Tinu Thomas and Haley Butler started as students working to uncover the events around Jennifer Cave’s death fifteen years ago. Jennifer, like Tinu and Haley, was a student at University of Texas at Austin. This podcast highlights how the up-and-coming reporters in podcasting will cover true crime as they rise in the industry. We talked to Tinu and Haley of The Drag, a new audio production house based in the Moody College of Communication at the University of Texas about how and why they created The Orange Tree Podcast.
Pocket Casts: Taking on a true crime story as college students is a big undertaking. What was it like reporting for this story, and how did being college students affect the experience?
Tinu: Sometimes the fact that we were students and we were not out in the field yet was an advantage to us because part of our goal in telling the story was the perspective that we would bring out being young and being students in the same position as a lot of the sources in our story. At the time of this event a lot of them were in the exact same position we were in when we were reporting this.
And because of that, it was an advantage to us when we went to sources and said, ‘This is why we want to tell this story. This is a perspective we want to bring to it. And this is why we care,’ because of our positions in life.
Other times, it was a little more difficult when we were talking to people who are professionals in their fields. Sometimes they would doubt whether or not we would understand the concepts that they were telling us about. People like lawyers or people working in the medical field that had to do the examination of the body and things like that. It was never a matter of an entire interview resting on the fact that we were too young to understand or anything, but there was an initial hesitation to try to convey things to us. But usually we were very quickly able to bypass it because we did a lot of research before we did our interviews. So we did know what they were talking about.
Haley: Yeah, exactly. We spent a long time in the research phase because we wanted to handle this as professionally as we could even though we were students when we first started. But also, as student journalists, sometimes you’re nervous to talk on the phone to somebody, even as simple as a coffee shop owner, right? You might be nervous to do that interview. And we definitely were those student journalists, but we didn’t want to do that with this project. So we did enough research to be able to mask that fear that we experienced as we internalized it. And like Tinu said we very quickly got over it.
Pocket Casts: I feel like every first time host or journalist, college student or not, has the same fear. I think doing research to try and alleviate that is useful. And you know, fake it ’til you make it.
Tinu: Sometimes it’s even to your advantage to not know enough, because you ask more questions that way and you get more answers.
So even if we did really do our research before certain interviews, it was really helpful to approach a source with this perspective of I don’t know anything. Tell me like I have never heard of this concept before, because for listeners, you never know what kind of background information they have. So it’s best to interview someone like your listener, who knows nothing so that your listener gets the most out of the interviews that you do.
Pocket Casts: What kind of support are you getting from the university? People come from all different kinds of teams when it comes to podcasting. Some shows have giant teams they’re working with to do the deep investigative work. But then again, podcasting is an easy medium to get into. So there could be one or two people on the team doing absolutely everything.
What kind of support did you have and do you think that an average university student who’s studying journalism has the same level of support you did, or were you in a unique position?
Haley: Tinu and I did everything ourselves. So we did the reporting, the research, the writing and the production. This one’s kind of a special case in that we had the ability to do everything altogether. We had taken some audio journalism classes. There aren’t a whole lot at UT right now; we’re trying to change that. But, this is a very new operation, the production house, so we’re really just trying to get things going. I think it was a good thing that Tinu and I were the first hires because we do have pretty extensive knowledge of audio editing software and things like that. It was for the most part, all us.
Pocket Casts: What would you say to colleges and universities and students who are trying to break into the field and everyone equates podcast journalism to old style radio? What are the benefits of podcasting to you, and what can colleges do to support people that are looking to get into the medium?
Tinu: This is just something that I’m thinking of right now, because we are discussing it. When you’re interviewing someone for a podcast, it’s really uplifting their voice and you’re interviewing them for your listeners. So there’s a lot less importance placed on your perspective. You’re trying to deliver your source’s voice the best you can in an unedited, this is their perspective kind of way.
And because of that, it’s a really good way for students to get comfortable with recording and learn what the important parts of interviewing are: how to ask good questions, and what makes a good interview turn into a good story. For that reason, podcasting is a really good medium for young reporters to take on.
