Podcating Special Feature

CRIME FICTION PODCASTING: A PROFILE OF “OUT OF THE PAST” AND “BEHIND THE BLACK MASK”

By Shannon Clute


Shannon Clute and Richard Edwards began their "Out of the Past: Investigating Film Noir" podcast in July 2005. The popularity of the show encouraged them to begin another one year later, entitled "Behind the Black Mask: Mystery Writers Revealed." "Out of the Past," a film analysis program, has been downloaded over 100,000 times, in every continent but Antarctica. "Behind the Black Mask," an author interview show, has generated nearly 20,000 downloads in it's short life—as well as many strong reviews from writers and listeners. The unusual origins and evolution of these podcasts may help to explain their popularity.

Simply put, podcasts are audio programs distributed via the web using a technology called "RSS" ("real simple syndication")—the same technology used by blogs. Clute and Edwards began "Out of the Past" when the practice of podcasting was still in its infancy, and most podcasts still had content similar to that of blogs: they tended either to be the amateur's attempt to break into the commercial realms, or (as a New York Times article on the emerging phenomenon of podcasting put it) they tended to verge on the "sickeningly personal." Clute and Edwards chose to podcast for quite different reasons. Both were hired in 2004 to teach in the same small liberal arts college in the Bay area, Edwards as a professor of Communications with a focus in New Media, and Clute as a professor of French and Italian with a specialization in French detective fiction. Like most young professors they faced the imperative of "publish or perish," but they were concerned with trends in scholarship. It seemed to them that academic publications were overly specialized, and spoke a language so willfully obscure as to be incomprehensible even to many scholars in the field—let alone the general public. Clute and Edwards wanted to produce scholarly analyses that would resonate with a broader audience, from the casual fan to the most erudite scholar, and decided podcasts could function as such scholarship; "Out of the Past" was created as a proof of concept, an example of how this new brand of scholarship might look and sound. Because the project took shape in a Great Books institution, Clute and Edwards decided to model it after Seminar-style discussion, and the result was a podcast where each partner drew on his own personal experience and professional training to craft close readings of the source "texts." This deeply interdisciplinary approach could accommodate an existentialist analysis of "The Killers," a close reading of the opening credit sequence of "Sunset Boulevard," or an investigation into the visual style of neo-noir films such as "Blade Runner."

Given their motivations for starting the podcast, and its unusual scholarly methods, they were surprised that it quickly found an audience and that its popularity continued to grow. In the show's success, they saw proof that the general public craves substantial discussion (too often unavailable in the mainstream media), and that podcast scholarship could be a means of establishing instructive dialog with the public beyond the bounds of the campus. As one listener commented on the "Out of the Past" blog site (http://outofthepast.libsyn.com), "the information and analysis that Clute and Edwards provide inside each of these podcasts is tantamount to a university lecture...albeit one that I'd opt to stay awake for. These guys know exactly what they're talking about, providing insight into the black heart that drives these films."

Encouraged by such feedback, they decided to begin a second podcast series addressing their other shared passion—mystery fiction. Unlike "Out of the Past," this show was never explicitly intended as scholarly publication; however, Clute and Edwards use their academic training in literature (in addition to Clute's French literature PhD, Edwards holds a BA in English literature) to engage authors in serious conversation about one recent publication in particular, and the craft and business of writing in general. The show is therefore of interest to avid readers who want to know more about their favorite authors, and aspiring writers who want to know more about the art of writing. Podcasting has proven to be the perfect medium for such conversation, since there are no constraints on content or format. The show can be as intense or lighthearted as the author wants it to be, and can expand or contract in length to perfectly accommodate the conversation.

In an attempt to embrace the full range of mystery sub-genres, Clute and Edwards have interviewed writers of humorous PI fiction (Carol Higgins Clark), suspense (PJ Parrish), police procedural (Theresa Schwegel and Danuta Reah), cozies (Jane Cleland), pulp (Paul Malmont), caper heist fiction (Duane Swierczynski), and throwback (Megan Abbott) and modern hard-boiled (Charles Ardai, Reed Coleman, David Corbett, and Al Guthrie). One listener commented at the "Behind the Black Mask" blog site (http://btbm.libysn.com) that he is "greatly enjoying the 'Behind The Black Mask' series. The interview process makes for a more relaxed and less academic atmosphere."

There seems to be substantial audience overlap for the two podcasts, which is not particularly surprising given that film noir and mystery fiction share a deeply intertwined history. To foster this interconnection, and to have a venue to address noir happenings beyond the realm of film and literature, Clute and Edwards started the "Noircast Special," an occasional podcast series . In their first episode, they interviewed the director, writer, and cast members of an off-Broadway play inspired by film noir ("Kill Me Like You Mean It"). In the most recent Noircast Special, Clute and Edwards interviewed the creator of thrillingdetective.com, and two Podiobook mystery authors: Seth Harwood and Tee Morris.

The fact that aspiring, and previously published, authors are willing to give away their work in the form of a serialized Podiobooks —that is, an audiobook composed of distinct podcast installments—suggests podcasting will have a major impact on the publishing industry. The million dollar question (perhaps quite literally) is exactly how fiction websites, podcasts, and podiobooks will change print publishing. What seems certain is that the very public nature of such media is leading to greater transparency in the exchange and publication of ideas. In this context, Clute and Edwards were elated when one fan of the "Out of the Past" podcast noted that they are "drawing a road map into the twisted world of film noir, film-by-film, and it's great fun taking the trip with them."


ABOUT THE AUTHORS

Shannon Clute holds a PhD in Romance Studies from Cornell University, and works as a freelance writer in Atlanta. Richard Edwards holds a PhD in Critical Studies from the USC School of Cinema-Television, and is an Assistant Professor of Media Arts and Sciences in Indiana University's School of Informatics' New Media Program. Their podcasts are available free of charge through their website (www.noircast.net), or through most podcast directories.


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