Here’s something we’ve long come to believe: True crime is the bloody, beating heart of podcasting. After all, many of the medium’s biggest hits can be broadly grouped into the genre. There is Serial, of course, but also In the Dark, My Favorite Murder, Up & Vanished, and just about every big project made by publisher Wondery, from Dirty John to Dr. Death. Indeed, there’s even a budding genre of parodies, like This Sounds Serious and A Very Fatal Murder. And then there are the mainstream-trending podcasts that, while not overtly operating within the true-crime tradition, nonetheless draw some allure from lightly associating with the genre, as in the case of S-Town and, to a lesser extent, Missing Richard Simmons.
In this, though, podcasting isn’t particularly unique. That was something Josh Dean, a veteran magazine journalist and author, pointed out matter-of-factly when we spoke over the phone earlier this week. “Look, true crime is popular in pretty much every language on the planet and in whatever form, whether it’s podcasts or documentaries or magazine stories or books,” he said. Speaking of which, Dean’s latest project is one such true-crime podcast, which is why we, together with his producer, This American Life alum and current Pineapple Street Media staffer Jonathan Menjivar, were discussing the subject on the call.
The project is called The Clearing, and it comes out of a collaboration with Pineapple Street (which produced Missing Richard Simmons, with Dan Taberski), as well as Gimlet Media, acting as distributor on the project. At the heart of the podcast is the astonishing story of a woman named April Balascio, who learns long after the fact that her father, an eccentric and difficult man who fashioned himself as a reformed criminal turned motivational speaker, was a serial murderer. In 2009, decades after they last shared a roof, Balascio reach out to the police with her suspicion, and he was ultimately taken into custody. Balascio’s father, Edward Wayne Edwards, would later be credited with at least five murders in the Midwest. He died behind bars in 2011.
For a long time after Edwards’s arrest, Balascio said little to the media. It was an understandable choice, but it left a powerful vacuum, as the sensational essence of a high-profile killer tends to exert a strong gravitational pull in the public imagination. And so a galaxy of mistruths and exaggerations stepped in to fill in the gap. Over the past ten years, Edward Wayne Edwards became a caricature that evolved into something bigger. Fueled by a culture in love with conspiracy and a willing media ecosystem, Edwards became a mythical figure that some believe was responsible for every major murder in America. A patron saint of bad things, so to speak. In some corners of conspiracy culture, Edwards’s name has been associated with the murders of JonBenét Ramsey; Teresa Halbach, the victim in Netflix’s Making a Murderer; the deaths linked to Zodiac Killer; and even the Atlanta child killings of the late ’70s.
When The Clearing debuts next Thursday, it will follow Dean, working together with Balascio, as they attempt to sort through the narrative of Edwards’s metastasized legacy, peeling apart the horrible things he didn’t do … from ones that he did.
Balascio and Dean met three years ago — on the day Prince died, as Dean recalled. At the time, Dean had been developing a magazine story on Edwards, and it was through the course of his reporting that he was able to contact Balascio. As mentioned previously, Balascio hadn’t given any interviews since turning her father in back in 2009, but she decided to speak with him. “From there, we formed this friendship and working relationship that’s been really interesting and complicated and great,” said Dean.
Through talking with Balascio, Dean began to feel that the story he was chasing was far more complex than he originally thought, and began to doubt whether the tale could fit a 6,000 written word feature. So he reached out to Pineapple Street, and together, they drew up a plan for a multipart serialized audio documentary. The team has been working on the project for almost two years now.
Dean acknowledged the complications with Balascio acting as a creative collaborator on the project. She is, after all, one of the main subjects in the story, and the podcast is being offered to audiences as a work of rigorous journalism. But he insists they have a system in place, and that she does not have any creative control. “Still, she was incredibly important to the process,” he said. “It’s her family and it’s her life, and she allowed us to see places where the story could go that we simply couldn’t see by ourselves.”
Balascio was also useful, they noted, at opening doors for the investigation. As Dean pointed out, law enforcement officials tend not to call back journalists making requests about cold cases. Because Balascio is personally connected to the cases themselves, she was able to help the team access material held by the police that they needed, like key police files and, more importantly, a box that changed the shape of their investigation.
For a journalistic production, the box was the equivalent of gold in the side of a mountain: It held 60 cassettes that contain hours upon hours of recordings of Edwards. Some were tapings of police interviews — a staple tool in the genre toolbox — but many were recordings created by Edwards himself. The recordings were layered generously into the two episodes that were provided for early previews, and they serve as some of the more vivid, and fascinating, portions of the podcast. In the segments where Edwards was self-recording, he speaks with the calming lilt of broadcasters in the ’70s, at times sounding like a macabre, ragged Mr. Rogers. Most of these portions featured Edwards processing himself, in some instances reading news stories about his early non-murder-related criminal exploits. But the more interesting portions come when the recordings are banal in nature: He’s talking to himself to pass the time, to think through an idea, and so on. At all times, the darkness of his actions looms over everything. At one point, a woman’s gasp is briefly audible before the recording cuts out. Dean, serving as narrator, ruminates on its possibly grim nature, but also concedes that it may be nothing. As will probably be the case throughout the rest of the series, it’s hard to tell.
For the team, the tapes offer a valuable window into Edwards as a person, which they hope will bring them a better understanding of what he did. “He didn’t know that these tapes were going to end up in the hands of journalists — that’s in contrast to something like the Ted Bundy tapes, where he’s essentially masturbating in front of the camera because he knows it’s a performance,” said Dean. “Edwards thought he was scheming and pulling one over everyone else. As a result, you get to see how he made things work … sometimes in brilliant ways, sometimes in ham-fisted ones.”
This focus on Edwards, how he is and how he thinks, makes up the anchor of The Clearing’s ambitions to push pass the conventional elements of standard true-crime fare. Dean, Menjivar, and the team insists that their fundamental goal isn’t to solve a mystery, but to move in the opposite direction: to consider the substance and legacy of Edwards’s actions, to focus on their context and aftermath. And given Edwards’s mythical nature as a serial-killing icon, the podcast is also fashioning itself as being in conversation with the true-crime-fixated world around it.
“It’s a true crime story that’s meant to be meditation on true crime and the way we tell these stories,” said Menjivar. “We wanted to spend time thinking about the mythic monsters we constantly feel like we need to create, and the harsh realities we ignore by telling stories the way that we do.”
It’s an admirable position to stake, but the difficulty of its execution is not unfamiliar. We can’t help but think of the paradox that often comes with movies like, say, The Wolf of Wall Street: an effort to critique that, by virtue of needing to make the minute-by-minute experience narratively engaging within the parameters of the genre, ends up perpetuating the glorification of the thing being critiqued.
“Our hands aren’t totally clean,” Menjivar acknowledged. “In making this show, we are just as guilty of all the icky aspects of all the other true-crime shows that we’re in conversation with.”
He added: “The way I think about it is, this is a show that couldn’t have happened if everything else that came before had not happened. It’s in response to Serial; it’s in response to In the Dark; it’s in response to shows that Wondery puts out. All I would really hope for is that we get to start a conversation.”
The first two episodes of The Clearing are scheduled to drop on July 18. You can find the trailer here.