And it’s also great for people who are interested in journalism, but aren’t journalists. People who want to know more about the world around them, but don’t have time to sit down and read an article or feel like reading a new story is impersonal. Podcasting is for people who want more of that being there and then feeling when they are learning about something.
I think processing is really important. I feel like people’s connection or introduction to podcasting came from wanting a closer perspective or wanting to feel more connected to a specific subject. For young reporters especially, it’s a really good way to get introduced into recording and learn what’s most important about journalism as a whole.
Pocket Casts: Podcasting is definitely an interesting medium to train people in and foundational for any journalism students. Based off of the podcast — and it sounds like a lot of it came from you guys — it seems like there’s a really professional outlet over at UT. Can you tell me a little bit about it? You said that you both were hired to start or to continue the production house there. Can you tell me a little bit about their program?
Haley: Yeah, I’ll give you the rundown. The Drag is a new program out of the journalism school where we mostly focus on long form narrative storytelling. We have a few different podcasts in the works. And they started as we were producing The Orange Tree. We typically partner with news organizations that might not have the resources to build a long form podcast. Students will spend a year on a certain podcast, a long form podcast that they’re really passionate about. Ideas get approved by some of the leaders at The Drag. We want this to be a place for people who want to be podcasters. If you want to do long form audio storytelling, you want to come to UT.
It’s really kind of a smaller, younger version of Wondery right now.
Pocket Casts: I find that so interesting because Wondery is really a hard one to copy. They’re a big outfit. They put out a lot of shows, half of which are heavily and deeply reported. Do you think that having the benefit of college students that solely focus on the show for a year is how you’re going to grow the outfit? Or is it more like you’re looking to continue to hire people outside of the university and build out from there?
Haley: I think all possibilities could happen. Tinu and I were full time hires after we graduated. And our role is kind of like the senior producer. Those kinds of roles we would want to hire for, but mostly the reporting would be student driven. We might hire external help for editing and stuff like that eventually, but mostly it’s the ideas of the students. It’s the reporting of the student that’s really going to make the stories go. And I think that’s what makes them very unique. Because student journalists have crazy cool ideas, but like we talked about at the beginning, student journalists might not be taken seriously, but their ideas are phenomenal.
So this is the place to go, to be able to pursue those stories that you can’t really pitch to a major newspaper right now because you’re 19-years-old.
Pocket Casts: One benefit of having such a young group of people is you guys have a really great sense of the flaws in podcasting. You were fans before you were reporters. You’ve thought about what we should be taking a deeper look at and questioning when we report things. And that was really evident in The Orange Tree.
You both were upfront about what happens when you report on true crime. And you expressed that you wanted to report all avenues of the story and make sure that nothing goes unheard or framed just for the purposes of the show.
Can you tell me a little bit about how you came up with the transparency guidelines and why you chose to do that?
Tinu: I think since this was our first long form journalistic podcast project, we wanted our listeners to feel connected to us. And also podcasting is such a personalized medium. We want our listeners to feel like they are with us. So for that reason, we try to be as transparent as possible. And that’s why we did as much research as we did and talked to as many people as we did. It’s so that we could let the listeners pretty much look at everything that we did, watch us do the research, talk to the people that we talked to, listen to all the interviews, and then use their own judgment on how they feel about the story and come to their own conclusions.
That’s what we wanted to do because we felt it was the fairest way to tell the story. And we also felt like we wanted to be able to trust our listeners and trust the fact that if you were listening to the story with the guidelines that we set up, that you would come out of it with a fair conclusion.
Also it’s just one of those things that I think both of us wish we got out of other podcasts. We want to hear all of the perspectives available and all the facts available and then come to our own conclusions instead of having someone tell us their assumptions, because that’s kind of difficult to listen to, especially if you don’t feel the same way.
Haley: I think Tinu nailed it. The last thing is we wanted to really hammer home our point, right? We wanted people to know that you can have very good journalism and do true crime, but also be respectful of everybody involved, which is why we talk so much about sensitivity.
If we say it enough times, I think that people will get it. That’s not to say that we haven’t listened to podcasts where people were sensitive and did great reporting. Those are out there, yes, but we also felt like if you said it enough times that it could have an impact on the genre.
