At the Scene of the Crime: Podcasting and Placemaking
Helen Morgan-Parmett / University of Vermont


crime scene photo overlain with Serial's logo
Serial highlights the places that are central to the narrative in this crime scene photo overlain with Serial’s logo.

…we have to drive back out to Woodlawn drive, turn onto Security Boulevard, which does have some big intersections you have to get through. Again, we’re trying to get to Best Buy, it’s still there today, in twenty-one minutes… We’re at seventeen minutes, we’re just crossing under the beltway… (Serial, Season 1, Episode 5: “Route Talk”)

Perhaps this quote reads familiar, if you, like me, are one of the 175 million listeners of the world’s most popular podcast, Serial. It is the episode where Sarah Koenig, Serial’s narrator, and her producer, Dana, drive the suspected route Adnan Syed drove on the day he supposedly murdered his ex-girlfriend, Hae Min Lee. Sarah and Dana drive the route to determine if the state’s timeline is possible. As listeners, we move through Baltimore County along with them, listening to the sounds of traffic and the hum of the car’s engine, as they make the turns necessary to arrive at their final destination—a Best Buy parking lot where Syed is suspected of committing the murder. Although I have not personally driven the route, apparently lots of other people have, and not just on their daily commutes, but in a purposeful attempt to recreate the route themselves as amateur sleuths or as tourists looking for a Baltimore excursion off-the-beaten-path.


Best Buy parking lot
The Best Buy parking lot, pictured here, has become a tourist site of sorts after the Serial podcast and was featured as one of many series-related locations in The Guardian to give fans a better idea of what these sites looked like. Many other media outlets along with fans on social media participate in sharing these kinds of images as well.

Like Serial, many podcasts, especially (but certainly not limited to) the true crime genre, have a strong sense of and connection to place. The Gimlet produced Crimetown podcast, for example, has dedicated its two seasons to Providence and Detroit respectively. Studio recordings are supplemented with on-location work that details in multisensory fashion not only the stories of the cities’ crime histories, but also the cultural and social geographies that provide the contexts for those crimes. In the Dark’s second season takes us to Winona, Mississippi to investigate the possible innocence of Curtis Flowers, exploring a racist and classist criminal justice system inasmuch as how race and class biases manifest in the places essential to life in small-town America.[ (( Interestingly, in Episode 2, listeners are enjoined to explore the route, much like in Serial, Flowers allegedly walked the morning of the murders. ))] Similarly, the wildly popular S-Town, from the makers of Serial and This American Life, is ostensibly a character study of John B. McLemore, but undoubtedly the “shit town” for which the podcast is named, Woodstock, Alabama, is as much under study as McLemore.

I could name many other podcasts, both within and beyond the true crime genre, that work to produce a very specific and intimate sense of place for listeners. Yet little scholarship has addressed podcasting’s production of place. Instead, most scholars emphasize the space- and time-shifting capabilities of the medium, as it enables listeners to download and listen when and where they want.[ (( See, for example, Berry, Richard. “Will the IPod Kill the Radio Star? Profiling Podcasting as Radio.” Convergence: The International Journal of Research into New Media Technologies 12, no. 2 (May 2006): 143–62. https://doi.org/10.1177/1354856506066522; Funk, Marcus. “Decoding the Podaissance: Identifying Community Journalism Practices in Newsroom and Avocational Podcasts.” International Symposium on Online Journalism 7, no. 1 (Spring 2017): 67–87; Llinares, Dario, Neil I. Fox, and Richard Berry. Podcasting : New Aural Cultures and Digital Media, 2018. Jan Lauren Boyles case study of how digital news in post-Katrina New Orleans created fields of care that facilitated urban attachment is an exception, as they explore various podcasts that connect people of New Orleans to each other and who use podcasting as a means of digitally connecting to place and constituting place identities. However, Boyles’ exploration is less about podcasting per se and more about digital journalism more broadly, though I am interested in how these insights about urban attachment might speak to the specificity of podcasting’s spatial practices. See  Boyles, Jan Lauren. “Building an Audience, Bonding a City: Digital News Production as a Field of Care.” Media, Culture & Society 39, no. 7 (October 2017): 945–59. https://doi.org/10.1177/0163443716682073. ))] A core component of this discourse ties podcasting’s mobility to its potentially democratizing and empowering capabilities, as it “puts the onus on the listener, whose jurisdiction over the when, where and how of podcast engagement…suggests a highly liberated, even democratized consumer experience.”[ (( Llinares, Dario. “Podcasting as Limited Praxis: Aural Mediation, Sound Writing and Identity.” In Podcasting : New Aural Cultures and Digital Media. Palgrave MacMillan, 2018, 127. ))]

