casting for a wide audience

Some people have their best ideas in the shower. Michael A. Fuoco had one of his at the Mt. Lebanon LRT station on the way to work. Fuoco, 66, Cedar Boulevard, is an enterprise reporter for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette with 40 years of journalism experience.

He had been researching for three months for a print/online story about the disappearance and deaths of Paul Kochu and Dakota James, two men in their twenties whose bodies were found on different days in different years in the Ohio River. Both sets of parents believe their children were murdered, while police say they do not have such evidence. Could their deaths have been the work of the “Smiley Face Killer,” an unknown predator who leaves smile drawings after each murder?

Michael A. Fuoco. Credit:/Larry Roberts, Post-Gazette

While waiting for a train, he was listening to an unrelated podcast editor Virginia Linn had recommended when it hit him that he had a story he could tell that way. “Oh my God. I have a podcast,” he thought. “It dawned on me at the T station that the story I was working on for print and web had an intriguing and emotion-filled narrative about relatable and compelling subjects whose sad fates were as mysterious as they were tragic—all elements that I felt would work well in a serialized podcast.”

From interviews recorded with the family to bits and pieces of background, he already had a lot of it. But what he didn’t have was a studio to record and edit it. He learned that Point Park University has one, as part of its Center for Media Innovation. When Fuoco looked it up online, he found one of the contacts for the Center was Ashley Murray, a graduate assistant at the school who also happened to be an intern at the Post-Gazette sitting in the newsroom at the time. Fuoco was relieved when he learned Murray would be happy to produce the podcast.

That was in June. The first episode of the Post-Gazette’s first serialized podcast, “Three Rivers, Two Mysteries,” became available October 24, with a new installment each week for five weeks. Bonus installments will be published on Tuesdays for the rest of December.

It wasn’t easy.

“The first script that I wrote was the most atrocious thing ever,” Fuoco recalls. Although he walked into the Point Park studios believing he was prepared, once he started reading into the mic, he realized the writing needed more work. “I have a newfound respect for people who make a living with their voice.” Murray coached the print reporter on his vocal intonation and then she edited on the fly in the studio. “It was so much better,” Fuoco says. “She was a partner in this.” Editor Virginia Linn tweaked the script from the PG’s North Shore office.

Ashley Murray

Just when the pair thought they were making progress with four of the five episodes “in the can,” the Pittsburgh police, who so far had refused to get involved in the story, decided to be interviewed. That was good news for Fuoco, who now had more sources for the project. But that meant going back to episodes one through four to recut and edit.

The labor-intensive process was nothing new to Fuoco, who is used to working on large-scale projects. But the medium was completely different and he was intimidated. “For me, it was a challenge but it felt so creative. I felt like a cub reporter again, scared that the story I turned in wasn’t going to be good enough.” Yet, learning as he went ended up being a good thing. “In some ways, if I knew what I was doing, things wouldn’t have worked out as well as they did.”

The reporting methods he used were the same as print, but what changed was the writing, now done in a conversational style using words you would use at the dinner table. Print wasn’t usurped; a traditional print package appeared in the paper November 26. Photography and video also figured prominently in the online package. The series took eight months total to prepare.

The project has been well-received. Post-Gazette Executive Editor David M. Shribman says although it was the paper’s first serialized podcast, it will not be the last. The package has appeared on the iTunes Top 200 News and Politics podcasts (today it has 65 reviews and a 4.5/5 star rating) and Spotify recently picked it up, an honor for only the most popular concepts.

“Your (sic) never really dead until your (sic) Forgotten. Keeping their stories alive is the only way to find the truth. Thrilled to see this story written,” wrote one reviewer.

“Personally, I found it interesting that a Baby Boomer (that would be me) and a millennial [Murray, who is 30] utilized experience and digital talent, respectively, to come up with what we believe is a very engaging podcast,” Fuoco says.

Murray and Fuoco, from left, interviewed on KDKA
The free podcasts will be available indefinitely, downloadable from iTunes, GooglePlay and available to listen to online (and download) at Spotify recently picked up the series.

Updates from a panel discussion with the families and other participants will be uploaded each Tuesday from December 12 through December 26