When Marc Smerling and Zac Stuart-Pontier began reporting their podcast Crimetown, the first interview they recorded was with Charles "The Ghost" Kennedy. Decades earlier, Kennedy was one of the biggest drug traffickers in the Northeast, and he served a prison sentence that lasted from 1995 to 2009. "He came to Brooklyn, to Marc’s apartment," says Stuart-Pontier. "He’s sort of an older guy, a little guy. He’s polite and very nice, and [he] sat down, and before our eyes he transformed as he told stories of the good old days. When he stood up and walked out, he walked out like a wiseguy."
Crimetown weaves the vibrant and lurid tales of folks like Kennedy into something resembling a real-life gangster soap opera. Created through Gimlet Media’s podcast network, each season of the show will examine how illegal business shaped a different American city. The first season, now on the fifth of what will be 17 to 20 episodes, focuses on the mob’s stronghold on Providence, Rhode Island, and their ally Vincent "Buddy" Cianci, the city’s charismatic former mayor. After it debuted the weekend before Thanksgiving, Crimetown quickly rose to the top spot for U.S. podcasts on iTunes, where it has since remained.
Crimetown is a deeply researched show, but despite the density of information it conveys, it’s not a slog. It’s a story that would inspire any pulp fiction writer. There is the Vietnam-vet mob enforcer who once threatened to dig up the body of his prosecutor’s newly deceased father once he got acquitted, but who now fantasizes about Dungeon & Dragons campaigns. There is the episode-long potboiler about the robbery of a vault hidden inside Hudson Fur Storage, a front that mafia members used to stash their loot. There is a surprise-witness priest who provides a false alibi for a mob boss, and a political fixer nicknamed Mr. Democrat. And at the center of Crimetown there is Cianci, whose two separate decade-plus tenures as mayor ended with criminal cases — he pleaded no contest to assault charges in 1984, then was convicted of racketeering in 2002 and spent four and a half years in federal prison. (He ran for mayor again in 2014 and lost by fewer than 3,000 votes. He died in January 2016 at the age of 74.)
When Crimetown works best, it has the same qualities as the voiceovers in one of Martin Scorsese’s gangster films, balancing info dumps, minutiae, and color. Think about the scene in Goodfellas where Henry Hill not only explains how mobsters were able to live so well in prison but also digresses into how his fellow inmate uses too many onions in his tomato sauce.
The reliance on narration in investigative crime podcasts feels natural. Listening to Crimetown, you can’t help but think, "This would make a great TV show." The people who make it would agree.
Decades apart in age, Crimetown’s hosts and creators, Smerling and Stuart-Pontier, met each other while making the film Catfish. Stuart-Pontier was already editing the documentary when Smerling came on as a producer. "We sat in a very small room together and didn’t want to kill each other," says Stuart-Pontier of their relationship. "We actually got along great."
Growing up in the ’90s, Stuart-Pontier’s parents ran The River Reporter, the weekly community newspaper in Narrowsburg, a small town in upstate New York. He did a little of everything around the newsroom, from designing ads to covering town meetings. Smerling also has a background in journalism, graduating from the Newhouse School at Syracuse. He originally wanted to be a police officer and took the civil service exam while in college to possibly join the FBI or the CIA. But he instead went to graduate film school at USC, "just after they tore down the old building that Spielberg and Lucas were in," as he puts it.
Smerling started making documentaries and got a job working for Tom Brokaw during the 1980s, doing longform pieces about crime for NBC. Those segments were eventually phased out of the programming schedule. "When the documentaries got to be, like, three- or four-minute segments, it was just not worth the effort anymore," says Smerling. Instead, he began producing music videos for rappers including Scarface and Kool G. Rap during the 1990s before getting into commercials.
Smerling knew the director Andrew Jarecki from their childhood in Westchester County; with Smerling serving as producer, they made the Academy Award–nominated documentary feature Capturing the Friedmans in 2003. They followed it up seven years later with All Good Things, a dramatization about real estate scion Robert Durst and the disappearance of his young wife, starring Ryan Gosling and Kirsten Dunst. After that portrayal, Durst approached Jarecki about doing an interview to offer his perspective on the events. That turned into The Jinx, the six-part documentary series that examined Durst’s life and possible crimes, which aired on HBO in 2015. Stuart-Pontier was brought on as the editor and coproducer during the four years it took to complete the project.
The duo’s foray into podcasting goes back to Stuart-Pontier’s unlikely history with Gimlet Media’s cofounder and CEO, Alex Blumberg. They met back in 2000, when Blumberg interviewed the then-17-year-old for a piece on This American Life about a con artist who came to Narrowsburg and tried to make a gangster film using the locals as cast members and financiers. "It’s kind of like The Music Man without the magical happy ending," Stuart-Pontier says.