This understanding of podcasting’s relationship to space and place follows a well-trodden discourse of media space, which overwhelmingly theorizes media as a space-compressing or despatializing technology.[ (( See, for example, Harvey, David. The Condition of Postmodernity: An Enquiry into the Origins of Cultural Change. Oxford [England]; Cambridge, Mass., USA: Blackwell, 1989. ))] However, as I have argued elsewhere, this view obscures the ways media produces both symbolic and material spatialities. Although podcasting does produce space- and time-shifting, these shifts are less a matter of compressing space or evacuating place than they are a means of creating new relationships to place and new forms of emplacement.


maps of the locations in Baltimore Country central to Serial
Reddit users produced numerous maps of the locations in Baltimore County central to Serial, including this comprehensive map that identifies sites on the map for reader-listeners to visualize distance, how places interconnect, and connect to the state’s timeline and theory of events.

Podcast emplacement is especially constituted through its sensorial, affective intimacy in conjunction with its multiplatform convergences. For example, while Serial’s popularity demonstrated some of the core aspects of the time- and space -shifting potentials of the medium, the podcast was also inconceivable without its deep ties to the spaces and places of Baltimore County, giving listeners an intimate feeling of “being there.” As Sarah and Dana drive the route, the on-location recording affectively connects the past of the crime to Sarah’s and Dana’s present through a soundscape that brings listeners to the site of the crime. Aural cues are accompanied by other sensibilities of place that can be accessed through multi-modal, interactive, and convergent media, whether through social media and endless Reddit threads that meticulously map and annotate the crime scene, Serial’s website’s maps and documents, YouTube videos of fans driving the infamous route, taking your own tour or following someone else who did, amongst many, many other intermediations of the podcast. Some scholars have argued that podcasting’s intimate and deep listening creates a detachment from the place of listening, arguing, for example, “It would be difficult to navigate city streets, or busy traffic, and not fall into ‘rabbit holes.’”[ (( Hancock, Danielle, and Leslie McMurtry. “‘I Know What a Podcast Is’: Post-Serial Fiction and Podcast Media Identity.” In Podcasting : New Aural Cultures and Digital Media. Palgrave MacMillan, 2018, 90. ))] But listening to the podcast at the place of production and at the site of the narrative—a kind of media pilgrimage[ (( Couldry, Nick. The Place of Media Power Pilgrims and Witnesses of the Media Age. London; New York: Routledge, 2001. ))] —can actually increase intensity in ways that further connect the listener to place, rather than disconnecting them. The podcast is the map that guides the listener’s navigation of the city street rather than the rabbit hole.

Although emplacement might be an unintended effect of most podcasts, there are also more explicit attempts to use the sensorial, affective, and convergent capabilities of podcasting as a purposeful means for connecting listeners to place. In the case of the performative podcast Wandercast, artist Robbie Z. Wilson “invites listeners to take it on a wander. It employs podcasts’ portability and aural intimacy to unearth playful affordances inherent in our surroundings and to encourage enaction of those affordances as a means of rediscovering one’s environment.”[ (( Wilson, Robbie Z. “Welcome to the World of Wandercast: Podcast as Participatory Performance and Environmental Exploration.” In Podcasting : New Aural Cultures and Digital Media. Palgrave MacMillan, 2018, 274. There are numerous other examples of podcasts aiming to either connect listeners to their surroundings, direct them as tourists, or explore the idea of the sense of place. ))] This performative playfulness depends on a lack of site-specificity on the part of the narrator, but their displacement is aimed to provide an embodied and site-specific experience for the listener.


logo for Vermont Public Radio's Brave Little State podcast
Logo for Vermont Public Radio’s Brave Little State podcast, which connects listeners to a sense of local community.

