Highlights from our Instagram Live with OWM Award winner, Deon Wiggett, writer and narrator of My Only Story podcast that won the Podcast & Radio Award in 2022. Deon spoke to us about How to produce a great true crime audio podcast.
How did you get into podcasting and why did you want to tell this story in particular?
Deon: I’ve always wanted to be a journalist. After university, I became an advertising copywriter in Johannesburg and in London for 18 years. After the death of my father, I started remembering the things that had happened to me. At the age of 17, in my last year of high school, I was groomed and then raped by a journalist. I became extremely angry that I was duped all of this time because I didn’t understand what was going on. So I decided to figure it out and tell people about it at the same time. That’s how the first season of ‘My Only Story’ was born. It was a full episode pursuit of my childhood rapist and he got arrested in the end, so that was nice. That kind of got me back into journalism. I had to take what I already knew and combine it with what I used to know and hopefully try to practise a new kind of journalism.
Why did you want to tell this story through audio instead of another form of media?
Deon: When I first wanted to tell the story, I wanted to tell it in so many different ways. I had to start putting things together in a way that made sense and in a way that I could do practically. I wanted to make a documentary. But it’s much cheaper to make a podcast and a more controlled process. I’ve always liked audio. When I was in advertising, I did a lot of audio direction of radio ads and television ads. I feel very comfortable in the studio and I love Serial (‘Serial Podcast’). So I was like, how do we make ‘Serial’ work in South Africa in a way that doesn’t just copy them? I had to figure out how to write in a brand new style. And that’s one of the interesting things about this form of journalism is it’s a different style of journalism than what we are classically taught. It’s not the kind of thing that you would pick up in a newsroom. It takes a fair amount of new reading and practising new ways of writing before you’re going to get it.
What does it take to create a great true crime podcast? How do you take something that is so heavy and turn it into something that people can listen to?
Deon: The only way that you’re going to get people to interact with extremely heavy material is to not shout at them because then there is no place left for bending emotion or settling down into the narrative. So even the world’s most tragic film will have a funny scene, because as human beings we need to laugh a little bit. And not only does that de-stress us but it also gives us a way to make things more shocking again. If things are always shocking, nothing is shocking anymore.
The key to structuring these series is in TV writing, in screenplay and in creative nonfiction. The big thing to figure out is how to write in scenes, how scenes will become acts and how an act will become an episode. That is the key to scene writing whether you’re writing a piece of creative nonfiction, a memoir, a podcast, or a long, New Yorker article.
In a film, we have no struggle to tell once a scene ends because location changes. It looks different. A scene has a location and an action and a reason. So to go from one piece of story to the next, especially in an audio where you can’t see the scenes changing, I like to put the new location right in the front of the narration.
Let’s say we are on a high school sports field, and then suddenly, there is a big piece of action there and then I want something lighter on a mountain. Then I would give some time in between the two scenes so I would bring in mountain ambience and then I would go, “Meanwhile back at the mountain, Thula and I were in a world of trouble.” Then when Thula and I are on the mountain we have to find something. We have to do something there, because then otherwise what is the point of us being there.
If it doesn’t move the narrative forward in some way, why have it?
Narrative podcasts are quite new, so we have to give people semiotic cues about how to listen to them. It’s really a way to use the age-old principle of creative writing and storytelling, and apply it into a new format. It’s a long and time consuming form of journalism. It took me 18 months to make season 2 and it wasn’t just me working on it.
What were some key takeaways from making this podcast?
Deon: In the first season of my podcast, I worked with adult survivors of sex abuse; so men my age and sometimes much older than that. What I learned in doing a season involving much younger victims, however, is how much harder it is. It’s already extremely difficult for 45 year old men to talk about what happened to them 30 years ago, but they’ve had 30 years to process some of it. It is very difficult getting people to talk about recent trauma, which makes it harder to use them as sources. That doesn’t mean it’s not important though. In some ways, it’s more important because it continues posing a clear and present danger.
Since we do the series in a live investigation format, there is an incredible number of moving parts. I write and narrate everything myself, and I do the first edit of it before we even go into the studio. We released at 5 am South African time on a Thursday morning. So we still put in reactions and comments and stuff until just before midnight on that Wednesday night. To run a high concept narrative story like that is very tricky. It’s six episodes and it spanned seven weeks. Season two was a really big cultural moment here in South Africa. It’s already changed how schools have operated and how grooming is understood by South African parents, which has made it all thoroughly worthwhile.