Review: Will Podcast on Chicago Corruption Capture Listeners?

Brian Jackson | Chicago Sun-Times

Brian Jackson | Chicago Sun-Times

The new podcast “The City,” produced by USA Today and spearheaded by Chicago reporter Robin Amer, is trying to make urban corruption scintillating. But this is not just any corruption: it is Chicago corruption, which is distinct from its cousins in New York, New Jersey, and every other major city.

The series goes in-depth about an illegal dump that sprouted up in North Lawndale in the early 1990s. The 1990s, the show is quick to assert, was Chicago’s “Renaissance.” This is largely true — that decade saw the city’s population marginally tick up (only to continue its downward spiral in the decades since), downtown development was booming, and the city generally felt pretty good about itself.

This was also near the beginning of Richard M. Daley’s tenure which, to Chicagoans looking back in hindsight, can be evaluated as a mixed bag of accomplishments and failures. On the one hand, Chicago’s population growth was putting the city back on the map and it’s economy looked poised to avoid the fate of other Midwestern metropolises. On the other hand, backroom deals, crooked contracts, and standard Daley corruption was beginning to entrench itself.

This is where North Lawndale and the dump come into play. “After years of disinvestment, highways are rebuilt, old buildings demolished, new parks and skyscrapers erected,” the series website explains. “But all that rubble has to go somewhere, and its destination isn’t a landfill or a recycling center. It’s a pair of vacant lots in a black, working-class neighborhood called North Lawndale.”

Episode one lays out the issue and introduces the listener to the key players from the time. The North Lawndale community and its residents are the focus here, which in turn lays the groundwork for episode two. There, we are introduced to “John Christopher” (it is implied that is not his real name), the man running the illegal dump. Episode three — the most recent one released as of this writing — is a crash course in Chicago politics and barely mentions the dump at all. Episode four will be released October 8th.

The series has serious potential. Investigating “urban corruption,” which USA Today underscores as the point of the podcast, is no doubt fascinating, and what better city to begin studying it than Chicago? The City of Big Shoulders has always had its issues with Big Crime, and the 1990s were no different. The research team has clearly done its work, leaving no stone unturned. The amount of interviews, court documents, and puzzle pieces assembled to make this series possible is staggering — and makes for great listening.

But, being season one, there are some rough edges. The production value is clearly “there,” and yet the odd choice of theme music lends itself more to The Fugitive than it does to a real life event. And the central focus on Chicago, while interesting to residents, blunts the ultimate impact the podcast is clearly hoping to achieve. How much will an illegal dump from 1990s Chicago resonate with someone from New York, San Francisco, or Austin? That remains yet to be seen.

Perhaps the biggest question about “The City” is will it work? Podcasts are a tried and true tool of engagement for anyone with a microphone. And the investigative format the series follows has been wildly successful in other genres, most notably for murder shows. In this regard, “The City” is more of a follower than a leader, yet it can fairly be called a leader for exploring new territory. It will be interesting to see if the series can find success with an interesting topic that is nonetheless outside the wheelhouse for most podcasts.  

Despite these limitations, season one is picking up steam. With an unspecified numbers of episodes remaining it clearly has room to grow.

Check back for updates after every episode.