. It applies to everything unfolding right now. But, but that's the story only. We're not like, it's, it's, it's, it's, it's a subtext coming through this. So, um, do you want to add anything on that?
Karen Lowe: Yeah. And that was problematic because, uh, when you're trying to tell a story about society that's big and sprawling, right? Um, and um, part of me was like, but we know this, we know that rape is a bad thing. We know that it was lightly treated, but, um, it wasn't until like I went through the details of what Paige had collected that I was like horrified. Really. It was treated as a property crime. I mean, it was insane. So then the question
Paige St. John: Really. Really. Rape on the statutes -- property crime.
Karen Lowe: Yeah. So, um, so then it became clear, yes, we had to include society, but how do you do that without losing in your listener? Because society's not really compelling character. So, uh, it has to be kind of like, um, the substrate, you know, yes, we did focus, we had some great clips from the time that gave you a sense of, uh, of, uh, both urgency and laxity towards the...Urgency on the part of the women. Laxity on the part of detectives and law enforcement. Um, but we had to like continue, it was easy to go too far. You have Bella Abzug and Phyllis Schlafly and we kinda had to like winnow it down.
Paige St. John: I'm bringing her a lotta. I was, I was bringing her Bella Abzug speeches and Phyllis Schlafly.
Karen Lowe: Yeah. I'm like, no, we don't need that. Like, people don't, you know, most people and you know, younger generation won't know it. It doesn't matter to the story, it's going to blow up the story. And so there was a bit of a tug of war over this, but we found a good common ground.
Paige St. John: Because the art in the final project is that balance: where the two come together and write. And so this is at the part as well in the podcast where Karen and I actually start working really well together and, and we never shouted at each other, but it was always tense, right? It was always, it was always hair pulling, but -- not always -- but then the there. But when we found that meeting point in the middle of like, how, how much can you use that people get the point but you're not going to drive your listeners away. You know, there's a sweet spot. And, and um, George Lavender had told me early on, he had said, George does this, he's this British guy. He's, everything is, is, is constrained. He said, Hm, is it, it could blow up and the bomb, you know. If we don't do this right, the podcast would just completely bomb. But if you do find that sweet spot, you can make it make it work cause otherwise it's either too voyeuristic or it's boring, right? You know, how, how do you get that balance?
So, uh, I tried to learn, I mean I'm a very terse, succinct writer in print. So my first reaction for writing script was to overdo it. And, and this I know caused Karen a lot of, of grief. I mean this is a recording from my very first table read and what there's a, there's actually, I think I precede this with some of our finished audio for comparison purposes, but it's going to give you a sense of what Karen was dealing with.
[AUDIO CLIP] That dog half crawl beneath the bed is up to final scape, will haunt Shelby into the next century. And then this is what, she doesn't know it, but it's a sign of what's to come. [END AUDIO CLIP]
Paige St. John: And this is what she was actually dealing with.
[AUDIO CLIP] One rocked by the man who alluded him, who disappeared who over time would perfect and hone his violence to graduate from dogs to people to terrorize an entire state. That man, I don't stop. Was just getting started. [END AUDIO CLIP]
Karen Lowe: Okay. Do you feel the horror, okay, this is our first table read. And like, I'm like, uh, what, how are we going to do this? You know, um, because it, it was, she talked in triads, you know, and I it, that was really hard to push her past, like whole sentences. Hit those verbs! Hit, you know, um, and, But to Paige’s credit, she practiced more than anybody I've ever dealt with in audio or print trying to do audio, whatever. She actually practiced what it was we asked her to do. You know, she would listen to ours.
Paige St. John: This is the writing part. My speaking part, my bad speaking has yet to come here. Okay. Sorry. My bad writing. Bad writing bad. Right, right. Sorry. Sorry.
Karen Lowe: It's so great to be the hero at this particular moment in the, in this thing. Yeah. So, yeah, the writing was, um, you know, it was florid.
Paige St. John: But you deal with this a lot in print, people trying to write great podcasts, right?
Karen Lowe: Yeah. So a lot of the times I know when you get people to, to read what they actually wrote, they, they hear it. But sometimes they don't. Sometimes they say, no, that sounds really good to me. You know, but, but that's not how people talk, you know. So put your paper down, tell me, you know, how you would say what you just read and then then you get a little closer to what the narration should actually be -- sound like, how it should be written. But it's, it's not an easy process in print. Reporters really hate to give up those things that they have honed for so many years. Um, and you really are asking to learn a new language, frankly. Um, so...
Paige St. John: And our egos are in -- see at this level. Um, we, yeah.
Karen Lowe: You talk about an a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter?