Pocket Casts: We’ve covered on the blog before what true crime should look like in the future. And what we’ve gotten from different interviews is that there has to be a reason for covering a story that’s bigger than scandal or morbid curiosity to do a service to the subject and the audience. Is there something about the story that drew you to it?
Haley: When we say we connect with the victim we genuinely mean that. There’s a line in the second episode where we talk about how Jennifer wants to party with her friends, but also find a secure job. We get all of those juxtapositions. And also on top of that, Tinu and I are humanizing journalists. We’re emotional storytellers. This story was perfect for our first story because providing sensitivity to the victim is something that we will do in every single story that we produce from now on.
We were connected to the victim and in order to show our skills as journalists this was the best story that we could do. And you’re exactly right. There needs to be a reason and a motivation to tell a certain story. Especially as a podcast host. Because just by listening to somebody’s voice, you hear so much of their personality.
Tinu mentioned before, everybody was the same age as us when this was going on in 2005. We were able to craft the narrative with care because we feel so close to it. If this case happened to somebody that you loved, if Tinu was killed in a way, or if my little sister was killed in this way, how would we want their stories told? And because we’re so close to them we can ask ourselves, how do they want their story told? You can hear that thought process in the podcast.
I think one of the best examples, and one of my favorite examples, is in episode four. We tell the audience about how many drugs were in Jennifer’s system, but say that’s not going to be a point of contention in this podcast. And the reason why I did that is for sensitivity, but also that’s not the most important part of the story. We’re looking at it through the lens of what if somebody really important to us died. What would be the most important things to say about that person?
Pocket Casts: I think that’s really important to ask that question. A lot of older radio has had a “beat reporting” feel that can be dehumanizing. It’s a good point that people are connecting to more of the stories they hear and having strong emotions about them. Journalists should be able to tell stories the way people want to experience them.
Besides true crime, how do you think stories are evolving in podcasting? What do you think will be the biggest things to come out of the newest journalist? What changes do you foresee?
Tinu: I think something that we learned along the way that we wanted to implement, but also hope that more journalistic podcasts do, is allow the hosts to have feelings about the stories that they write about and the stories that they report. When you’re going to journalism school, you’re so scared of that. At least from my perspective, I was really afraid of putting too much of my opinion into the story. I wanted to keep my emotion out of it, which sometimes stops you from feeling human and stops you from being relatable.
Which is incredibly important when you’re doing a podcast, because the listener is actually hearing your voice. You don’t want to feel like a robot reading a script or someone who’s just unattached to the story because that’ll make the people listening to your story feel unattached.
And sometimes that’s not even the case. Maybe you’re nervous, like I was as a journalism student, to really put yourself onto paper or put yourself on the mic. I think it’s really important for young journalists to know that it’s okay to feel things about what they’re reporting on and also to report with a little bit of passion.
If you’re not feeling passionate about the things that you’re reporting on, one, it’s not going to be as interesting to your listeners. And two, there’s no reason for you to be reporting it because there’s probably someone out there that can report it that is passionate about it. There is someone that can convey the story to listeners in a way that will make them more invested in it.
Haley: Tinu, that is such a good point.
Pocket Casts: One hundred percent, people that are the best at telling stories are the ones who are passionate about them.
What independently produced shows or younger voices do you two think are up and coming, and have any of them broken into the mainstream of podcast discovery?
Haley: Yeah, honestly, I don’t know of that many. That might be because I’m still kind of stuck listening to my fiction podcasts that I typically listen to and then NPR. We broke the top 20, which was really cool, but everything surrounding us were things from like Parcast and Wondery and other major podcast production houses.
And I never really saw any from independent producers, which is really sad. I think that some of the podcasts that have come out of NPR stations, if that would count, are excellent examples, like Bear Brook, the true crime podcast. It did break into the top charts, but New Hampshire public radio definitely didn’t have the same kind of resources that Wondery would. I’d love to see both more independent podcasters like Tinu and I, but also some of the public radio ones get a little bit more spotlight.