In addition to performance art, community journalism is an area ripe with podcasts whose explicit aim is to connect listeners with place-based communities. Brave Little State, a podcast produced by Vermont Public Radio in my own place in the state of Vermont, enjoins listeners to pose topics related to Vermont that they are interested in investigating, and all listeners get to vote on what topic they want the podcast to explore.[ (( Brave Little State was influenced by a very similar podcast out of Chicago, titled Curious City. ))] The listener who posted the question then joins with the host to investigate, on-location, the answers to their question. Topics include questions like “Why is Vermont so white?” and “Those aging hippies who moved to Vermont…where are they now?”

I contend podcasting produces a kind of “atlas of emotion,” what Guiliana Bruno refers to as a haptic mapping and a “phantasmatic structure of lived space and lived narrative; a narrativized space that is intersubjective.”[ (( Bruno, Giuliana. Atlas of Emotion Journeys in Art, Architecture and Film. New York: Verso, 2011, 65. ))] Bruno is referring to cinematic mapping, but there is much to be gleaned about podcasting from her groundbreaking work on cinematic history and its production of new forms of “emotive, embodied and visceral engagement with space.”[ (( Mazumdar, Ranjani. “The Mumbai Slum: Aerial Views and Embodied Memories,” Mediapolis, Vol 4(3), https://www.mediapolisjournal.com/2019/11/the-mumbai-slum/. ))] While podcasting’s intimacy and connectivity is often theorized as an effect of its space compressing or mobile practices that collapse distances between producer and listener, I suggest we might instead consider how podcasting’s connectivities and intimacies are forged out of the production of emplacement in a variety of forms. We then might explore how podcasts, in their multisensorial, convergent engagements produce new forms of interacting with, embodying, living, understanding, and navigating the spaces and places of our everyday, mediated lives.



Image Credits:

  1. Serial highlights the places that are central to the narrative in this crime scene photo overlain with Serial’s logo.
  2. The Best Buy parking lot, pictured here, has become a tourist site of sorts after the Serial podcast and was featured as one of many series-related locations in The Guardian to give fans a better idea of what these sites looked like. Many other media outlets along with fans on social media participate in sharing these kinds of images as well.
  3. Reddit users produced numerous maps of the locations in Baltimore County central to Serial, including this comprehensive map that identifies sites on the map for reader-listeners to visualize distance, how places interconnect, and connect to the state’s timeline and theory of events.
  4. Logo for Vermont Public Radio’s Brave Little State podcast, which connects listeners to a sense of local community.


References:




Gender, Place, and Nostalgia in The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel
Helen Morgan-Parmett / University of Vermont


Maisel promo
Promotional image for The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, featuring the leading cast posed amidst a New York City street.

“It’s interesting. My father pointed out that my favorite part about a newspaper is the ads for shoes. And I felt bad about that, but now I think maybe they just put those ads in newspapers to distract us. Because if women don’t realize what’s going on in the world, they won’t step in and fix it. Because they will fix it- And accessorize it!” (Midge Maisel, Season 1, Episode 4, “The Disappointment of the Dionne Quintuplets”)