Paige St. John: Uh, so I think I'm a writer --
Karen Lowe: That’s right. And she is a writer and, and I had a similar experience, you know, with Dirty John where, you know, they, they are, they have honed every word. I had the previous reporters say, look, I've thought about every single word that I'm putting in this so there is no reason for you to change it. I'm like, actually there is. And so, um, yeah, getting people to read their own writing and I, and I insist that they, you actually record them reading their own writing because they hear something different in their head. But when they hear their voice, when they're just sitting there, you don't have to say another word. They get it. That's the moment they get it.
Paige St. John: And that's key because as a writer you have a writer's voice in your head and, and, and it translates to print. And that, again, is why I tell writers when I'm talking to reporters now read scripts, because you will see that they are written very differently than, than the way that they're writing. And I always thought that I was writing for a very aud-- you know, how one would speak and then then Paige’s, bad narration in case you forgot.
[AUDIO CLIP] Then you realize what he's holding it chills him. Shelby enters the house alone, gun drawn and his flashlight off between the nightstand and the bed is the family dog.
Paige St. John: Three words at a time… a toy poodle, not just beaten but disemboweled. [END AUDIO CLIP]
Paige St. John: I'm so glad you're laughing. I thought that that wasn't bad at the time and it was in one of the most powerful scenes in the podcast. And in the podcast it's very short, very crisp and very dramatic. But, um, but, but, but uh, that's what Karen and, and to their credit, Karen and everybody at Wondery, nobody's said, Oh, this is not going to work.
Karen Lowe: We thought it!
Paige St. John: And nobody told me how bad it was.
Karen Lowe: Yeah, no. At one point, as I was listening to that table read and I was just like, I was like, how are we going to do this? You know? Um, and, and we were, you know, we'd signed the contract with LA Times. How are we going to do this? Um, and then I thought, well, I guess we're going to have to hire a narrator and like, nope, that's not an option. So like, so we worked with Paige and you know, every session in the studio, we just did it over and over again. And, uh, what we did was we, we, we did one episode after another, we didn't like redo each episode to perfection because we knew that as she progressed she would get better. And as she, as we were moving along through this six episodes, we would be making changes and have to go back and change anyway. So what happened is, yes, we recorded one, three through three or four episodes and then we would go back to redo. And by the time we, we went back to redo them, Paige had been practicing, uh, what we had told her in the studio. We also hired a coach who spent a couple of hours with Paige and she actually did the exercises every day. Uh, she would come into the studio and do that. Ha ha, ha. And all that kind of stuff. In studio. And, uh, she took, she took the direction seriously and it began to show. Um, the interesting thing was by the time she was finished, her narration was so good, when it aired. Um, there were some people who didn't like her voice, but most people did. And one guy wrote and actually said, why is she not attached to a 1-900 number?
Paige St. John: Yeah, cause my voice. Well, and here's the secret. I had bronchitis and my, my voice dropped really low and it was very slow and very sexy.
Karen Lowe: Well, the reason we, you know, we had this like, um, really fast, uh, relentless turnaround time.
Paige St. John: We had an unrealistic schedule is what we had.
Karen Lowe: Yeah, and then, and then Paige conveniently got so sick that she couldn't narrate.
Paige St. John: I lost my voice.
Karen Lowe: And it turned out to be a blessing because then we got to fix the scripts. We had time to fix the scripts. Um, she was still working through things in her head, uh, narration wise. So by the time she had her voice back, she was, she was like awesome.
Paige St. John: So we get two extra weeks. We delayed the launch of the podcast until I could get off my death bed. By then my voice was good. I could record, I could speak maybe about 10 or 15 minutes at a time. We had to stop. I was drinking straight apple cider vinegar and honey, you know, and, and, and under orders not to, and my throat is still like already know it's failing from just this talking. But we did it.
Karen Lowe: We did it. Yup. 12 million downloads.
Paige St. John: Yeah. So this is the best part. Your questions! Yeah. Ask away that, um, sure you.
Audience Member: Um, what did the editing look like? Did you actually just change the words on her documents and --
Paige St. John: And then I changed them back
Karen Lowe: And then I would change them again
Paige St. John: And then I changed them back.
Karen Lowe: And then we would have get on the phone. Yes, no, there was, uh, there was a lot of editing, especially in the beginning. Um, this was what, when Paige and I were sort of at odds, um, but as, as Paige grew to understand the language of audio, um, then there was much less of that.
