Shedding new light on an old story: NZME chases ghosts in a true-crime podcast

This week, NZME entered the popular true-crime podcast genre with Chasing Ghosts, an investigation into the cold case disappearance of Amber-Lee Cruickshank in 1992.

Cruickshank was just two and a half years old when she went mission from a house in Kingston, a small South Island town on the shore of Lake Wakatipu and as of yet, there are no answers about what happened.

25 years on and Chasing Ghosts provides the most in-depth look at the case as its six episodes retrace the steps of the police investigation and provide exclusive new insights. It also contains interviews with people of interest to the police who have never spoken about the case before.

“When I thought of this case, and realised it was the 25th anniversary this year, I thought it was a perfect fit,” says senior crime reporter and lead journalist on the project Anna Leask.

“We want to bring Amber-Lee home. She has been missing for 25 years and we hope that by bringing fresh attention, views and angles to this case, someone with information comes forward.”

From the outset, Leask intended to tell the story in a podcast with a complementing feature and short documentary by NZME multiple award-winning visual journalist Mike Scott, who is also responsible for the powerful still photography and field recording of the podcast episodes. Leask believes the podcast gives the audience a new way into a story they may already know as well as enabling a new audience who may be too young to remember the story to engage through the podcast format.

And it’s a belief that’s being proven by numbers as the podcast went straight to number one on iTunes on its first day.

They started planning the podcast in February when Leask made contact with Amber-Lee’s mother, Nicola Cruickshank, and the police to see if they would work on the podcast. Once they were on board, Leask and Scott set about recording the interviews, which took them into Kingston and Canterbury where Nicola lives.

Leask says they gave a lot of time to the interviews to ensure they were comfortable, natural and felt real.

Once recorded, everything had to be transcribed and scripted into the six episodes that each have their own theme that tie into the bigger story. At 30,000 words, it was the most significant script Leask had ever worked on and while it was challenging, she says it was a lot of fun.

The narration was then recorded and Herald planning editor and executive producer for the project Chris Reed set about cutting the audio into shape and order.

While cutting and editing stories in the long-form audio format can be tricky, Leask says it’s still about telling a story. 

“My general approach to a story and the people behind it is the same regardless of the medium I am presenting it through – but after planning, researching, writing and presenting Chasing Ghosts I have a whole new level of insight into the tools we can use to tell our stories and how powerful audio can be.”

She adds it reminded her of how effective the small details are and how journalists have a responsibility to take their audience into a story, not just let them read or listen to it.

“It’s the deep breaths when an interview gets emotional, the natural pauses in conversation when things get uncomfortable and the other little nuances that really lift a story and bring it to life.”

In this case, the high levels of emotion become evident as soon as you hit play. Nicola and Leask are in Kingsland, outside of the house she was last seen and Nicola describes how heartbreaking it is not to have any answers about where her daughter went.

“Nicola is an absolute champion and I really have to commend her for her bravery in putting herself out there in a way she never has before,” says Leask.

“…. Amber-Lee’s story is Nicola’s story and without mum, we would never have been able to do what we have done.”

And not only does it satisfy the audience’s interest in what happened all those years ago, it satisfies Leask’s personal interest in crime, particularly cold cases. She’s been a crime reporter for 12 years now and has no intention of giving it up.

“I am passionate about storytelling and being a voice for people and journalism has been the dream since I was about six. I was extremely lucky to have an editor in my first job out of university in 2005 who picked up on my interest in crime and gave me the chance to explore a police and court reporter role.”

Now, that willingness to explore new areas has been transferred to podcasts and Reed says Chasing Ghosts is an example of how the company is integrating platforms to provide in-depth journalism to New Zealand.

He says true crime podcasts are by no means a new method of delving deep into a case, but bringing together digital, radio, print and podcast components means it can reach a new level of storytelling, allowing New Zealanders to immerse themselves and follow along as Leask examines new perspectives.

However, Reed points out it is not a one size fits all approach, and it tries to tell each story in the right way, at the right time for the right audience.

This is NZME’s first foray into true-crime podcasts and it follows on from Stuff’s hugely successful Black Hands podcast, which revisited the David Bain case. It’s also part of broader global trend, with true crime stories enjoying something of a resurgence as Making Murderer (Netflix), Serial and S-Town (this American Life), and In the Dark (American Public Media) all captivating audiences. In fact, the obsession with true crime has become so rampant the Netflix funded the mockumentary series American Vandal, which investigates a horrifying case of spraypaint misuse at a school.     

While this is NZME’s first foray into true-crime podcasts, it’s been running podcasts for some time now, including Frances Cook’s financial series ‘Cooking The Books’, its entertainment team’s ‘The Worst Game of Thrones Podcast In The World’ and Matt Heath and Jeremy Wells’ parody podcast Brown Hands.   

Reed says there will be lots more and with that comes an opportunity for sponsor partners.

“We’re always open to partnerships that reflect the value, quality and tone of our content,” he says. “Podcasts have a great connection with audiences and great engagement time, so I would think there would be strong interest in future projects.”

The six-part series is available through nzherald.co.nz, newstalkzb.co.nz, iHeartRadio and iTunes

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