The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel (Amazon, 2017-present) is a dramedy set in late 1950s New York City about a Jewish housewife (Miriam (Midge) Maisel) from the Upper West Side who stumbles into a nascent career in stand-up comedy after her husband cheats on her with his secretary, and, subsequently, leaves her. In the series’ fourth episode, Midge accidentally ends up at a protest in Washington Square Park. As she strolls through the park with her son, someone is playing the piano as children, mothers, strollers, and passerby meander. Disrupting her reverie, she is bumped by another woman, who apologizes before running off, declaring, “I hope she hasn’t spoken yet!” We soon learn “she” is Jane Jacobs[ (( Jacobs is best known for her book The Death and Life of Great American Cities and her efforts at grassroots organizing to protect Greenwich Village, her neighborhood, from Robert Moses’ “slum clearance” plans in the 1950s that were to make way for the building of the interstate highway system. See Jacobs, Jane. The Death and Life of Great American Cities. New York: Random House, 1961. ))], the real-life activist who critiqued and fought 1950s urban renewal policy for its privileging of industry, cars, and capital over people, culture, and experience. Midge makes her way to the rally and finds it is a protest of Robert Moses’ plan to demolish the park to make way for the interstate highway.[ (( The scene is based on an actual event, where activists protesting Moses’ plan organized a rally that has become memorialized in a photo of the “Last Car thru Washington Square” (although it would not be until April 1959 that the Square was actually closed to traffic. http://www.washingtonsquareparkblog.com/2013/04/05/54-years-since-washington-square-park-officially-closed-to-traffic/. ))] Before she knows it, Midge is called to the microphone, much in the same coincidental manner she finds her way to the microphone at the Gaslight Café in the season’s pilot. Ever the performer, Midge works the crowd, declaring that now that she, and other women, are aware of the harms being done to their city, not only will they not stand for it, but they “will fix it, and accessorize it.”


Midge speaking at rally
Miriam (Midge) Maisel (played by Rachel Brosnahan) speaking in Washington Square Park at a Jane Jacobs rally against Robert Moses’ plan to build a highway through the park.


Midge and protestors
Midge speaking at Washington Square Park rally, surrounded by protestors holding signs declaring statements such as “Strollers not cars” demonstrate the gendered dimensions of Jacobs’ and other’s critique of Robert Moses’ urban renewal plan for New York and other cities, by arguing that cities needed to make space for mothers, children, and families.


1958 rally and filming
Left: Picture taken from 1958 rally featuring “Last Car Thru Washington Square.” Right: Picture of filming on-set of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, replicating the “Last Car Thru Washington Square” rally.

The rally is so
far Midge’s only entry into any kind of formal political activism. Instead, her
comedy routine, largely pushing boundaries against 1950s gender norms, becomes
the primary focus of her (coincidental) politics. Still, the rally is a notable
scene for what it intimates about the show’s commentary on New York City, both
then and now, and, perhaps especially, what women might do about it.

Much like the beleaguered New York of Jane Jacobs’ era, New York City has again become subject to a discourse of urban crisis—not because it is faltering, as in Jacobs’ day, but because it is prospering. As the city becomes an urban playground for the rich, and iconic neighborhood establishments close to make way for luxury condos no one will ever occupy, lamentations over a lost New York abound. Consider, Jeremiah Moss’ popular blog and book, Vanishing New York[ (( Moss, Jeremiah. Vanishing New York: How a Great City Lost Its Soul. New York: Dey Street Books, 2017. ))], dedicated to cataloging the disappearance of a New York both iconic and mundane. As a July 2007 post ominously notes, “Now I wait, hiding inside these bricks, blighted and condemned, for the wrecking ball to come for me as it will eventually come for you. In the end, we will all be lost in the pile of this vanishing city.”

Moss is neither the first nor last to decry that New York just isn’t what it used to be. In 1967, Joan Didion’s now famous essay, “Goodbye to All That,” kicked off a whole genre of writing about a New York loved and lost. Although Didion’s essay is more about a longing for a lost youth than for Moss’ vanishing New York, the current mode of “Goodbye New York” is much more along the lines of the latter, where everyone from celebrities to unknown struggling artists wonder if New York is really worth it anymore. For David Byrne, New York is becoming a city for the 1% that no longer makes things and is especially hostile to the social and economic conditions that foster art, creativity, and culture. For Ann Friedman, whose essay, “Why I’m Glad I Quit New York at Age 24,” went viral, New York is “that guy”—you know the one—“the prom king. He knows he’s great, and he’s gonna make it really, really hard on you if you decide you want to love him.” Friedman is just one of a number of women penning such essays, leading the feminist blog Jezebel to query, “Is Dumping New York City ‘A Girl Thing?’”

