When The Press/Stuff decided to turn an investigation into one of New Zealand’s most controversial murders into a podcast series, it had no idea if anyone would listen.
Senior investigative journalist Martin van Beynen became an expert on the deaths of five members of the Bain family, who were slain in their own home in a small New Zealand city in 1994.
There were two suspects. One was the father, Robin Bain, who lay dead from a single bullet to the head. The other was a son, David Bain, the only survivor.
David Bain was convicted and jailed for the murders of his parents and siblings, but continued to plead his innocence from behind bars. His conviction was eventually overturned, and he was acquitted in a second trial.
Van Beynen sat through every day of this second trial, and was not convinced of the jury’s not-guilty verdict. He believed there was more to say. For three years he went back over the evidence, interviewed key players, and wrote a 100,000-word book manuscript about the subject.
When van Beynen's publishing deal fell through, Fairfax’s South Island Editor-in-Chief Joanna Norris decided to make the story a podcast series named Black Hands, in reference to a phrase used by David Bain after the deaths of his family.
The Fairfax podcast series looks into the background of the six-member Bain family, whose early life was forged in Papua New Guinea and steeped in religious beliefs. The mother, Margaret, saw the devil at work in each of her family members — especially her husband, Robin.
The investigation surveyed the evidence for and against David and Robin, who some believed killed his wife and three of his four children before turning the gun on himself. The podcast concludes with van Beynen offering his own verdict.
This was our newsroom’s first podcast, and we were all nervous as we approached launch day. We had decided to publish all 10 episodes at once. With the 2017 release of the podcast S-Town, and the television series House of Cards, it was clear that along with binge viewing, binge listening was now the norm.
The 10-part Black Hands series shot to No. 1 in the New Zealand iTunes podcast charts in hours, and by day two was topping the Australian charts. It attracted considerable attention from media in New Zealand, and was featured in mass-circulation British tabloid The Sun.
Within two weeks, it was the No. 1 podcast in the UK. And less than three weeks after its official July 24 launch, it reached two million downloads worldwide. This includes more than 100,000 listeners in the United States, the birthplace of the world’s most successful true-crime podcast, Serial.
As newcomers to podcasting, one of the major hurdles our newsroom faced was finding a way to record them. We had little experience and, crucially, no studio. We considered the options of hiring a studio, partnering with colleagues in broadcast media, or hiring a production company to do the recording.
The latter would guarantee high quality and leave total control in our hands, but was potentially prohibitively expensive. We were lucky that Dave Dunlay of local production house Tandem Studios was enthusiastic about our project and offered to work with us at a significantly discounted rate.
We had worked with Dunlay previously on some digital, live-streaming collaborations. Van Beynen embarked on what would become 180 hours of recording, editing, and re-editing before the Black Hands series was complete.
Every step of the way required us to learn new skills, from figuring out how to turn a book manuscript into a podcast, to how to load a recorded podcast onto iTunes.
Our promotional campaign released the first episode to key influencers in New Zealand media ahead of the official launch date, and ran a feature on van Beynen in Fairfax’s Your Weekend magazine.
These sparked such a clamour to hear the series that we decided to publish the podcast on the day before its official, original launch date, making it instantly available to the thousands who had already subscribed on the back of our pre-promotion.
Following its official launch, Black Hands was promoted online by Stuff with an eight-chapter Shorthand feature, and given home page prominence for a week — ensuring that its audience of one million per day could not miss it.
News and feature stories also ran throughout that week in Fairfax’s daily print newspapers, while a marketing campaign pushed it through digital and print ads. Discussion about Black Hands also spread rapidly on Facebook and Twitter, and soon it seemed that everyone in New Zealand had heard it.
We have now commissioned an 11th episode, in production at this moment, and have turned serious consideration to what our next podcast project will be. This time we hope to persuade a commercial partner to support us, helping us move from what has been a labour of love to podcasts that are commercial propositions.