This week I take a look at a two very different narrative nonfiction podcasts that take sidestep the pitfalls of their respective genres.
And we’re back.
Thank you, dear reader, for your patience with me lately. I moved house at the end of the month and have been working to organize my life before I was able find the time to write. As the name of the site would imply, I haven’t stopped listening to podcasts, and as a result I have a great deal I’d like to discuss.
It’s good to be back, and I’ll be writing more regularly from now on. Let’s not waste any more time up top, head on down and get to reading.
Panoply’s Empire On Blood is a uniquely engrossing and affecting narrative podcast which subverts the tropes of true crime shows to tell the story of a seven year long investigation attempting to overturn one man’s wrongful conviction.
On March 28th, nearly one year to the day from the release of S-Town, Panoply dropped all seven episodes of their new narrative nonfiction podcast Empire On Blood. I strongly believe that this was not just some happy accident, more an acknowledgement of the similarities the projects share and an attempt to capture that show’s cultural momentum. Though they differ greatly in terms of subject and tone, it is hard not to see them as cut from the same cloth. Beyond both releasing seven episodes in late March, both shows act as the culmination of years-long investigations, and utilize a uniquely novelistic approach to documentary audio storytelling. As well, both use true crime as a means to attract listeners, but are deep down explorations of the human condition.
Empire on Blood focuses on the intertwined fates of two men, Calvin Buari and Dwight Robinson, as filtered through the lens of long-time New York-based reporter Steve Fishman. Both Buari and Robinson were instrumental in the early ‘90s drug trade, bringing crack to the Bronx, before each landing in prison with 25 to life sentences. Fishman gets caught up in their saga when Buari reaches out and claiming that he has been wrongfully imprisoned for a double homicide that he did not commit. As Fishman digs in he finds an amazingly complex and serpentine tale, one full of shifting loyalties and underhanded tactics from just about every player. Buari’s claim of being set up seems to hold water, but the question becomes whether or not Fishman can find a witness to testify on Buari’s behalf. Beyond all of that though, in his investigations Fishman finds a group of such oddly endearing people that he can’t help but become wrapped up in the narrative himself.
Much like Brian Reed did on his show, Fishman doesn’t just relay the details of the world he’s stepped into but instead revels in their specificity. Where S-Town felt of a piece with the works of William Faulkner, Empire On Blood is instead unmistakably Elmore Leonard, full of idiosyncratic individuals on both sides of the law. The plethora of curious personalities populating the crime story manages to transform it from a tale of intrigue into one of people and their obsessions. There is the prosecuting DA who is as much fixated upon winning cases as he is on rescuing turtles, the former cop so famous for getting confessions that he’s referred to as “Father Frank”, or the hard-drinking private investigator who believes unflinchingly that the every word of the bible is true. Legendary defense attorney Myron Beldock—who helped overturn Rubin “Hurricane” Carter’s conviction—shows up and displays his talents as a jazz singer. The whole thing feels like a mystery novel come to life when Fishman reveals that, in addition to being a journalist, he also owns a bar in Brooklyn.
Make no mistake, however, despite all of the colorful characters on its periphery, the story is all about Buari and Robinson, and the way Fishman finds himself befriending both men. This dynamic makes the story particularly interesting given the knowledge that Buari would never have been convicted if it weren’t for Robinson’s cooperation with the DA. These interactions are what make the show such an engaging listen. As an audience, we come to know so much about Buari and Robinson and their lives that we become personally invested in their lives. As a result, it is gripping hear the way Fishman ends up having to play both sides in his conversations. Despite this, there is an absence of guile in the way Fishman interacts with each man. He displays an empathetic understanding that he’s not just a reporter trying to uncover a story but also a friend to both men stuck in an intensely lonely scenario. To Fishman, Buari and Robinson aren’t emblematic of the crimes that they may have committed, but instead are fully-fledged people that yearn for connection. They joke and talk about philosophy, love, and what is going on in the world, and it feels almost as important an act as Fishman’s dogged quest for Buari’s clemency.