The two stayed in touch through the years. Before The Jinx premiered, Stuart-Pontier and Smerling approached Blumberg about doing an audio companion piece for Gimlet, utilizing some of the material that didn’t make it into show, like prison phone calls from Durst and courtroom recordings. Stuart-Pontier says that although Blumberg was "not really interested in doing a sort of DVD extra," he was blown away by The Jinx and wanted to make a crime-related podcast with them.
By the time they developed the concept for Crimetown, the first season of Serial had become a phenomenon, captivating listeners who hoped its creators would uncover "the real killer" of Hae Min Lee, a teenager from Baltimore whose ex-boyfriend Adnan Syed was convicted for her murder. There are now plenty of other true crime podcasts for listeners to obsessively take in, from the litany of horrors on Sword and Scale, to the chatty, comedic riffing of My Favorite Murder, to the CBC’s recently launched Missing & Murdered: Who Killed Alberta Williams?
The success of The Jinx and Netflix’s Making a Murderer docuseries ushered in a wave of shows that follow a single criminal case. The best of them were two limited series from this year, The Night Of and The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story. But not all crime shows are created equal. "I got called on a lot of murder shows — JonBenet Ramsey, a lot of those things — to showrun them. I didn’t want to go that way," says Smerling. "What came out after The Jinx was much more salacious, for lack of a better word. It was much more thrown together and not built on the foundation of good investigative research or telling this story in a cinematic way."
Instead of focusing on a single case, Crimetown’s creators wanted to attempt something even larger in scope — part true-crime campfire story, part examination of a city’s identity through the prism of its underworld. And though it constitutes a major project for Gimlet, it’s still much cheaper and easier to manage than a film or TV show. The current Crimetown staff has grown, but when it began in August 2015, it was essentially just Smerling and Stuart-Pontier with some recording gear. "The idea of trying to do something like The Jinx — which took a long time to get going, and a long time to investigate, and a long time to get it done — it seemed a little intimidating," says Smerling. "I wanted to make a quicker move, and this seemed like a way to do that."
Unlike The Jinx or Catfish, there is no whodunit at the heart of Crimetown. It is propelled by trying to understand how Mayor Cianci, a former assistant state attorney general who started out as an anticorruption candidate, became a part of everything he originally opposed. The broader possibilities for Crimetown to transition into something like Narcos quickly became apparent to its makers. "I don’t know if it was our idea from the beginning, but it was pretty soon after that [the start of Crimetown production] we went, ‘This could be a really great show,’" says Stuart-Pontier.
Gimlet is also experimenting with fictional storytelling, as well as longform nonfiction narrative. Homecoming is a tale about a possibly nefarious reintegration program for war veterans from cocreator and cowriter Eli Horowitz. The show was able to attract the big-name talent of Oscar Isaac seemingly with just the promise of getting to act inside a room with Catherine Keener. (According to a New York Times piece on the podcast, when Isaac was told, "There’s no money," he said, "Great. Of course. I’m in.") Homecoming is part of a larger wave of new shows trying to update the radio drama format for the podcast era. But with the rich material that programs like Crimetown draw from and the continued popularity of confession-based podcasts, it’s unclear if these fictional stories can be as compelling as reality.
Gimlet has always been upfront about its interest in figuring out ways to monetize the podcast business. The first season of StartUp, its flagship show, was actually about whether Gimlet could get its own podcasting company off the ground and make it financially solvent. Its Gimlet Creative branch has launched two branded podcasts with corporate partners, including DTR with Tinder. And this summer, ABC announced it is developing a comedy based on StartUp starring Zach Braff.
Since the Crimetown team began production on the podcast in the summer of 2015, Gimlet has grown significantly. According to cofounder and president Matt Lieber, in the past year Gimlet has tripled the size of its staff, tripled its audience, and tripled its revenue. "Back [when Crimetown started], we weren’t thinking that much about, ‘Oh, this could live on in film and television.’ Now that is definitely a lens that we apply to projects," says Lieber. "It’s not that every podcast we do has to have ‘scripted series’ written all over it, but it’s certainly something we look at as we push into fiction with Homecoming." Lieber says that Gimlet is in active discussions about bringing several of its shows to other platforms. As for which kind of podcast seems like an easier adaptation to sell — those centered on investigative reporting or those that are fictional — he says for now it’s too early to say.
Smerling and Stuart-Pontier are still working on and reporting out the stories of Providence. Next season they want to do something different, maybe somewhere down south, surely full of amoral humans with fantastic nicknames. They say Miami could be nice.
Eric Ducker is a writer and editor in Los Angeles.