Newspaper Journalist and Author Finds His Podcasting Voice

Dick Lehr’s pivot to audio reveals some new storytelling tricks

Photo illustration of Dick Lehr wearing hand-drawn headphones next to a microphone.
February 26, 2024
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Newspaper Journalist and Author Finds His Podcasting Voice

Dick Lehr was finishing up his latest book, White Hot Hate, when he got an unexpected request. George Stephanopoulos at ABC was working on a documentary about the same subject—a white nationalist attack on Somali immigrants in Kansas that was thwarted by the FBI in 2016—and he wanted to interview Lehr. The book and the movie, The Informant, came out in 2021, and Lehr figured it was time to move on to his next writing project. Then ABC called again. 

They had launched a new podcast series called Truth & Lies, covering the case of Jeffrey Epstein in the first season. They’d gathered so much material for The Informant, including hundreds of hours of undercover FBI recordings, they thought the story would be perfect for season two—and they wanted Lehr, a professor of journalism at COM, to host. “Who, me?” he thought. “I’m a word person, a print person.”

A veteran of the Boston Globe’s prestigious Spotlight investigative team, Lehr was no stranger to telling true-crime stories. His book Black Mass: Whitey Bulger, the FBI, and a Devil’s Deal (PublicAffairs, 2000), cowritten with Gerard O’Neill (’70), was adapted into the 2015 Johnny Depp film of the same name. Lehr had never done any radio journalism or podcasting before, but the ABC team liked his presence in the documentary and had writers to handle the scripts and producers to help him record. “There was a very talented safety net to make sure that I wasn’t an idiot,” Lehr says. 

For ABC, the podcast was an opportunity to repurpose reporting they’d already done for the documentary; for Lehr it was a chance to explore a new storytelling format. So, they shipped him a high-quality microphone, and he set up a makeshift studio in the quietest spot in his house: the unfinished firewood room in his basement. 

Soon, Lehr was reviewing scripts for Truth & Lies: The Informant and doing table reads over Zoom. A screenful of eight or nine producers coached him through the experience. They would record one episode at a time, with Lehr in his basement and the producers listening through Zoom. 

“I was talking too fast and then I had trouble with p’s,” he says. “They had little tricks that they would coach me on, like saying my p’s out of the corner of my mouth so they wouldn’t pop.” 

I’ve become a much bigger fan of podcasting and the narrative possibilities. I’m intrigued and seduced by that.

Dick Lehr

The only other challenge Lehr encountered was the weather: They began recording in the summer of 2022, but when the project stretched into the early winter he had to bundle up in his warmest coat to record in his unheated basement. By January 2023, the season was ready for release.

Despite his inexperience, Lehr was a natural for podcasting, bringing an empathetic and informed voice to the material, and for telling true-crime stories—a genre that’s fueled podcasting’s popularity. ABC quickly asked if he’d do another season, this time focused on the Boston Strangler, to be released in conjunction with a film adaptation on Hulu

Back to Books

After two seasons of Truth & Lies, Lehr is back to book writing—but with a fresh perspective. “I’ve become a much bigger fan of podcasting and the narrative possibilities,” he says. “I’m intrigued and seduced by that.” 

His next book, The Acre on Fire, is more personal than his past projects. It’s about Victor Rosario, a man convicted of arson and eight murders in Lowell, Mass., in 1983. Lehr and a team of COM students reported on the story for the New England Center for Investigative Journalism, then located at BU, and published their work in a 2010 exposé for the Globe. Jack Nicas (CGS’08, COM’11), now the New York Times Brazil bureau chief, cowrote the story with Lehr, and Jennifer Judson (’10), Roxanne Palmer (’10), Solomon Syed (CGS’02, CAS’04, COM’10), Rachel Blumenthal (’10), Sarah Favot (’11) and Akshat Pandey contributed to the reporting. Their work highlighted flaws in the original investigation and prosecution and helped exonerate Rosario, who was released from prison in 2014.

Rosario’s journey has everything Lehr looks for in a project—all of the elements that make true crime so popular, across mediums. “You have mystery, you have drama, you have life and death issues,” he says. “And there’s more going on than just a crime story—it speaks to something bigger.” Writing about Whitey Bulger wasn’t simply profiling a crime boss, he says, but rather the corruption of the FBI. His new book isn’t just about an innocent man; it’s a chronicle of the ways that fire science has changed. And it’s about Lehr, in part, because of his role in revealing the injustice of the case. Now, he’s grappling with how to work himself into the narrative.

“The podcasting experience is finding its way into how I might tell the story in this book,” he says. “There’s opportunities for me to be in it, and I’m thinking, ‘Don’t be rigid, don’t shy away from that.’” With audio, Lehr saw how the strategic use of music, audio recordings and changes in the narrator’s tone can heighten the dramatic elements. He’s also thinking more about nonlinear storytelling and the ways he was able to make digressions in the podcasts, taking the time to focus on a piece of history or to provide a big-picture perspective before pivoting back to the main narrative.

Lehr is in the early stages of writing the book and the structure is taking shape in his mind. He recently flew to Puerto Rico to interview Rosario. The two met at a local cantina, a festive spot where many people knew Rosario. 

“Four years ago, I would’ve had some narrative distance,” Lehr says. Now, he’s considering a more personal angle, placing himself in the scene and capturing all of the color and personality—”very podcasty” he says—and making the cantina scene into a prologue. “It’s a chance to establish an immediacy. This story goes back a long time, but there’s a present tense to it as well. Taking care of that right away—that comes out of podcasting.”

Lehr doesn’t know if he’ll do more podcasting and, at this point, The Acre on Fire is just a book project. But he’s covering his bases, just in case. “I’m recording everything,” he says.