Podcast series Psychograms, motives, tension

Tension can be built up over several episodes
Tension can be built up over several episodes | Photo (detail): © Ilya Andreev - Fotolia.com

On German radio a new genre has emerged: the podcast series. They are exciting narratives telling the results of journalistic research in several episodes; they are often about unsolved criminal cases.

The trend comes from the United States: there, for several years, very successful podcast series have been emerging independently of radio stations. They tell outstandingly researched stories. Their principle is that each episode has its own focus. The internationally best-known example of such a series is the American podcast Serial from 2014. In the first season, the author Sarah Koenig re-opened the real murder case of the student Hae Min Lee from 1999. Lee’s ex-boyfriend was convicted of the crime, but there is doubt about his guilt. The broadcasting of the first episodes led to new clues, which Koenig has pursued in the course of her extensive research. Podcasts are thus more open-ended than traditional radio features. 

For private producers the risk in Germany is too high

In the US they are financed by advertising and donations. In spite of their popularity, podcasts series have not yet been able to establish themselves in Germany. Nevertheless, the radio writers Christian Conradi, Hendrik Efert and Nicolas Semak, together with marketing specialist Marie Dippold, have founded the independent podcast platform Viertausendhertz in Berlin. It is currently the initiative with the greatest prospect of lasting success. Yet Viertausendhertz offers only single podcasts for free download. The independent Berlin producers have not yet ventured on a series. The financial risk seems too high, the potential audience being much smaller than for an English-language podcast.

Podcasts can address complex material

Very active in this area are the public broadcasters. For these financially and in personnel well-endowed broadcasters podcast series are attractive for two reasons. First, they make possible a new kind of narrative: in several, usually half-hour episodes, material can be addressed that is too complex for a single one-hour radio feature. Moreover, tension can be built up over several episodes by, for example, cliffhangers or the re-interpretation of facts that may become necessary in the course of research.

Secondly, using this format the broadcasters can gain new listeners: podcasts works in principle detached from the radio. They usually have their own websites and the downloadable audio files develop a life of their own on the web, are linked, shared, forwarded. At the same time, podcasts are recognizable as broadcasts of, for instance, the Westdeutscher Rundfunk (WDR) or the Norddeutscher Rundfunk (NDR). They thus serve a broad chain of distribution of radio content and strengthen the respective broadcaster’s brand with listeners who no longer necessarily rely on VHF programmes.

The subject is usually criminal cases

Up to now (November 2016) five such podcasts series have been produced by German radio. Four of these have dealt with criminal cases. Täter unbekannt (i.e. Culprit Unknown), for example, produced by NDR, revolves around a young woman who disappeared in Hanover in the summer of 2000. The police assume it is a case of homicide, but no corpse has ever been found. In eight episodes, Anouk Schollähn and Thomas Ziegler, in close collaboration with the police and public prosecutor’s office in Hanover, unravel the mysterious case: through interviews with the investigating team, witnesses and the parties concerned. In the end there was no crime breakthrough; the journalists didn’t get much further than had the police. But, as in the case of the American model Serial, the investigation has been re-opened – a success of journalistic perseverance.

Audio: Der Fall Inka Köntges, part 8, Re-opening
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In contrast to American podcast series, German ones are not usually confined to audio files. Täter unbekannt also produces the multi-media documentary Der Fall Inka Köntges – die Story (i.e. The Case of Inka Köntges – the Story). The same is true of the podcast Wer hat Burak erschossen? (i.e. Who Shot Burak?), produced 2015 by the Rundfunks Berlin-Brandenburg. Burak Bektas was killed by several shots on a Berlin street in 2012 by an unknown person. The journalistic search for the motive of the crime required research in many quarters. The website is multi-media and the podcast only a part of its total offering, albeit a central one. 

Die Kunstjagd (i.e. The Art Hunt), a six-part open-ended research series about the search for a picture that has been missing since the Nazi era and mainly produced by Deutschlandradio Kultur, employs a combination of podcast, print and video. In addition, the format invites users to join in the art chase through social media such as Twitter and Whatsapp. 

Podcasts from 2016 are more concentrated on audio narratives: Der talentierte Mr. Vossen (i.e. The Talented Mr Vossen), produced by NDR, treats an alleged German conman who has been arrested but not yet convicted. The seven-part series asks how Vossen managed to defraud his friends of 60 million euros. This podcast also approaches its protagonist and his victims via detours, for Vossen himself does not speak. It is quite different in the WDR’s Der Anhalter (i.e. The Hitchhiker). Here journalists investigate the adventurous – and if true – scandalous life story of a man called Heinrich. Heinrich tells us willingly that he has end-stage bone cancer and has lived on the street for forty years. “He never really succeeded in life. The responsible party is the state”, says the accompanying multimedia documentation. While it remains questionable to the end how credible the man is, Der Anhalter is an example of what podcasts can do above all else: create a psychogram of a person, explore motives.