Paige St. John: Because the, the key was the teaching of me. And so the original editing was back and forth. She's in LA, I live up in the mountains in northern California. And so we're just looking at a Google Drive document and she'd mark it up and then I would just reject every now and then and then we do it again. But until we got on the phone and we would spend hours on the phone. And what really worked for me is that is, were her explanations of why. And then when I understood, oh, that's why, that's what she's wanting. Then -- and, and, and I'm, I'm an egotist, I cannot read someone else's writing and words, but if I understand what they're doing and what they want, then I will write for them or I'll fix that. And I'm learning new things all along the way. How to write lead-ins and how to, you know, so that you get this seamlessness between the narration and the audio that you're using, and how, how all of those things. So it was more the teaching than the editing I think. Toward the end maybe the editing, but then when she crossed something out or say this or that, I know why. And I know then what the fix is.
Karen Lowe: Towards the end. It was, it was like, it was such a relief. Like, I would make a suggestion and then Paige would check it off. Ah! No fight.
Paige St. John: Yeah, I started instead of reject. Yes. I’d hit the accept button. Oh yeah.
Audience Member: So the podcast was awesome.I’m a second year grad student at NYU and my thesis is about true crime and the women behind it that's making victim-centered narratives and I think showing voices that weren't before. And so my question for you, podcasts like Man In The Window, In The Dark, Accused that have been so awesome about like really representing victims. Do you feel like you really had to push for that? Did you get a lot of feedback, and I know this is a singular experience with Wondery, but do you felt like, are you demanding that or do you feel like there was a demand for those kinds of narratives? What was the push and pull of kind of being able to share those kind of empathetic narratives?
Paige St. John: From day one, even before a podcast, when I'm writing the thing for print, there was pushback in the sense that everyone was expecting that true crime cop versus robbers, the origins of the Golden State Killer. That's what they wanted. And that's what my editors expected. And so when I made the pitch for the podcast, there were a room of like -- and this is before even Karen was brought on board -- room eight, eight or 10 people in the room. I'm making the pitch and they're all going, yes, yes, yes. Because all they're hearing is Golden State Killer. There was one other person in the room who heard my words, social context, social context. And so, um, I would have said no, he was, it was George Lavender at Wondery and I would've said no to this, uh, had he not said to me, oh you want to tell this in the context of the people at the, at the time? And I said yes.
So I knew he and I could work together and that was our core. None of my editors at the paper got that until they saw the copy and then you could tell when the light bulb went on. They're like, “Oh!” right? Cause they had nothing to model it after they're not listening to Serial, they're there then they're not really, there is not a lot. There are not a lot of pieces out there that are like this yet, right. I'd like to see more, um, cause I hadn't had the, the, the opportunity to hear anything like that before either myself, but I'm the daughter of a rape victim. So I've lived this. So I know -- Right. But you could tell when the light bulbs went on with people and they came on and they got it and then they're like, Oh. And they'd be, Oh everybody just bought in 100% the moment they got that and understood. You know, there's a moment for Karen when she understood. There is a moment for, for Casey Georgi who is cutting the sound clips and she starts looking now for the best audio that helps tell that. For Allison Leyton-Brown who composed the music. She was very careful to find music and to build music that's dignified for the voices, especially the voices of older women. We don't, we don't do that a lot. We let, we like the younger women's voices, we don't like older women's voices. So, um, all along the way people bought in and it was 100% buy in, you know, by the end.
Audience member: Hi. Um, thank you so much. Um, I really appreciate you guys being open and honest about butting heads. Um, it's really wonderful, uh, to know that you kind of clashed on things and to also see how you’re really, like, strong in the team that you have. Anyway. Um, so one of my questions is Paige, you mentioned that, uh, it was helpful to know why your writing wasn't working and Karen, I'm wondering if you can remember any of those explanations that you had about what wasn't working and why?
Karen Lowe: Uh, sure. So, um, uh, I would say typically the sentences were really long with lots of dependent clauses. Um, a fair amount of passive voice in it and that works fine in print. Um, But you don't even have to hear it. When you see that, you know this isn't going to work. Uh, and so getting Paige to sort of take the same idea but just sort of break it down. Um, and to make sure that one thought is clear before you lead to the next thought. You know, so the, the,
Paige St. John: The building a scene.
Karen Lowe: The building of scenes and it's so important for this kind of podcast where it is so complicated in the sense you have so many characters. It's, it's spread over time. It's geographically dispersed. It doubles back on itself. It goes from northern California down in Mexico. So, I mean that's a, those are a lot of dots to connect. And if you miss one, you know, you lose some listeners each time you miss a dot. You know, um, and Paige--
Paige St. John: But even in the micro aspect of that building a scene. So, so Detective Shelby coming across a disemboweled dog under a bed. That's very, very important scene. It's in the cold open, listened to it right away. And, and the way I had written that originally, I did not break it down into the steps. And that's what Karen was trying to teach me how to, you know, first he finds a log. There's blood on the log. Then he says, Oh shit. Right? Just those. So for me, that's what would've been one sentence. But in the podcast, that's three or four, because I've got to break it down. He looks down on the ground is a log. It's flecked with blood and flesh. He says to himself, Oh shit.
