Philadelphia, PA––The blockbuster success of the true-crime podcast Serial has spurred the glut of new crimecasts flooding into the stream over the last 18 months. Most have died a quick, unnoticed death. Others have hanged on until succumbing to their creators’ lack of vision.
It’s easy to be a talking head. It’s even easier to regurgitate what Nancy Grace squawked about the night before. Easier still is endless conjecture in the absence of an independently obtained fact. Audiences don’t want to hear you read a newspaper. And Google News is not a teleprompter any more than you’re a legal analyst because you sat in the pokey on a 30-day probation hold.
Many well-intentioned goofballs learned again that crime doesn’t pay, and true crime pays even less. But hey, at least they tried, right? The bigger take away is, in 2016, pimpin’ still ain’t easy, and neither is podcasting. Forget about all of that free sound-editing software and those uninspired fantasies of going all Pump Up the Volume while yours moms is asleep. Just fire up that grape-flavored L, sit back, and enjoy the ride the way the pros know how, waynkah.
The only podcast I downloaded on the regular was Radiolab, a podcast that explores a lot of scientific and abstract themes. I love that kind of stuff. But in May I got a call from Marissa Jones, creator and host of The Vanished, a podcast focused exclusively on missing people. She wanted to feature a missing person I’d written about and needed more information. Following our convo, I listened to her show. Honestly, I didn’t have high expectations. I had checked in on a podcast here and there, but none ever grabbed me the way Radiolab and Serial did.
Plus, it was a moonlight gig, something she did in her spare time, when she wasn’t doing the other things she did with her life. From my own love affair with long-form narrative, I knew how much time goes into researching and constructing even a basic story, much less hashing out the complexities of a missing persons investigation every week.
But from the opening notes of the show’s score, I was a fan. It was one of those moments when you stop to ask yourself, Why didn’t I think of this? I mean, I could have thought of this, but wouldn’t have ended up with this… So I was fan at first listen. She sounded pro, the show sounded pro, and the storytelling was thoughtful, easy to follow, and captivating as [heck].
But the best story of all was hers. Paralegal by day, single mother to two young boys by night, all the while teaching herself not only to edit snippets of audio, but to carry a show as host, write script, interview sources, curate photos, write web copy, post it all as one cohesive package, and engage her audience on the popular Facebook discussion group. It’s an incredible amount of work. Every seven days. Once you have an audience you have an obligation, because they’re always waiting, like hatchlings clamoring for their premasticated dinner.
In June, just four months after Jones launched her show, the recently formed Wondery Network selected it for syndication. In September, Jones brought me onboard to help produce the show. We make a pretty kick-ass team. But beyond the show, Jones herself has a pretty interesting connection to a missing persons case. For the Scribe 3.0’s re-launch of the Comp Time Q & A, I asked Jones to shake an old branch of her family, how it inspired her interest in missing people, and how she came to create one the dopest true-crime podcasts of 2016.
The Feral Scribe: Of all there is to be interested in, why missing people?
Marissa Jones: I have always had a fascination with mysteries. I grew up watching Scooby-Doo and Unsolved Mysteries. My fascination is a bit deeper than that though. My great-grandfather disappeared in Philadelphia in 1928. My grandfather was just four-years-old at the time and had seven-year-old sister and a five-year-old brother. Their mother was not able to afford to take care of them on her own so a family member stepped in to take his sister and the boys went into foster care.
As I grew up, I heard these horror stories of what my grandfather had been through in foster care and I could see how he was devastated by it. On the flip side, it made him so devoted to his own family. I have so many fond memories of his kind, gentle spirit.
Many of my family members still wonder if my great-grandfather just deserted the family. Could we have family out there that we just don’t know about? People have asked me to do an episode about my family but I just can’t bring myself to do it. I tried to search for him on my own but it is tricky since he disappeared so long ago, before Social Security. It was much easier to start over under a new identity.
I started getting families asking for coverage because so many people do not get mainstream news coverage.
How did your interest in missing people evolve into a podcast?
I started out as a podcast listener. At the time, there were no shows solely devoted to missing persons. I kept asking the shows that I was a fan of to feature more missing persons, especially those who were not getting a lot of media attention. I felt like no one was listening so I decided to do it myself.
I had zero experience but just jumped in and learned as I went.
How do you choose which cases to feature?
Initially, I just chose cases that interested me. I had been following many cases over the years and I started with those. The show evolved over time and I started getting families asking for coverage because so many people do not get mainstream news coverage. There are a variety of reasons that this happens but it appears that men, minorities, and anyone with a skeleton in the closest most likely will not get the same level of coverage as someone like Natalee Holloway.
Are you surprised by how the show has resonated with people?
Yes, I started the show as a hobby that I thought could spread awareness about some lesser known missing cases and it took off.
What’s the secret ingredient? What keeps people coming back for more?
I think that people are intrigued by mystery. Look at how many crime shows are on TV these days. From the feedback that I have gotten, people seem to appreciate that I don’t sensationalize the circumstances and I treat everyone that I speak to with compassion. I get to know the families and continue to maintain a relationship with them. It is important to me that they know that I genuinely care about them and their missing loved one. I think the audience gets a sense of that when they listen.
What separates a good episode from one you’d consider not so good, from a purely technical perspective?
When I started the show, I had no experience so it took me some time to get better with the technical aspect. So, when I go back and listen to my old episodes, I cringe. Volume issues seem to really bother listeners if they have to continue to adjust while listening. That can be tricky, at times, when you are using audio from different sources. Sometimes the volume can be the same but the pitch is different and it bothers listeners.
Is there an episode you’re particularly proud of? Why so?
I would have to say the George Sandoval episode. The person who George was last with made several cryptic Facebook posts around the time of his disappearance and I looked over photos that he had posted and noticed things that no one else had noticed. Unfortunately, not much has been done in his case because he is a gay man with a history of mental illness and substance abuse, but he is loved and missed by so many. That is what is so heartbreaking, it often seems like people look for a reason not to care about certain people because they don’t fit into a specific category of what a viewing audience finds interesting or will be sympathetic to.
Do you think you the show has potential to help find someone who has gone missing?
Yes, I do think that in some cases it just takes reaching the right person. You never know who may have seen or heard something but doesn’t even know that a memory stored in their mind could solve a cold case.
Where do you see the show a year from now?
That is tough to say. I never imagined that it would have come this far in nine months. I am hoping that with our current sponsorships, we will be able to do some traveling and take this to more of an investigative level. I think some cases could benefit from having the ability to knock on doors and check out. I want to continue to improve audio quality but that is a process when it comes to purchasing equipment.
Do you ever worry that you’ll go missing?
Not really. I have become much more aware of my surroundings and I find that I watch others because so many people are glued to their phones these days. I worry when I see people jogging or walking with headphones, they seem like easy targets. I also talk to my kids a lot and ask them how they would handle certain situations. I used to say things like “don’t talk to strangers” but now I ask questions like “if someone asked you to help them look for a puppy, what would you do?” That has been eye-opening for me because it gave me a view into how little minds work and an opportunity to tell my kids you don’t have to be polite if a stranger is making you feel uncomfortable.