How I make... True Crime Reporter
Robert Riggs - a real investigative reporter - is the host of True Crime Reporter, a new podcast that delves deep into his notebooks of past crimes. He interviews those that were connected with the cases he’d covered in a long, award-winning journalism career.
Podnews asked him the difference between podcasting and TV news; how important good note-keeping is; and his thoughts on other true crime shows…
You’ve appeared on television news for many years. How are podcasts different to TV?
I used to refer to my camera person, producer, and the gear we lugged around in TV as the “500-pound pencil.” Plus, the camera lens and lights glaring in the face of the person you are interviewing added nervous intimidation to what I wanted to be a relaxed conversation. In contrast, I believe podcasting enables a better interview experience.
I conducted the interviews for True Crime Reporter™ at the retired law enforcement officer’s homes around kitchen tables and family rooms. It makes for a relaxed free-flowing conversation. I want to capture the essence of the person as they relive the investigation. Thus, you will hear tough old former U.S. Marshal Parnell McNamara tear up during his interview, and former federal prosecutor Bill Johnston much to my surprise share a nightmare about the case.
This is a technique from my days as an investigative reporter. My producers and I used the “shoe leather” approach. We knocked on people’s doors after hours when they felt comfortable. It’s the same approach Woodward and Bernstein used to open up sources for their Watergate stories.
Of course, this requires more time and travel which equals cost. But, for a narrative format, I think it yields a more emotional connection. I plan to ship a high-quality mic and recorder to officers during COVID pandemic and interview them by phone while the record separately. As a reporter, I mastered the art of telephone interviews -- getting people to tell me things they might not want to disclose.
All of this requires experience. Malcolm Gladwell applies his 10,000 hour rule to becoming an expert. I researched, interviewed subjects, and produced stories at least 5 days a week for three decades. You clearly have the same expertise. I am impressed with what you produce daily.
I don’t think most people who consider launching a podcast understand just how much work is required and the learning curve if they have never done it before.
Podcasts are, of course, rather longer than even a story on 60 Minutes; and stories like those on True Crime Reporter can span many different episodes. What does the time allow you to do?
In television, I was always begging and making my case to the show producers for 15 more seconds. I usually received 2 minutes for my recorded reports. It was considered an eternity in TV where the usual package was a minute and thirty seconds.
I also produced many long-form series and documentaries in my TV career which prepared me for long-form podcast episodes. Podcasting allows me to let the story “breathe” and produce a more compelling story arc. Now, the story can run as long as the narrative deserves. However, just because you may have limitless time constraints does not mean you should let it run long. The story must engage the senses of the listener.
We use the same production model from my TV reporting which goes like this:
Background research before the interview.
Story arc on the whiteboard.
Interview asking open-ended questions plus I make it conversational with give and take. I always understood on TV that the audience could not be present at the scene of the breaking story such as the Branch Davidian siege in Waco. It was up to me to relate how it felt, how it smelt. I try to do the same thing in my podcast interview with my tone of voice and questions.
We transcribe the interview. I now use Otter which syncs the transcript to my audio file.
I place the transcripts in clear plastic sleeves and organize them in a loose-leaf notebooks.
I then study the transcripts and mark “soundbites” with a red grease pencil. (This is a technique I learned from my Chief of Staff when I was a legislative aide and later a committee investigator in Congress before journalism. He would annotate our drafts of bills and investigative memos by hand with the grease pencil. Something about the process engages the brain) What is a soundbite? It’s when the interview subject says something that sums up the essence of a moment or underscores the importance of the subject. Rule of thumb, if I can say it better than the interview subject then it is not a soundbite.
Revise the story arc after reviewing the transcripts.
I then write to the soundbites. I write to set up the soundbite. I use the soundbite to punctuate my narration. I want to take the listener on an emotional journey. This is where Otter aids the process. As I write, I like to relisten to the soundbite to make sure it fits. Until Otter, I used to have to scroll back and forth through the audio file while reading the time-coded transcript. Otter synchs the two together.
We produce a rough track with my narration and the soundbites. Matt Stoker, the audio producer who I believe is brilliant (he’s a veteran of radio) and Elizabeth Arnold the executive producer (my spouse who is a former dancer/actor in Vegas, NYC who teaches drama/dance) listen to the rough cut with me. We decide what works, what needs to be cut, and what needs to be rewritten.
Only then do we produce the finished piece with music, digital insertion points, credits, etc.
Fortunately, unlike television or radio, we do not have to worry about time. We focus on, “does the story resonate or strike a responsive chord with the audience”
In True Crime Reporter you’re revisiting a number of stories that you have covered over the past three decades. You must have kept a lot of notes! How important are notes and records for an investigative reporter - and how do you keep them organized?
As an investigative reporter I “hoarded” documents. You had to defend every line of a story with documents and sources. I joined Investigative Reporters & Editors (IRE) in the late 1970s where I learned from the best. For example, Robert Caro the author of the formidable series on late President Lyndon Johnson kept massive organized filing cabinets and would spread hundreds of 3x5 notecards all over the floor. He still writes his manuscripts on legal pads.
