I am very pleased to share my interview with Madeleine Baran, host of APM Reports’ phenomenal podcast, In the Dark. I was able to interview Baran in person in St. Paul at the APM/MPR headquarters in November. As I’ve become enmeshed in the world of podcasts, I often think how amazing it is that people who host and produce podcasts are … regular people. They could be your family members, friends, colleagues, neighbors. And they’re creative, thoughtful, and innovative in how they put seasons full of many episodes together. So I was thrilled to meet Baran in person and pick her brain about what her process was as she and the APM Reports team created In the Dark.
In short, the show is about the kidnapping of an 11-year old boy named Jacob Wetterling in rural Stearns County, MN in 1989, and what happened after her disappeared. As the show was about to debut, a man long suspected of being involved in the crime confessed that he had killed Jacob and led police to his body, right there all along in rural Stearns County. The Wetterling family had to wait 27 years to find out what happened to Jacob. Baran had started investigating this story back in 2015, so I started out by asking her how APM Reports came to investigate this particular story.
(AF=Audible Feast, MB=Madeleine Baran)
AF: What made this story a good candidate for a serial investigative podcast?
MB: This was the first story I pitched to the investigative team at APM Reports when it became a new unit last year. I wondered why after 26 years [at the time, in 2015] this case was still open, especially given the national media attention and resources devoted to it over the years. As I started researching, I realized there was a bigger story, and the story of the kidnapping could sustain the larger story which was a good format for a podcast.
AF: I’m so impressed by the storyline arc of this show, which I didn’t expect when I started listening: it starts with a description of the crime, moves into the immediate aftermath and impact on the family and community, moves on to the police investigation, and then takes a turn into exploring the ways that investigation went wrong. Tell me more about the storyline.
MB: We had a team working on the show, and we didn’t always know what the rest of the team was working on, which was by design. As an investigative reporter you always want to ask: what am I missing, what other angles should I be looking at? And you don’t want to draw conclusions too soon because it might bias the direction you take the story. Doing this story in one big arc helped tell all the little pieces. In addition to wondering why the case hadn’t been solved, I also wanted to show what impact an unsolved crime really has.
In child abduction cases, investigators usually don’t know much about what happened at the time of the disappearance, but in this case there were witnesses and valid leads, there were tons of resources put on the case, police were called immediately, and that doesn’t always happen. Heinrich had no head start, and there were immediate facts available. So the logical conclusion for me was: is this part of a bigger problem? Why wasn’t the case solved?
As we researched how the investigation went wrong and how indeed there was a bigger story there, that the crime clearance rates were so low in Stearns County, we thought people would say “I’m glad that isn’t happening where I live.” So we wanted to wait until later on in the story to reveal that it could be happening in your area – or the crime clearance rates might be even worse.
I also wanted to hold the publicly elected sheriff to a higher standard because that is a person who citizens vote for. Something that is overlooked in reporting is how police are doing at actually solving crime. We are obsessed with crime as a society but we don’t seem to care as much about whether the crimes are solved. When a crime happens, that’s the only time you find out how good your law enforcement is, and when you’re a victim you’re in a vulnerable state and don’t always have the resources to push law enforcement. Also, individual cases of unsolved crime don’t often roll up into one big story about crime clearance.
AF: I can imagine it was intense talking with Jerry and Patty Wetterling – what was it like for you?
MB: Jerry and Patty were so generous with their time, they are remarkable people. They didn’t become cynical, which was striking to me. We wanted to tell the story of what it was really like to be in this situation, because you don’t know how you’re going to react to something like this until you’re in it. The assumed quick summary is that it’s horrible for the family and they’re searching for their missing loved one, but the Wetterlings were really open about the crazy stuff that happened along the way, like the tip line (they had a phone line installed in their home by the sheriff’s department meant to give them a direct connection to any tips that came in). Jerry and Patty are very open that it hasn’t been easy on them as a couple, they’re very honest and real. Patty has also changed her thinking on sex offenders which was fascinating to me. They’re people who think deeply about issues and are willing to see things differently over time, which is uncommon.
