Texas death row inmate Rodney Reed was scheduled to die by lethal injection on Nov. 20, 2019. But with just five days to go, the Texas Parole Board voted unanimously to recommend a stay of execution to Gov. Greg Abbott, who signed it with bipartisan and public support.
In the months leading up to that moment, more than 500,000 people signed a Change.org petition in support of Reed, including stars like Beyoncé. Senator Ted Cruz publicly supported the cause. And on Nov. 13, an episode of the podcast Wrongful Conviction profiling Reed’s case went live.
Kevin Wortis, who heads podcasting production and marketing company Signal Co. No1, doesn’t take credit for pushing the issue past the tipping point, but the podcast, created and hosted by Lava Records founder Jason Flom, brought additional weight to the conversation, with downloads and streams well into six figures.
“We’re trying to advocate on a few different levels,” says Wortis, whose company produces Wrongful Conviction and its new spinoff, Wrongful Conviction: False Confessions. “We can make a little bit of a difference in the immediate term if we’re part of a large chorus of voices,” he says—a point of view that informs the new series as well, where every episode is about someone who has been exonerated but spent years or even decades in prison due a false confession for a crime that either they didn’t commit or, in some cases, didn’t even happen.
Laura Nirider and Steve Drizin, the attorneys who represent Brendan Dassey of Netflix’s Making a Murderer, among others, host Wrongful Conviction: False Confessions. Senior producer Anne Pope has worked with them on the project since the beginning, but like many other audio professionals, she has had to adapt to today’s fluid circumstances due to COVID-19.
Before the pandemic, Nirider and Drizin would record basic tracks on a Neumann U87 at Studio Media Recording in Evanston, Illinois, near Northwestern University where both are professors at the Pritzker School of Law. Pope would then add the supporting audio, typically taken from courtrooms or interrogation room recordings.
Not long after the first episode premiered in February, though, shelter-in-place policies changed their entire production process. Pope, whose experience includes serving as composer Philip Glass’s chief engineer before she transitioned to post-production work in television and film, began a methodical approach to the podcast’s continuance plan by researching and testing various microphones and conferencing platforms.
“The great thing about going into a really nice studio was all [Nirider and Drizin] had to focus on was their performance and their interaction with each other,” says Pope. “Now the line that we’re trying to walk is how to get the best-quality audio we can without asking them to add yet another layer of demands every time they record.”
Pope eventually landed on the Zoom LiveTrak L-8 USB mixer and a combination of Audio-Technica AT2020 and AT4040 USB microphones to get a quality signal on the front end.
“One thing I like about the L-8 is that it does have that ability to connect a phone caller through one of the inputs,” she says, “and it creates a mix-minus so the person calling can hear the person operating the L-8 on their own good-quality microphone.”
After experimenting with conferencing platforms such as Google Meet and Zoom, Pope discovered Cleanfeed, a multitrack, multi-feed live audio recording platform that allows her to record 16-bit, 44.1 or 48k WAV files, and download the file with separated tracks at the end of the call. That way, she can still isolate each feed for processing in iZotope RX and mixing on her Pro Tools rig.
When processing interrogation audio for the False Confessions series, Pope says a little goes a long way. Her job is to clean up the audio enough to be understood by the listener without sacrificing the realism of the source or detracting from what is happening in the recording.
“One of the things that is really powerful for a lay person who’s not immersed in this subject is to actually hear the level of manipulation and coercion that takes place in a lot of these interrogations,” she says.
Often, those recordings are very poor in quality, even verging on unintelligible. “You’re talking about a camera that’s up in a corner in the ceiling,” she explains. “Sometimes if you were to watch the videotape, you could see that the person being interrogated might have their back to the camera, and therefore to the mic, too. [But] I leave the quality poor enough so that when the videotape comes in, you immediately recognize it as that.”
Wortis says Flom and the False Confessions team are currently working on a new series unique to the current global pandemic that they hope will help people cope with social isolation.
“We’re doing a series of these special editions each week where Jason talks to formerly incarcerated folks who have been on the show before, [sharing] advice they have for a world in quarantine,” he says. Guests on the podcast include people like Damien Echols of the West Memphis Three, who was incarcerated for 18 years after being wrongly convicted in the murder of three boys in Arkansas. “These people have an enormous amount of knowledge and insight to give the world now.”
Wrongful Conviction: False Confessions • www.wrongfulconvictionpodcast.com