I still have boxes of my trusty spiral “Reporter’s Notebooks” which you would hold in one hand while scribbling with the other. I also kept cassette tapes of my interviews. In the field on deadline, I would re-listen to the interview picking soundbites to include in my stories.
I went fully digital in 1998. However, I still used the reporter’s notebook in the field. Thankfully, after leaving TV journalism in 2008 I started digitizing the cassette tapes which had become brittle with age. Many did not survive.
Today, I use Evernote, Google Docs and Dropbox for business to keep everything organized.
Do you have a “favorite” story that you investigated on? Or one that has stayed with you?
The first season of True Crime Reporter™ is based on my original TV series entitled “Free To Kill”. It ranks among my all-time favorites because it changed the parole and prison systems in Texas. I was honored to receive the Silver Gavel Award from the American Bar Association.
My investigation of the parole of serial killer Kenneth McDuff led to an ongoing series of reports into the Texas prison and parole systems that lasted seven years. My stories would later cover corruption in the Texas prison industries, the epidemic of takeover bank robberies, the drug cartel supplied deadly does of heroin to teens living in an affluent Dallas suburb (yes that will be a series. It predates the opioid crisis of today), a landmark series on identity theft before anyone knew what it was, and eventually domestic terrorism (Oklahoma City bombing) and international terrorism. The list goes to infinity.
It was extremely satisfying to hear the late Governor Ann Richards personally tell me that the officers featured in my series and my reporting had saved lives. Later, I would cover bill signings by Governor Richards of the “McDuff laws” and Governor George W. Bush sign laws cracking down on child predators in response to my reporting.
In its wake, the FBI and Dallas Crime Commission honored me with their first every Excellence In Crime Reporting Award.
Sometimes, you’ve been in considerable personal danger when reporting. How do you know what risks are worth taking for the story? When have you been most scared?
My generation of reporters doggedly pursued where ever the story led them. I have received threats over the years and at one point the federal prosecutor handling McDuff wanted to put my family in protective custody because of death threats from prison gangs.
I briefly covered the Contra war in Honduras and Nicaragua during the administration of President Reagan. My crew and I had a close call. After that, I pledged I would never cover a war again unless I was embedded with the United States military. We did just that for Gulf War I and the invasion of Iraq in 2003.
When we arrived at our unit’s staging base in Kuwait the battalion commander pulled us aside. He informed us that the unit would be at the “tip of the spear” during the invasion. Intelligence predicted heavy casualties and attacks with chemical weapons. He sympathetically looked at us and said I understand if you guys want to go home. The three of us, (myself, producer, and cameraman) looked at each other and said, “Go Home? Hell, we live to cover stories like this!”
Unfortunately, it turned out to be the best of times and worst of times. Soldiers that we had produced stories about were killed in action. As embedded reporters, all of us felt a personal connection and bond to the soldiers in our unit.
We were also hit by friendly fire. An Air Force Investigation declared it would have been the deadliest in U.S. military history had the missile not malfunctioned.
We never felt scared before the shooting started or during it. The reality and fear would soak in afterward. The producer would remind me that we were quickly exhausting the proverbial cat-of-nine lives.
The best of times was that feeling of esprit de corps and camaraderie. The readjustment back to civilian life was difficult. I fully appreciate the soldiers who suffer from PTSD. There’s only so much violence that the brain can comprehend.
There are many true crime podcasts out there, and you must have listened to some. What would your advice be to people thinking of producing one?
I set out to differentiate my True Crime Reporter™ podcast from the rest of the pack. I did the same thing in reporting.
I felt some of the true crime podcast were just regurgitating information gleaned from news articles and books. As you know, a few have had to pull down episodes in response to allegations of plagiarism.
I want to give listeners the inside backstory from the women and men who actually investigate the crimes. How did they do it? How did they feel? Plus, I want the listeners to know that I was there or have been in similar situations. I have been inside almost every maximum-security prison in Texas and have sat down face to face with hitmen for prison gangs.
I have been at many crime scenes and personally witnessed the suffering of crime victims and their families. We are in the preproduction phase of a season that features three sisters talking about the serial killer who took their brother’s life. One of them has regularly appeared before the parole board for more than twenty years to talk against his release. This will be a victim centric podcast season.
I want to give our listeners an authentic voice. Along the way, I hope listeners will come away with insights into how to remain vigilant.
No matter the topic, if you pursue podcasting it should be about a subject you love. You need to get up in the morning excited about what you are going to share.
For example, we are in the preproduction phase of one aimed at women who love horses called “Straight From The Stirrups”. My wife and I are Texas horsemen. She is far the better rider: English and Western. She is producing it with two twenty-something women who are trainers and life long riders. It is not about any single discipline. It is about women’s love for horses.