AF: How did you get Minnesotans to trust you, as an outsider?
MB: It was different for everyone that I talked to, but I recognized that I was “the media” and was careful. I showed I had a serious commitment to getting the story right. A lot of people hadn’t been asked these questions before, and a few even said my interview with them was the longest they’d ever had. I appreciated that APM gave us the time to investigate this story – over a year – before the podcast debuted. We needed that time because this story had been going on for 27 years. That’s a lot of history to research. This approach worked with the sheriff’s office too. I wanted to get the story right – what actually happened? People understood that was the job I was doing.
AF: I’ve read that you didn’t have any feedback from the Stearns County sheriff’s department – have you had any negative feedback from anyone else about how you reported the story?
MB: I’ve actually had some positive feedback from law enforcement outside of Minnesota. A few people said they were skeptical at first, but their eyes were opened as they listened. They heard how simple police procedures seem to not have been followed.
AF: I think sound can make or break a podcast. How did you approach sound?
MB: Producer Samara Freemark, Associate Producer Natalie Jablonski, and the team worked together constantly on the sound. We hired a composer to write the main song. We were very intentional about sound and tone. We also did group sound edits with people from the [APM/MPR] office, people who didn’t know the details of what we were working on but could listen with a critical ear. We asked them what was boring, what the episode was about, etc. and then refined the content and sound.
AF: Were there any shows you tried to model the podcast after, or any style you tried to emulate?
MB: There was a multi-part series several years ago called The Staircase, I really liked that. There’s also Serial, The Jinx, and Making a Murderer. I think without even knowing it I paid attention to what did and didn’t work in those shows. Bringing other people in to work on parts of the story [as was done with team members for In the Dark that focused on data collection of crime clearance rates] has worked well on those shows, so we wanted to do that.
AF: What’s on your personal podcast playlist?
MB: I listen to an eclectic mix! [pulls out her phone] … I like Gimlet, just started listening to Crimetown and Heavyweight, I like the Babysitters Club Club, 99% Invisible, This American Life, Serial, Fresh Air, Theory of Everything, Strangers, The Gist, The New Yorker Radio Hour, Another Round.
AF: What makes a good podcast?
MB: It should be revelatory or surprising in some way, with strong characters, twists and turns, and I like to have a sub-narrative.
AF: Did you think the audience would binge listen or not?
MB: We weren’t sure. We couldn’t release it all at once anyway, because we weren’t done reporting especially since Heinrich confessed right as we were about to release the first episode. Some people said they were waiting until the end, but others listened every week. We did feel there was a public service to be done to release what we had while the news was going on. We wanted to get the episodes out responsibly if we could, rather than hold them – especially for the Minnesota listeners who were attuned to the case.
AF: Heinrich was sentenced on November 21st, and since there was a plea agreement he knew what the sentence would be. So the sentencing was really different than a normal hearing. I know you attended it – what did you think of it?
MB: At the first hearing [where Heinrich confessed], Heinrich was the one doing all the talking. But at the sentencing, Heinrich mostly had to listen. Jared [Scheierl] walked out, he was clear about it and had told me and given a statement about it, that he wasn’t going to listen to Heinrich.
Heinrich, as far as I could tell, did not appear upset. He wasn’t crying, angry. He looked at people making statements, not like someone breaking down or visibly annoyed. I’m not sure what was going on in his head. His lawyer even prefaced his statement by saying Heinrich might not be the best at saying what he has to say. And then when he talked it was very short.
It was an opportunity for people to talk about Jacob in a way that wasn’t about the crime that was committed. Many people said what they miss about Jacob, and Patty said she misses his spirit. Jerry said that when something good happens, we think of Jacob. It was about how Jacob’s spirit lives on, but also about the ways they miss him as their lives have progressed.
AF: What happens next – will there be any more reporting on the topic?
MB: We’ll do follow up reporting as needed. The APM Reports team is working now on deciding what the next story should be, whether it’s another season of In the Dark or something else.
AF: Well, I can’t wait to see what you do next. Congratulations on a great podcast!
You can read the Audible Feast review of In the Dark here.