Nursing Your “Serial” Hangover: “True Murder” Podcast and The Secret Life of Phil Champagne

true murder true detective dan zupansky
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Despite my best efforts, I can’t always be glued to the idiot box. Life’s duties have a way of throwing one into that dull chasm known as the real world. It’s a place where, unlike on the silver screen, the chances of catching someone jumping onto a moving train while being chased by a psychopath in a human-skin mask as a horde of zombies explodes in the background are, unfortunately, rather slim.

zombie explosion leatherface

A woefully seldom occurrence, in my experience…

That’s why I’ve decided to expand this blog’s scope to include the occasional non-film, media recommendation. Don’t worry, the majority of our content will continue to be Netflix Instant-related. But when I land upon other great pieces of media that are free, streaming and deal in our everpresent theme of crime, thriller and horror storytelling, it’s hard not to bite.

true crime sexy

Who says podcasts can’t be sexy?

Such, is the case with “True Murder,” a Canadian weekly podcast in which Winnipeg-based host Dan Zupansky interviews true-crime authors.

I landed upon Zupansky’s show while driving along a dark stretch of Midwestern highway one bleak, wintry evening. Outside of Janesville, WI—the home of skin-wearing madman Ed Gein—I was still a few hours away from my destination. Then suddenly something horrible happened: I had reached the end of the final episode of the “Serial” podcast.

Ed Gein meme

Sorry, never can resist a good Ed Gein pun…

The horrible thing wasn’t so much that a show I knew would have no resolution ended up lacking resolution. It was that I still had time on the road, and all I could get on my radio were Evangelical preachers yelling about the horrors of not sending them $14.99 and a slew of “new country” stations that would make Townes Van Zandt roll in his grave.

Townes Van Zandt whiskey

Townes wouldn’t have stood for any of this “new country” malarkey

Frantically, I pulled to the side of the road, googled something along the lines of “crime murder podcast” and clicked on the first decent-looking thing that popped up. I was now entering the world of “True Murder.”

The show started with a sinister, low-budget intro name-dropping Ted Bundy and the the BTK Killer as Michael Mann-esque foreboding synth music played in the background. Then a mild-mannered Canadian broadcaster came on and started getting very excited as he politely interviewed an author about a man in Florida who had been abducting people and ritualistically drinking their blood. I was hooked.

I’ve since maken it a point to stream “True Murder” whenever I’m on a lengthy road trip. And one of the more compelling episodes of Zupansky’s show deals with the case of Phil Champagne (helluva name), a middle-aged businessman who was presumed dead in 1982 after drunkenly falling off a boat near northern Washington state’s Lopez Island.

Lopez Island farm

I once went to Lopez Island and took this picture of chickens digging through cow bones at a hippie farm.

Turns out Old Phil actually wasn’t dead, despite freezing waters and an 18-hour coast guard search. So with a marriage falling apart and a $1.5 million life insurance policy that would go on to his brothers, he decided to change his “lackluster existence.” Which basically meant letting no one know he was alive for ten years.

I won’t tell the whole story (that’s what “True Murder” is for), but during his disappearance, he got in with Mexican cartels, used his charm to milk money out of rich housewives, and eventually became a low-level counterfeiter whom the Secret Service targeted as a criminal mastermind—all as man named Harold Stegeman.

Phil Champagne

Phil Champagne: “The last of the great gentleman crooks.”

What makes this episode of “True Murder”—perhaps the most tame (subject-matter-wise) in the series’ arsenal of several hundred broadcasts—is the author Zupansky interviews.

Burl Barer (another helluva name) is a true-crime original, and author of Man Overboard: The Counterfeit Resurrection of Phil Champagne. He’s an immodest personality who refers to himself in the third person as the “legendary Burl Barer,” and “the iron man of true crime.” He’s also a brilliantly eloquent and charismatic storyteller which, ya know, makes for good podcasting.

So what else do you need to know about “True Murder”? First, it’s a taped live show, so it’s nowhere near as carefully constructed or seamless as “Serial.” On the flipside, however, it details hundreds of mind-blowing serial killer and crime stories, and most of them end with a great sense of resolution (something “Serial,” due to the constrictions of its format, can’t really achieve.)

Zupansky also goes out of the way to make sure that while live, each of his shows follows an escalating narrative. So as he interviews one true crime author to the next, “True Murder” essentially becomes an audiobook Cliffs Notes to some of the most fascinating murder cases on record.

Of course there are times when his subjects aren’t the most interesting interviews, or when they fail to show up for the live show altogether. But that’s why I’m recommending you start with one of his better recent episodes. (Here’s a link to the Phil Champagne podcast.)

And there’s something just incredibly charming and hilarious about Zupansky’s Canadian politeness mixed with his zealous fascination toward human dismemberment.

So if you find yourself on a long, winding road one dark night in the midst of some ghastly land, I highly recommend pulling up Zupansky’s archive on blogtalkradio. It’s true-crime storytelling at its most bleak, deliciously campy and endlessly engaging.

-Sam Adams

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