For those who might be interested in the show purely on the strength of its narrative, just like with S-Town it is important to remember that the show is a work of non-fiction, and that life isn’t full of neat and tidy scenarios. Podcasts tell stories, and stories are a form of entertainment, but works of narrative journalism like Empire On Blood and S-Town exist in a sort of grey zone. One can talk endlessly of the craft of assembling such a story, and here it is surely something to be lauded, but it’s equally necessary to consider that the “characters” at the center are humans with their own complex lives and motivations. Empire On Blood escapes mostly free from the taint of subject exploitation largely for the feeling that everyone within the narrative is also exploiting Fishman along the way.
Empire On Blood is an extremely satisfying listen, full of vivid, assured storytelling and heart. It is far from being another lurid true crime series that one might imagine given the sensational title and cover art. What is found instead is a deeply engaging program full of drama and humanity in equal measure. As I said before, the timing of its release is no accident, this is a worthy entrant into the canon that S-Town created.
In the midst of a cultural moment for entertainment about cults, Jonathan Hirsch’s personal tale about growing up as a member of one is a sensitive examination of spirituality and the power of belief.
At the moment it feels like we’re inundated with programming about cults, whether it be in podcasts like Heaven’s Gate from Pineapple Street Media and Cults podcast from Parcast, or in film and television with Netflix’s Wild Wild Country and Paramount Network’s Waco miniseries. I’m certainly not wise enough to interpret the spike in our fascination with these fringe groups meaningfully, except to suggest that we Americans currently find ourselves in sway to a charismatic and volatile figurehead given to bouts of megalomania and incoherent rhetoric. Maybe we’re just looking for proof that such people
These programs—with the exception of Heaven’s Gate—are almost always exploitative, examining the lurid details of these fringe groups solely for an audience’s enjoyment. Much as it is with true crime shows, crafting entertainment around the pain of others can be a rather short sighted and cynical thing. However, the new Stitcher podcast Dear Franklin Jones which just released the last of its seven episodes, manages sidestep this entirely, crafting a sensitive and human exploration of what it is like to be spiritually devoted to a fallible living being.
The series is a personal investigation from producer Jonathan Hirsch (of the very good ARRVLS podcast), whose parents were followers of the guru Franklin Jones. As a result of this, Hirsch grew up listening to the teachings of Jones and later chose to become an active follower in his teenage years. What sets DFJ apart is its intentionally narrow focus. Hirsch isn’t setting out to tell the entire story of Franklin Jones and his congregation, more to explore his family’s involvement within it and how it affected him personally. The series spends a few episodes detailing Jones’ rise to prominence and some of the scandals surrounding his practice, but this is more an act of self-examination.
Seemingly everyone goes through a process of doubting and reevaluating their connection to the spirituality into which they’ve been indoctrinated from a young age. This podcast serves as Hirsch’s own unique journey, questioning how it was that his family came to worship at the feet of Jones, and examining the ways that it has impacted his life ever since. At first blush it can make the show seem a little anemic to listeners looking for drama. There isn’t an enormous and sensational narrative at the show’s heart, about depraved behavior or government standoffs or mass suicides. I believe that actually allows the show to tell a richer, more personal story, and one that we’re not often privy to; this tale of what it’s like to grow up inside what some might call a cult, and how that colors one’s experience of the world.
Perhaps the overarching feeling of the series is one of ambivalence, that points towards Jones and his teachings, but also towards Hirsch’s family for following Jones as well. One can sense an attitude in Hirsch that is both bemused and accepting of his experiences. With the remove of nearly two decades, it all seems a little strange to him but at the same time it also had a hand in creating the person he is today. It helps to craft a podcast that feels quite apart from so many others, a sensitive and emotionally honest exploration of what it means to follow.