CBC's Finding Cleo wins best serialized story at Third Coast International Audio Festival

The second season of Missing and Murdered, Finding Cleo, became the first podcast to win best serialized story at the prestigious audio awards on Saturday.

The Chicago festival bills its award ceremony as 'the Oscars of Radio'

This undated photo of Cleopatra Semaganis Nicotine was, for many years, the only image her family had of her. A CBC investigation titled Missing & Murdered: Finding Cleo, which revealed the truth behind her disappearance, was recognized Saturday at one of the world's top audio festivals. (Submitted by Semaganis family)

A CBC investigation that revealed the truth behind a young girl's disappearance is now being recognized at one of the world's top audio festivals.

Missing & Murdered: Finding Cleo won the inaugural award for best serialized story at the Third Coast International Audio Festival in Chicago, which awards excellence in non-fiction audio storytelling. 

The podcast follows host Connie Walker's investigation into the disappearance of Cleopatra Semaganis Nicotine. In the 1970s, the young Cree girl was apprehended by child welfare workers in Saskatchewan and adopted into an American family.

Her siblings, who were also placed with new families, reconnected as adults — but for decades, they couldn't find Cleo. The painful rumours about her fate, and their prolonged search for the truth, form the heart of the 10-part podcast.

"We are thrilled that Cleo's story is being heard by people around the world and recognized by the judges at Third Coast," said Walker, who wanted the podcast to both solve the mystery and shed light on the bigger context around the controversial Adopt Indian and Mé​tis program.

CBC's Connie Walker interviews Johnny Semaganis, Cleo's older brother. He last saw Cleo in the mid-1970s when social workers drove them in separate cars to say goodbye to each other. (CBC)

"It was a privilege to be entrusted to tell Cleo's story — to help her family uncover the truth about her death but also to shine a light on what happened to a generation of Indigenous children who were taken during the Sixties Scoop." 

Walker, herself a Cree woman from Saskatchewan, said she recognized something of herself in the story. She and her production team spent months "consumed" by their investigation.  

It was a privilege to be entrusted to tell Cleo's story.- Connie Walker, host of Finding Cleo

"When I saw the photo of Cleo for the first time, I felt like she could have been somebody that I knew growing up," she said. "It really hit home for me."

Missing & Murdered is a collaboration between CBC News and CBC Podcasts. Together, both seasons of the investigative podcast have garnered more than 15 million downloads, according to Sumo Logic analytics. 

Hours of dedicated listening

The story captured the attention of a panel of judges from Third Coast, who bill their annual awards ceremony as the "Oscars of Radio" and review entries from around the world.  

Cleo's siblings, Semaganis and Christine Cameron, reunited in person for the first time in 45 years during the making of the podcast. (Ousama Farag/CBC)

The best serialized story award is a new category that recognizes the best story that unfolds over multiple episodes, such as in the smash hit podcasts Serial and S-Town.

"With so much great audio work being created as limited series, we had to create this new award," festival organizers noted on their official website. 

Eligible entries could be up to 10 hours long in total, requiring Third Coast judges to invest several listening hours before deciding on the winner. 

With so much great audio work being created as limited series, we had to create this new award.- Third Coast International Audio Festival

Four members of the Finding Cleo team travelled to Chicago to accept the award, which was presented before a crowd of their peers from various audio-making juggernauts, from the WBEZ and the BBC to Gimlet and Radiotopia.

Producers from The Shadows among other winners 

Finding Cleo was the only full series among this year's winners. The rest were individual podcast episodes or stand-alone audio stories covering a wide range of topics from sex trafficking to an intimate conversation between lovers. 

Producers Phoebe Wang and Sharon Mashihi were both recognized for personal pieces published by The Heart, the popular podcast created and hosted by Kaitlin Prest. Their latest project, audio drama The Shadows, launched under the CBC Podcasts banner in September.

Wang, the senior producer for The Shadows, also produced God + The Gays, an audio piece that explores how homophobia affects family dynamics — often irreparably. She was honoured with the Best New Artist award. 

Sharon Mashihi, editor for The Shadows, was recognized with a Silver Award in the Best Documentary category for her piece, Man Choubam (I am good), about Mashihi and her mom trying to work our their differences while on an Iranian self-help cruise. 

Here are the remaining winners, in alphabetical order: