Best friends. True-crime fans. Storytellers.
That’s the simplest description of the Boise duo behind “Thin Air,” a podcast that for the past 16 months has been renewing public interest in cold cases involving missing people from across the United States.
Jordan Sims and Daniel Calderon, both 30-something schoolteachers, have long shared a fascination for reality TV shows such as “Big Brother” and “Survivor,” and true-crime shows such as “48 Hours Mystery,” “20/20,” and “Forensic Files.”
They got the idea to do their podcast when their favorite TV show, Investigation Discovery’s “Disappeared,” went off the air for a few years (it came back in mid-2016).
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“To fill the void in our lives,” said Sims, who remembered calling Calderon one night to tell him she had an idea for a podcast — and the name for it.
Another inspiration, she said, was the podcast “Serial,” which blazed a new trail in investigative journalism and nonfiction storytelling. The podcast, hosted by Sarah Koenig, did a deep dive into the 1999 murder case of Baltimore high school student Hae Min Lee. Lee’s ex-boyfriend, Adnan Masud Syed, was convicted of first-degree murder.
Sims and Calderon launched “Thin Air” in January 2016 and have since released 21 episodes, examining 17 different cases. The podcast has been downloaded nearly 900,000 times by listeners all over the world, including the United Kingdom, Australia and Norway.
“This podcast stands out for being incredibly well-researched,” BuzzFeed said in a January article titled “24 Horrifying But Fascinating True-Crime Podcasts You Must Listen To.”
Fresh look at old cases
The podcast dusts the cobwebs off missing-person cases that can be decades old, brought to life through a retelling of the circumstances around the disappearances and fresh interviews with family, friends and others.
The two get emails all the time from people suggesting they follow up on someone who has gone missing in recent weeks. Sims and Calderon prefer cases that are at least a year old, in part because national statistics show that most cases are resolved, one way or another, within a year.
“I find the older cases have richer stories,” Calderon said.
Hundreds of thousands of people go missing in the U.S. every year. In 2016, 647,435 missing-person records were entered into the National Crime Information Center’s Missing Person File, with 87 percent resolved by the end of the year.
“Thin Air” has featured two Idaho cases: Emmett resident Marie Ann Watson, missing since 1977; and Rathdrum resident Deborah Dee Sykes, missing since 2005.
Sims said she found the Watson case while browsing the Idaho Missing Persons Clearinghouse online. The available information is thin. Her disappearance is listed as “involuntary,” and there are no photos and no word on where she was last seen. There’s a basic description: white, brown hair, blue eyes, 5-foot-7, 110 pounds, 28 at the time. “Last seen wearing a blue jacket with sheepskin lining,” her listing reads. People are encouraged to contact the Gem County Sheriff’s Office.
But “Thin Air” found out more.
“She was kind of down on her luck,” Sims said of Watson. “I quickly found her daughter, Sandy, and found Sandy’s blogs about her mom.”
Sims and Calderon spent three months investigating Watson’s disappearance before they even launched the podcast. They talked at length with an Idaho State Police investigator who has dogged the case, visited key places in the story, compared notes with a private investigator and interviewed the woman who last saw Watson alive.
They’ve produced three episodes on that case so far, and there could be an update. It’s the case that has been the most downloaded by listeners.
Shhhhhh, we’re recording
Sims and Calderon collaborate on the research and produce “Thin Air” in the living room of Calderon’s apartment, where they have all the tools they need: a phone, a good-quality microphone, a computer and editing software.
What they don’t always have: quiet.
“We have to do takes over and over and over because of the dog or my upstairs neighbor,” Calderon said.
Even more aggravating: Road construction nearby has meant that they have to record at 8 p.m. or later, after the jack-hammering has stopped.
They contact most people through Facebook and conduct their interviews via Skype, but they don’t do video calls.
“Video? Oh, my God,” Calderon said. “I don’t want to see myself ... and see them reacting to what I’m asking.”
The pair transcribe the recorded interviews, a process that has gotten faster with transcription software. They note key times in the recording they’ll want for clips. They draft a script outlining their story, including what they will say and where they will drop in interview clips. They make a final, edited script before recording. Lastly, they use audio-editing software to produce each episode.
They’ve taught themselves how to tell stories in this new medium through trial and error, getting better and faster each time. It’s a complex, creative process.
“I know that podcasting might not seem like an art form to many, but it definitely is,” Calderon said. “I don’t know what else you would call it. It’s a mixture of so many things.”
Sims said she’s learned from listening to her interviews how often she interrupts. She’s trying not to say “wow” when someone says something surprising. “I also have a nervous laugh,” she said.
Maintaining work-life balance has been the hardest thing about the podcast for Calderon. He teaches language and literature at Sage International School, a public charter school.
“I work all day and then I come home and I work all night, and I go to bed and I do the whole thing all over,” he said.
Sims recently got back to Boise after finishing a Fulbright grant to teach English in the Czech Republic; before that, she taught 6th grade at Boise’s Lake Hazel Middle School for three years.
They kept doing the podcast, producing six episodes, during the eight months Sims was overseas.
“Before I left, Daniel and I researched as many cases we could and got as many interviews as we could while I was still in the states,” she said. “I packed up our old Blue Yeti mic, bought a new laptop and moved.”
Her husband, Roger, helped improve the sound in their mostly empty apartment by creating a “podcast fort” from chairs, a table, a bedsheet and pillows, and helped with a lot of the editing while she was in the Czech Republic.
“I was really lucky to have him there,” she said.
The next level
Sims is feeling the emotional toll that comes with telling the stories of people who have vanished.
“Missing-persons cases can be frustrating because, especially with adults, if there’s no sign of foul play, then investigations are not often taken seriously,” she said. “Precious time is lost that is never regained, and we talk to family members left in the wake of that. It’s heartbreaking.”
Their hobby is evolving into something more. They’re looking for an office where they can work and record — and find some reliable quiet.
Sims is now devoting herself full time to “Thin Air,” a decision made easier by the fact that companies have approached the pair about selling advertising for the podcasts.
“It adds a whole other level of pressure,” Calderon said. Listeners who want to support the podcast can make donations directly online.
The amateur sleuths, who have learned by doing, now know a lot about how the police and families handle missing-person cases. Calderon said his greatest fear is that they could ruin an investigation or get someone hurt.
They’ve profiled 17 missing people so far, and no one has been found. But they’re hopeful some cases eventually will be resolved.
“They are essentially unsolved mysteries,” Calderon said. “All of these could be solved, if only the right person is listening to our podcast. All it takes is that one person to say, ‘I remember that detail.’ ”