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Podcasters as TV Heroes? We’re All Ears



Gilbert Power, a public radio veteran and the host of the podcast “On Record,” went to a small town in Ireland to make a show about a 20-year-old missing-persons case. The podcast, he explained, was meant to be “a bit of fun, something to listen to on your drive home. I didn’t understand then how much power a story actually has. But stories can change us.”

Gilbert, played by a grinning Will Forte, is the lightly inane hero of “Bodkin,” a seven-episode series that premiered last week on Netflix. And as the fictional host of a fictional podcast, he has plenty of onscreen competition.

In the past five years, podcasters have emerged as the rumpled protagonists of numerous television shows (“Based on a True Story,” “Truth Be Told,” “Only Murders in the Building,” “Alex Inc.”) and films (“C’mon C’mon,” “Vengeance,” “Monolith,” “Bros”). Even the trendsetting Carrie Bradshaw was onboard; in “And Just Like That…,” she moved from print journalism to the advice podcast “X, Y and Me,” before going solo.

Some of these works are comedies, some dramas. Many of them involve one or more mysteries in homage to or parody of true-crime podcasting. In these shows and movies, podcasters fill the roles once occupied by journalists or amateur sleuths, as tyros desperate for answers. These protagonists are often bumbling, and their relationship to ethics is distinctly off-and-on.

But characters like these help fulfill a very particular fantasy: that we can tell the truth while also telling a good, possibly even powerful, story. And maybe land a mattress sponsorship while we’re at it.

Jez Scharf, the creator of “Bodkin,” dreamed up the show after several work trips to Ireland. (He and Alex Metcalf are the showrunners.) Scharf, who was raised in England, felt awkward in Ireland, an outsider. He was listening to a lot of podcasts at the time, especially true crime — “S Town,” “Serial,” “West Cork.” The democratization of the internet meant that anyone with access to a phone could make a podcast. What would it be like, he wondered, for an outsider to show up in a strange place and question people about their most traumatic experiences?

“I found that idea broadly quite absurd and an interesting means of making a slightly different detective show,” he said during a recent video call.

Podcasters are of course not the only people with a tendency to arrive and ask difficult questions. Journalists do that, too; “Bodkin” saddles Gilbert with one of them, Dove, a Guardian reporter played by Siobhan Cullen. But not all podcasters are journalists, and not all podcasters feel bound to journalistic ethics.

Metcalf said: “We were really conscious of the relationship between what journalism should be — after the truth, ‘just the facts, ma’am’ — and this burgeoning world of proto-journalism, done by anybody who happens to have a microphone.”

Even actual journalists can find podcasting liberating. Rebecca Jarvis, an ABC News correspondent and the host of the podcasts “No Limits With Rebecca Jarvis” and “The Dropout,” said that while traditional journalism has traditions and rules, podcasting offers new freedoms. “It can feel a little bit more like the Wild West,” she said in an interview.

Those freedoms can be abused, however, which opens up killer storytelling possibilities. Smart people making upstanding choices makes for boring television. And the fact that anyone with an internet connection can throw up their own feed lends a vicarious thrill — Are you nosy and own a smartphone? You can be a detective and a show host too! — while generating dramatic tension from everyday people being in way over their heads.

Take, for example, the amoral protagonists of the Peacock series “Based on a True Story,” an occasionally lurid satire of the American obsession with true crime. It hinges on an objectively terrible choice made by a bored married couple: When a tennis pro (Chris Messina) and his real estate agent wife (Kaley Cuoco) discover that their plumber is a serial killer, instead of calling the police they decide to record a podcast with him, cashing in on the criminality even as he continues to kill. Annie Weisman, the showrunner for Season 2, said that putting podcasters at the center of the show allowed for liberties in the storytelling.

“Stories about responsible, ethical journalism are not as much fun because the reality of it is a very methodical, tedious, boring, long process when it’s done well and done right,” she said. “We need that for democracy, and it’s very important. But when we’re playing in this pulpier true-crime world, we’re unhitching ourselves from those constraints.”

Some think such unhitching devalues the reputation of fact-finders. Joe Saltzman, a professor at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, who studies the depiction of journalists in popular culture, does not discriminate between podcasters and broadcast and print reporters. He believes that they are represented in similar, often negative ways.

“People love gossip and the news, but they hate the people who bring them that information,” he said. “And the more they see of the process involved, the more they hate them.”

Saltzman argues that when it comes to TV and film, journalists writ large — reporters, podcasters, bloggers, vloggers — will generally be forgiven for their ethical lapses as long as they are performing in the public interest. But sometimes, as in “Bodkin,” “Based on a True Story” and “Only Murders in the Building,” those interests are more private.

“When they use the precious commodity of the news media for their own personal gain, then there’s a really negative image of the journalists,” he said.

In a moment when the news business is flailing, journalists in many places are under threat, and “fake news” has become a frequent drumbeat, watching podcasters make bad choices, rather than professional reporters do that, feels less icky, at least. (Want that ick? Then you may enjoy playing a spot-the-ethical-violations game with “The Girls on the Bus” or “The Morning Show.”) Showing podcasters as dumb, craven or corrupt doesn’t invite as many reputational consequences. Sometimes, it’s even fun.

John Hoffman, who created “Only Murders in the Building” with Steve Martin, wanted to add a podcast element partly to create a landscape for Martin and his co-star Martin Short to play in.

The true-crime podcast format allows Charles (Martin) and Oliver (Short), joined by Selena Gomez playing Mabel, to make ethical and investigative stumbles while allowing for plenty of character-based comedy. The show, an acclaimed Hulu series, also managed a bit of commentary about the vulturous nature of the true-crime genre when it made the Season 2 murderer a podcast producer. (A further upside: It gave her colleague, played by Tina Fey, plenty of material.)

“Podcasters are looking to tell the story, but they’re also bringing the personal in,” Hoffman said. “I’m really interested in the humanity of everyone involved around an incident or a tragedy.”

Jarvis, the journalist podcaster, is a fan of “Only Murders in the Building.” She enjoys how the show skewers podcast clichés, while also portraying the thrill of making a podcast. “They capture that excitement of a small group of people who are hustling and working really hard to tell a story,” she said.

That excitement comes more easily, she added, because “Only Murders” doesn’t have to show the work that real journalists and many real podcasters would do — the research, the fact-checking. And that’s fine with Jarvis.

“I just enjoy it as entertainment,” she said of the show. “If it was intended to be a representation of how we do the work that we do, it would not be an accurate one.”

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