I plan to produce one for a renowned chef here because he is just such a good storyteller and so passionate about his craft. I am also working on one about the children of “The Greatest Generation” talking about the influence of their parents’ World War II experience on their childhoods.
And if that is not enough, I am about to launch Justice Facts with Bill Johnston the former federal prosecutor featured in True Crime Reporter. We will weigh in weekly with our perspective on the trending high profile criminal cases.
Is it enough to read a few newspaper articles to research a story? What does proper investigative reporting achieve when telling a story?
You have to dig for the story and tell one based on the facts of the case. I referred to that earlier as using “shoe leather.” I state in the opening of each podcast that “THE TRUE CRIME REPORTER NEVER SETTLES FOR STANDING OUTSIDE THE YELLOW CRIME SCENE TAPE. YOU KNOCK ON DOORS, DIG THROUGH RECORDS, AND CULTIVATE SOURCES TO GET THE BOTTOM OF THE STORY.”
What other podcasts do you regularly listen to and why?
I am driven by curiosity. Thus, there were no stupid questions when I was reporting. I am a product of the “studio design” experience at the College of Architecture at Texas A&M. It shaped my critical thinking skills. As a result, I possess diverse personal interests ranging from French Impressionists to Entrepreneurship.
My favorite podcasts:
Osterholm Update: COVID-19 My go-to source for accurate information about the coronavirus from one of the world’s foremost infectious disease scientists. No myths or polarized political spin here, just the facts.
The Daily Stoic I start my day with Ryan Holiday. I’ve been a student of Roman Architecture but was never knowledgeable about Stoicism from The Meditations by Marcus Aurelius. For years I admired the bronze equestrian sculpture of the Roman emperor in the center of the Piazza del Campidoglio by Michaelangelo. But I knew little about Stoicism. I took just enough philosophy in college, Existentialism to as Steve Martin says, “screw me up for the rest of my life.” Ryan breaks down Stoicism into consumable nuggets that help me deal with our current stressful existence.
7 Figure Small with Brian Clark Excellent information for anyone launching and running a digital business. I can’t state enough how helpful this has been to me. When I left big media in 2008, I had to learn how to run a business. The people behind the podcast also run a mastermind group which I highly recommend.
This Week In Startups with Jason Calacanis. Jason got his chops as a tech reporter in NYC and built a very successful venture fund based on his knowledge and journalistic experience. Great information for anyone building a business. Jason speaks truth to power. At great financial risk, he has called out Facebook and other big tech firms over their misuse of personal data.
Podnews One of my staff colleagues in Congress previously wrote the PDB, President’s Daily Intelligence briefing when he worked a the CIA. It’s a daily summary of high-level all source information about the world of international security. Podnews is my equivalent of the PDB.
Podcast Insider by Todd Cochrane and Mike Dell at Blubrry. They provide my hosting. Both are military veterans who click with my background. Mike Dell was an electronic warfare officer on an F111 bomber at 500 feet over Baghdad at the start of Gulf War I. Google the video from CNN and you will have great respect for Mike. What does that have to do with his support team at Blubrry? Courage and discipline under pressure.
Marketing Speak Stephan Spencer features information and interviews helpful to any Internet marketer. Podcasters can learn here. Stephan is no BS and gimmick-free.
Intelligence Matters with Michael Morell, former Acting Director of the CIA. This feeds my interest in National Security issues which date back to my work in Congress and a focus of my work as a Correspondent on Capitol Hill during the administrations of Present Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush. I highly recommend this to everyone. It will help you understand the global economy and threats to American democracy.
Hold These Truths with Dan Crenshaw a former Navy Seal and member of Congress from the Houston area. Dan is a smart conservative who we will likely see as a presidential candidate in ten years.
Planet Money from NPR. I love their approach to turning boring economics into compelling stories that affect lives.
KERA’s Think with Krys Boyd. Krys is an excellent interviewer.
Fresh Air This is the gold standard for storytelling via an interview.
Recent listens featuring outstanding storytelling and production that enhances the audience experience:
The Catch and Kill Podcast with Ron Farrow
Rabbit Hole from the New York Times (sparked new ideas for my audio producer)
Slow Burn from Slate (Season One on Watergate and Season Three about the deadly hip hop rivalry between Tupac Shakur and Biggie Smalls)
The Netflix Effect: Land of the Giants How Netflix changed Hollywood and changed the way we watch TV and movies. This is an excellent example of a deeply researched podcast subject. I admire how they use two hosts to weave the narrative.
Suspicious Activity Inside the FINCEN FILES. They unearthed secret information about banking transactions that is worth the listen. This is the kind of reporting that gets journalists assassinated in other countries.
I have a podcast running during the morning exercise routine, shower and shave, dressing, lunch, and anytime I am behind the wheel of the car. It’s a 25-minute drive each way to the horse barn. We consume and discuss a podcast.
True Crime Reporter is available now, and is sponsoring Podnews’s Tips & Tricks section.