David Ridgen on the risks and rewards of real time investigations
If you've been listening to the CBC's hit podcast Someone Knows Something as it unfolds, you may already know some of the benefits of airing a true-crime investigation in near real time.
There's mystery and excitement in not knowing what might come next — for audiences and producers alike.
In 1972, five-year-old Adrien McNaughton vanished while on a family fishing trip in Eastern Ontario. Despite an intensive search and investigation, no sign of Adrien was found, no clue as to where he might be.
And listener suggestions and tips can become a crucial part of the process. A feedback loop begins to develop in which discoveries in the show lead to more audience interest and tips, which then lead to more discoveries.
But there can be a downside as well.
If the investigation hits a snag, if it is at all delayed, then the show can be delayed as well. SKS experienced this problem firsthand.
Back in December, four separate cadaver dogs made signals suggesting they might be detecting the scent of human remains coming from the waters of Holmes Lake.
But by the time SKS and the volunteer divers were able to arrive on the site to do a preliminary search of the area, the lake had frozen over.
It was thought that the divers could be in the water by late March — well in line with the show's production schedule — but Eastern Ontario saw freezing temperatures and snow throughout most of March and early April.
Holmes Lake remained stubbornly frozen, causing a short delay in the episode rollout.
I spoke with SKS host David Ridgen about the double-edged sword of the real time release of an investigative podcast, his process, and what he's learned from season one of SKS.
Was it always the plan to release Someone Knows Something in near real time, or is that just the way it worked out?
The truth is that "real time" is actually "sort of real time" with some delays and some sleight of hand in rollout schedules. If it were real time, there'd be no editing and I'd be walking around with a live feed camera on my head. But yes, for our purposes real time gets as close as a week from event to broadcast.
How many episodes did you have finished before you felt comfortable launching the show?
We launched the show with five or six episodes in the can (content fully gathered) and several of those fully mixed, vetted, and ready to go. You have to pre-load or else it becomes impossible to do any actual investigation.
I imagine it must be stressful working this way, with such a quick turnaround, writing and producing episodes without knowing, ultimately, where you're heading. Can you speak a little about this and explain your process?
I'm someone who makes documentary and dramatic films, who has also self-taught how to undertake investigations. Predicting and then projecting story arcs onto a non-fictional narrative that has yet to be fully written or produced is a critically important aspect of the SKS paradigm.
Being successful here starts in case selection. Does the case already have multiple threads of characters and plot lines and evidence, and how do they map out? Are there events that we can predict might occur as a result of our own investment into the case? In other words, we must thoroughly understand as much about the case as possible before we even begin to write — possibly before we even approach subjects to gain access.
Once we have a handle on these aspects and others, we are ready to start mapping out the directions a series will most likely follow. We create an outline of likely episodes and proceed to create the first two or three, following the evidence and re-moulding our plot predictions as we go. This whole process is, for me, one of the more exciting aspects of creating SKS.
When you released the recap episode, was there any fallout from disappointed members of the audience? Or were listeners more or less understanding?
I think audience members understood the need for an episode to fill in the space while we waited for the ice on Holmes Lake to melt. I have read some audience feedback suggesting a feeling of loss over not "getting something new" but I think in the end SKS audiences are aware of the production model and are forgiving as long as we tell them in advance what to expect.
Obviously, if you solve a crime or discover the fate or whereabouts of a missing person, the show has a great ending. But what happens if you don't find the answers you're looking for? Is there any conflict between searching for answers, and searching for an ending?
As I've said before, the goal is to make a positive difference in cold cases, especially for families. But that doesn't necessarily mean solving the case definitively.
Process is as important as the final outcome — both for the subjects and for the audience. It's kind of like assuming that people only live for the summers and that everything else in between, the majority of our time, has no meaning. The process of the investigation is equally important as the resolution at the end. Otherwise, why is life worth living?
What are some of the biggest lessons you learned from season one of SKS, in relation to its real time rollout? Is there anything that you might do differently for season two?
There's no substitute for working really hard and blowing it all out to get work done that makes, or tries to make, a difference. And that is what is required when you get into hard turnaround on high quality investigative production.
Near-real time needs to start rolling when a high percentage of ducks are already in a row. When the table has been set properly to "make the luck come to you" as much as possible. But if you go too far in setting the table and making sure everything is perfect, you lose the chaos and serendipity and non sequitur moments that can significantly move the story (and your audience) forward. A fine balance.
Chris Oke is a digital producer with Someone Knows Something.