Karen Lowe: Right.
Paige St. John: Very different from the end.
Karen Lowe: The other thing is, uh, how much you hide. Okay. So I think in print journalists, journalism, you put a lot more out front. But in audio you're always hiding the ball a little bit. Right? You're teasing your listener. I mean, that's what it is. It's, you know, it's a kind of seduction of sorts and you don't give it all away. So yeah, that has, yeah.
Audience member: Oh, can you hear me? Oh, hi. I'm Mia, uh, me and my colleagues have been listening from Denmark. We love the show. Um, and, uh, I was just wondering, I think it's always, uh, interesting to know if you were to do anything different, if you were making the story again, do you have some, I don't know, elaborations you would have done or changes?
Paige St. John: Phyllis Schlafly.
Karen Lowe: Over my dead body.
Paige St. John: I thought about it. Just playing it here, just so I can watch you, like
Karen Lowe: React to it.
[Inaudible/audience member]: You would have eliminated her, or….?
Paige St. John: I would have added Phyllis Schlafly so that
Karen Lowe: But then we would have had to explain who Phil Schalfly is to most of the audience. And then, and then you're off on a whole different tangent.
Paige St. John: And I was like, my daughter didn't know who Phyllis Schlafly and Bella Abzug were. So she's in the bedroom. She's 23. She's in the bedroom listening to me with my raw audio and she's learning about the, the rise of the women's marches, and the movement, and the Equal Rights Amendment. She didn't even know what ERA was. And I'm like, Oh, wait a minute. What have I done wrong? I've failed as a feminist. Right. There ought to be a genre feminist true crime.
Karen Lowe: So, but to get to get to your point, Is there any -- Yeah, right -- Is there, is there something different that --
Paige St. John: More voice, more for me still, I, um, I think that the weakest thing in the entire podcast is my narration. And, um,
Karen Lowe: Ah, I think you're hard on yourself.
Paige St. John: Yeah, one recent reviewer says, it sounds like a kindergarten teacher reading a horror story. Or I could see Julie Andrews does Stephen King.
Karen Lowe: I love it.
[Inaudible from audience]
Paige St. John: Yeah. Yeah. I've, I've heard that, that women's voices get so much more criticism. Yeah.
Karen Lowe: Yeah, that's true. Yeah.
Audience Member: Hi. Hi. My is Franny. I haven't listened, but I'm going to listen probably tonight when I get home to Portland, Oregon. I was going to ask you about genre, but you sort of answered it already because I feel like this probably isn't true crime, cause true crime does seem to be more like perpetrator-centered. So what that was my question, what would you call this genre? But was sort of answered that a minute ago.
Karen Low: Wow, that's a tough one.
Audience Member: So my question then upgraded to: What's your next project?
Paige St. John: I have this like vow of secrecy that I never talk about investigative projects because they take years to do. But something people that I see -- our time as investigative reporters is precious and, and so we have so I feel like we need to spend it wisely. Because there, there's so few resources available for this kind where you can take a year or two year. My Pulitzer project was three years. So it'll be something that people are not talking about, that's not getting attention, and the story’s being told wrong. That the real story that, you know, it's, uh, that we've, we're buying into rhetoric until instead of reality.
Molly Hindenberg: So, so we have time for one more question. I'm so sorry. I see all your hands. Right.
Audience Member: Thanks. I just wanted to ask what scripts you would recommend our reading and where we can find them?
Paige St. John: The --
Karen Lowe: Well, it depends what kind of story you're talking about. Are you talking about true crime stories---
Paige St. John: Immersive? I'm, I'm thinking immersive narrative, right? Because that's what I looked for. I didn't look for the true crime category. I looked for immersive narrative and because I knew that mine was set in the 70’s and that I wanted to use archival audio effectively because I was told up front that (a) having so many characters who now are in their eighties, you're not going to hear this 15 year old anymore, right, in their voice. And that (b) archival audio is a snooze and it's gonna remo -- take people out of the narrative. So the one that worked for me that I thought was really good at this was Crimetown Providence, really rocking it. Also fun. The music is awesome. Yeah. But, um, but that's that script. And, and just dissecting that script helped me a lot to see how they worked with the, all the archival audio. Thank you.
Dessa: That was Paige St. John and Karen Lowe, speaking at the 2019 Werk It Festival.
Both the festival and the podcast are produced by WNYC Studios and are made possible by major funding from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting with additional support from the Annenberg Foundation.
Event sponsors include Luminary, Spotify, Spreaker, Acast, Himalaya, and the Women’s Foundation of California.