“This is a strange story,” says Keith Morrison in his unmistakably wry baritone. He’s narrating the first episode of the Dateline podcast The Thing About Pam, and while the subject matter – the brutal murder of Betsy Faria and the bizarre chain of events it sets off – is troubling, Morrison’s voice is calming, familiar, and even comforting. As a correspondent on NBC’s Dateline for 25 years, Morrison, with his sweep of soft white hair, his cashmere and corduroy style, and his unhurried delivery, has become the granddaddy of true crime.
The Thing About Pam is a treat for casual listeners and die-hard Dateline fans alike. Peppered throughout with references to several different episodes of the show that have aired over the years, it’s a twisting and self-referential tale of murder and deception that involves one suspect impersonating a Dateline producer to lure a victim. Morrison’s narration is a true delight. At one point, Faria’s husband, Russ, while establishing his alibi in a police interview, reveals that he was bored by the movie he supposedly watched that night.
Morrison seems genuinely put off by the sentiment, “Cormac McCarthy’s The Road - Boring?” he demurs before letting out a brief sigh of acceptance and saying, “Well, to each his own.”
As Dateline heads into its 28th season, Refinery29 spoke with Morrison about the podcast, his career journey, and what the man with the most relaxing voice in broadcast television does to relax.
Your voice is so clearly made for the podcast medium. I’m sure everyone tells you that.
"Oh, you know, it's very fun to be me because people are nicer to me than I deserve."
Can you tell us about the evolution of Dateline and true crime reporting?
"It was a vastly different program back in the '90s. We were a much more traditional news magazine. We would do anywhere between four and six stories in an hour, distinctly different stories. You know: what's new technologically or some public issue. I frequently did stories about animals, which I like doing and the remarkable lives they lead and and how we don't understand that very well. We kind of gradually morphed into doing true crime. The process was that it was just organic. We discovered that when we did true crime stories, especially when we did them for the full hour, people liked it a lot.
"A lot of us weren’t so sure we wanted to do true crime. But the fact is these stories wind up getting under the skin of the human condition as effectively, maybe more so than almost anything else I've ever done. It's a devastating thing. Our stories are not particularly about the murder. They're about the people, the circumstances, the flaws in human character and, conversely, the incredible inner strength of certain human characters."
How is the podcast different than television in terms of storytelling?
"When I started out many, many years ago, I was in radio and I liked it a lot. When I first came to television, it was frustrating because in television you, when you're telling a story, everything has to be taught through pictures, through the video. With radio or a podcast, you don't have to do that, but what you do have to do is just encourage people through the way it's written to use their imagination. It’s freeing in a way. You can tell all the little curlicues of the story that otherwise you wouldn't be able to because you couldn't cover it with a picture."
What is your response to criticism that programs like Dateline are exploitative or non-inclusive in their storytelling?
"We are trying to be more inclusive. One of my favorite recent episodes is about a very poor, very messy, very complicated, very not-perfect character in South Carolina who was accused of committing a horrible, horrible crime. The entire community turned against him and tragic things happened. Some saw him as a nobody and a nothing. And yet he is, in my mind, this tremendously important ideal of justice gone wrong. And if you don't get justice for the least, then you can't have it for the most.
"We do these kinds of stories not infrequently and they actually get a good audience. So we're hoping to do more of them. It used to be that you only do stories about people who are beyond reproach and victimized. Well, nobody is beyond reproach, of course. And this victim shaming is something you'd never want to do. We want to be able to do stories about people who live complicated lives. And persons of color are still inadequately represented in media, but we're trying to get better every time we do a story."
And what do you do in your spare time? Do you listen to any podcasts?
"I hate to admit it, but I'm more of a reader than a watcher or listener. Perhaps unsurprisingly, I'm a fan of detective fiction. There’s an author who's now long dead, named George Simenon, who wrote detective fiction based in Paris. His are a very different kind of crime story from the Agatha Christie model, though I’ve read all of those also. I'm attracted to that stuff. It's, you know, everybody is made fascinating."
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.