Scott Fowler waited years for this moment: a chance to question the incarcerated "hit man" in a slaying that put NFL player Rae Carruth behind bars.
Fowler was able to extend his one-hour prison interview to a wild 3 1/2-hour conversation. The problem?
"The tape is horrible, through double-pane glass with a grate at the bottom," said Fowler, a Charlotte (North Carolina) Observer reporter who suddenly had to think audio for a seven-part series and seven-episode podcast about Carruth, the onetime Carolina Panthers wide receiver convicted of conspiracy in the 1999 murder of his pregnant girlfriend, Cherica Adams.
So podcast listeners would have had to struggle to make out eye-popping quotes like this from trigger-man Van Brett Watkins, who pleaded guilty to second-degree murder: "I get hungry after I hurt somebody, kill somebody, stab somebody. I want to go eat. Some people go pray. Some people go do drugs. (After shooting Adams), I said, 'Damn. I'm going to the Waffle House!'"
Arresting audio sold the podcast, Fowler said, meaning much of his prison interview didn't make it, though it played a bigger role in the text-based story.
The podcast, however, was the perfect medium for sections of a 12-minute 911 call from Adams. Shot four times, Adams is heard calmly instructing authorities to her location, medical condition and identifying Carruth in the car in front of her. Text could not do justice to that, Fowler said, nor to the melodious, life-affirming voice of her mother, Saundra Adams, recorded in several interviews. Those interviews played a smaller role in the text story than the podcast.
"I'd say it's 50 percent different," Fowler said of the text and audio versions.
The Boston Globe's Spotlight team discovered the same thing in its six-part series and six-episode true crime podcast on another NFL player imprisoned for a killing, Aaron Hernandez, fueled partly by audio of hundreds of phone calls Hernandez made in jail.
"It was like doing a 12-part series," said Scott Allen, the Globe's project editor. (Related: How many NFL murderers and true-crime podcasts of those murderers are there?)
They have a few tips for traditional text reporters working in both platforms on projects:
1. Record as much as you can.
Fowler got that advice from Christopher Goffard, who hosted the Los Angeles Times' podcast "Dirty John." Gofford also told him: "You’ll be surprised at what you want to use, and what you end up using.” Fowler wishes "Carruth" was his second podcast, because there's so much he learned about audio on the way.
2. Think people.
Much of the Globe's Spotlight work has involved structural or systemic injustice or corruption, but the Hernandez project revolved around one incredibly complex person, which was particularly fruitful for the podcast as well as the text narrative, Allen said.
3. Collaborate editorially as you have never done before.
Fowler, photographer/videographer Jeff Siner and McClatchy regional video editor Rachel Wise worked from a chronology, and McClatchy's Davin Coburn would put the podcast episodes together. "I’d write a rough draft, which he’d take, but he’d have every audio clip in a shared audio drive," Fowler said. In Boston, Spotlight editor Patty Wen and reporters Beth Healy, Bob Hohler, Sacha Pfeiffer and Andrew Ryan worked with producer Amy Pedulla, who was behind the Globe's "Love Letters" podcast with Meredith Goldstein and a Business Insider podcast called "Household Name."
4. Collaborate business-wise as you never have.
The Globe has partnered with WBUR in Boston on several podcasts, including the popular investigative podcast "Last Seen" on a still-unsolved 1990 theft from the Isabella Stewart Gardner museum. For "Gladiator," the Hernandez project, Spotlight partnered with Wondery Media ("Dirty John," "Dr. Death," "Felonious Florida") to help with marketing, negotiations with iTunes and ad-selling, Allen said. "Carruth" was a product of McClatchy Studios and Storied Media Group, which has brokered the NYT-WBUR collaboration "Modern Love" and the NYT's upcoming "36 Hours" for the Travel Channel. "Gladiator" debuted at No. 1 on the iTunes podcast chart this week and "Carruth" has been moving swiftly up the Top 100.
The big takeaway? Fowler thinks that with smartphones, there's no reason not to record almost everything. After years of training, “I kind of have an idea of what photographers like," he said. "But I had no idea what audio folks like.”
He does now.