The voice behind the world’s top-ranked podcast is a first-timer.
“I had no background in podcasting or recording. I don’t even record my interviews,” Chris Goffard, narrator and writer of the hit “Dirty John” pod, told TheWrap. “I use a notebook and a pen… old, old school.”
But the podcast’s success has been anything but beginner’s luck. The veteran L.A. Times reporter’s six-part series has rocketed to the number one spot on the Apple podcast charts because it examines two common, intriguing phenomenons: the often fleeting search for love, and the capability of humans to inflict the cruelest of emotional and physical abuses.
Goffard takes listeners through the gripping whirlwind marriage between a successful Orange County businesswoman, who is just as unsuccessful at picking husbands, and her new prince charming. Pushing 60 and with four divorces to her name, Debra Newell is desperate to find her one true soulmate. She’s starry eyed when she matches on a dating site with John Meehan, a fit mid-50s doctor. He promises to love her like she’d never been loved before. Despite protesting from her children, they married in Las Vegas after less than a month of dating — with no one in attendance.
Unfortunately for Newell — and as the listeners quickly realize — Meehan is the textbook example of “if something sounds too good to be true, it probably is.”
Newell’s new life partner tells elaborate stories about volunteering in war-torn countries, and they begin to crumble under the weight of their fabrication. An underlying violent streak shines through in comments to wary family members. He’s manipulative. Questions about Meehan even being a doctor begin to surface. Why doesn’t he have a car? Why does he need to move in with Newell and have her buy him clothes? And why hasn’t she seen one of his many houses?
In the face of mounting evidence he’s a fraud, Newell remains enchanted, telling Goffard “I felt this was an opportunity to love again.” Listeners are sucked in, wondering how she can trust an obvious conman.
“What I think resonates with people is, look, this is an extreme example, but everyone can relate to the search for love and fulfillment and the self-destructive choices we sometimes make along the way,” Goffard told TheWrap.
Producer Karen Lowe echoed Goffard’s sentiment.
“People were screaming on Facebook and Reddit, how could she not see this coming?,” Lowe told TheWrap. “We all know people, our friends and family, who stay in relationships long beyond what the outsiders think is ‘get out’ and you stay in as long as it’s fulfilling something you really need.”
More troubling details come to light. Meehan wasn’t a doctor. He’d dropped out of law school — where he’d been pegged with the “Dirty John” nickname to start. He was divorced. He was a addicted to fentanyl. Worst of all, he allegedly “terrorized” multiple women — going to jail once for stalking one, and there’s also a rape allegation.
Goffard steps in for the audience at times, channeling their disbelief.
“There’s a point in Episode 4, ‘Forgiveness,’ where I’m talking to Debra about the explanations that John gives for his criminal history and the restraining orders and all of this awful stuff that’s carefully documented about him, and I tell her, ‘Look’ — this is the part that’s frankly hardest to explain to people — ‘Why, in the face of all the evidence, did you decide to take him back?'” said Goffard. “I’m sort of the surrogate for the listener.”
Eventually, Newell sees the light, quickly moving to divorce Meehan. He threatens to make her life a living hell, saying she needs to pay up or it’ll get ugly. Without giving away the ending, the audience expects anything can happen because it’s left thinking Newell is dealing with a psychopath.
“He’s got the narcissism, a talent for deception, a callousness, a lack of empathy, and the sense that he can’t connect to human beings in any meaningful way,” said Goffard. “His only real pleasure in life is inflicting maximum pain on other people.”
There have been other true crime podcasts that have stormed the podcast charts before, “Serial” being the go-to example. (And while he understands why listeners call it a true crime podcast, Goffard said he thinks of it more as “a human drama that happens to have elements of crime in it.”) But to have “Dirty John” transcend beyond an excellent written piece, Lowe said a “marriage of mediums” had to take place, combining three aspects: the “journalistic rigor” of Goffard and the L.A. Times; her background as a producer on podcasts like “This American Life”; and the TV-pacing that came from Hernan Lopez, founder of Wondery, the network behind the pod.
To make a compelling true crime series, “you need some tension, some action every 20 seconds,” said Lowe. “Something’s got to happen.”
That’s easy here, with Newell, her family, and lawyers peppering the listener with their stories about Meehan. And the score from “master” composer Jeff Schmidt, according to Lowe, was integral in creating a growing sense of urgency as the podcast goes on.
What the “Dirty John” team ended up with was the perfect elixir. First-rate production, coupled with an amazing narrative grounded in the ubiquity of online dating — and the specter of horror stories like the one Newell endured still being out there. Now, with “Dirty John” sitting atop the podcast rankings for three weeks and counting, Goffard hopes the story not only entertains, but acts as a warning sign.
“If it raises awareness about domestic abuse and manipulation, I’d be very happy,” he said.