Tinu: I don’t know if your question was specific to just reporting on journalism podcasts, but in my free time, I listened to a lot of podcasts that are non journalistic, just because I need a break from working all the time. So, I’ve found that a lot of the independent podcasts that I listen to are mostly not journalists.
Just people who wanted to put out a story or wanted to just do interviews, talk to their friends. They’re the most interesting to me personally, because there are no guidelines for them. In this medium, you can always edit things out later. If you’re uncomfortable with something that was said, or you just don’t want to have said it that way, you can edit it. But at the same time, it’s really refreshing to me when I just hear whole interviews with no interruptions, just as is. It’s more of a conversation because that’s what I listen to podcasts for.
Especially right now, we’re all kind of spending more time alone. It’s really nice to feel like there’s someone there in the house with you, or driving in your car or just having a normal, casual conversation with. I just want that human connection when I’m listening to my podcast nowadays. So for me under produced podcasts are the most valuable right now because they make me feel like I’m connecting to people.
Pocket Casts: The things that you go back to for comfort between news are always a person that you connect with having a regular conversation that makes you feel not so alone. I think the medium will retain those shows, especially now.
Tinu: Podcasting is one of those mediums, kind of like YouTube was, which allows the good content to flourish. It doesn’t matter how well produced it is, if someone very young happens to find a mic and upload their podcasts and they’re relatable and they have a good story or they have a good voice, their podcasts will get a lot of traction.
It’s really just content first. The medium is really valuable to everyone right now.
Pocket Casts: What are you listening to now, and what kinds of shows do you love?
Haley: When we were working on The Orange Tree I think it was very difficult for me to listen to other true crime podcasts because we were so into ours and we didn’t want to become hypercritical of someone else’s work or ourselves.
And also, it is really hard to start hearing podcasts with gruesome content because you’ve just only started to be able handle the gruesome nature of the crime you’re working on. So hearing about other things like it, it was almost like we had to protect our brains and our mental health in that way.
I’ve only just now started to relisten to true crime podcasts. You know, there have been a few that have come out of Wondery since, but I’ve honestly been really just listening to shows like Criminal to kind of get back into it.
But another kind of podcast that I’m listening to is a very highly produced interview show, something like Fresh Air with Terry Gross. I’m pretty traditional and really loving public radio. And so those kinds of things are always very interesting to me.
As well fiction podcasts; there are so many fiction podcasts, whether it’s Homecoming that was able to get an Amazon show, or Carrier. Carrier is so good and I’m so impressed with the audio production. That’s something that I want to get better at as a young person in this industry. The sound design that they use in shows like Carrier is what I’d like to be able to do. So I love, I love, love, love, fiction, podcasts like that, too.
Tinu: I listen to a lot of really high produced podcasts, but the other day I was just, again, looking for something that felt like I was talking to a friend and I came across Allie Makowski. I found her because she was on someone else’s podcast, and I liked the way that she answered questions.
So I started listening to her podcast and I’m two episodes in and they are pretty short, but it just feels like you’re talking to a friend. She has like 45 seconds straight of just her thinking out loud. And it just feels like you’re talking or listening to someone you know talk. It’s very casual.
It’s just a fun way to fill space and time. I feel like it’s more valuable than it sounds because, especially now, people are using podcasts to feel not so alone. And so just having that casual relationship with people who are creating content is more valuable to me than really high produced content right now.
Pocket Casts: This is the last question I have for you both. Is there anything I’m missing; is there anything you want to say about either producing or being a newer voice in the industry? Anything you want to say about the industry over all?
Haley: This kind of question always feels like it’s out of the blue. Answering questions about the industry, we’re so happy to, but it’s funny because we just finished The Orange Tree. It seems like yesterday, because it seemed like we worked on this for so long. So when people ask us questions about what our take is on the industry, or how are you reacting to The Orange Tree success? Not gonna lie, it’s kind of funny. We’re just like, oh my God, we just started this thing.
Pocket Casts: I totally understand that. I think we are all excited to see what you two produce. You’ve approached this show in such a serious and dedicated way that I think you’ll have a very long career.