Amidst this longing for a lost New York, it is little wonder that some of the most popular recent television series set in the city are period pieces, including The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.  In its fastidious set design, aimed to transform today’s city streets into the sites, scents, sounds, and experience of 1950s New York, the series produces affects of nostalgia. As production designer, Bill Groom noted, “It’s nice sometimes to capture a little bit of the New York that’s disappearing.” The series imagines a New York that was more gritty and “authentic” than the one of today, but also a past in which women were at the cusp of a movement and leading the charge to create a city that responded to their needs. Undoubtedly, this nostalgia is as much about the present and future as the past, responding to gendered discourses of urban crisis in present-day New York City while reminding us of a past in which New York women were poised to create change.[ (( Eichhorn, Kate. “Feminism’s There : On Post-Ness and Nostalgia.” Feminist Theory 16, no. 3 (December 2015): 251–64. https://doi.org/10.1177/1464700115604127. See also Boym, Svetlana. The Future of Nostalgia. New York: Basic books, 2001. ))]

What are we to make of this nostalgic longing, especially as it becomes pegged to Jane Jacobs and her influential work on gender and the city? As Jacobs makes her way into contemporary popular culture, her theories of women’s importance in creating vital and vibrant cities is also seeing a revival in urban planning and renewal strategies. Marguerite Van Den Berg suggests Jacobs’ appeal is precisely because of her emphasis on gender—“femininity is here associated with the imagined future city: a city of creativity and spontaneity…Jacobs is mobilized because she symbolizes this non-modern spontaneity, but also because she is a woman.”[ (( Van Den Berg, Marguerite. Gender in the Post-Fordist Urban: The Gender Revolution in Planning and Public Policy. Cham, Switzerland: Palgrave Macmillan/Springer Nature, 2019, 25. ))] Yet, unlike Midge, the women of today’s New York, especially women of color and working class women, are not only fighting new Robert Moses figures—real estate developers and tycoons who want to clear the city to make way for new high rises and highways. They are also, in a sense, fighting today’s Jane Jacobs, whose ideals have been adapted by real estate developers and bureaucrats alike to preserve and reinvent the city’s “authenticity,” driving up rents and displacing the poor as much as those strategies more Moses-like.[ (( Zukin, Sharon. Naked City: The Death and Life of Authentic Urban Places. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2010. ))] While Midge joins arms with other women calling for the preservation of Washington Square Park, if she were transported to today, would she be protesting yet another coffee chop, Edison lightbulb decorated craft beer pub, cat café, or axe-throwing range?

One can only wonder.

Nostalgia is a
powerful affect. It remains to be seen how Mrs. Maisel exactly imagines
Midge and other women will ultimately “fix” and “accessorize” the city. I guess
we will just have to keep watching.



Image Credits:

  1. Promotional image for The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, featuring the leading cast posed amidst a New York City street.
  2. Miriam (Midge) Maisel (played by Rachel Brosnahan) speaking in Washington Square Park at a Jane Jacobs rally against Robert Moses’ plan to build a highway through the park.
  3. Midge speaking at Washington Square Park rally, surrounded by protestors holding signs declaring statements such as “Strollers not cars” demonstrate the gendered dimensions of Jacobs’ and other’s critique of Robert Moses’ urban renewal plan for New York and other cities, by arguing that cities needed to make space for mothers, children, and families.
  4. Left: Picture taken from 1958 rally featuring “Last Car Thru Washington Square.” Right: Picture of filming on-set of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, replicating the “Last Car Thru Washington Square” rally.


References: