How Alibi started… and won a national award

The groundbreaking hit radio series and podcast won Best Radio Feature at the national Vodacom Journalist of The Year Awards. Here’s how the show came about…

Written by Paul McNally

The power of narrative radio is best emphasized when exploring a mystery. And few things are more devastating to a journalist than to discover a man in jail who could have spent the last 17 years of his life inside for a crime he didn’t commit. This is the premise that pulled me into the story of Anthony De Vries and became “Alibi”. What kept me there and allowed me to expand the story into an eight-part radio series was the sheer depth of deception and discrimination I uncovered by those in power.

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Anthony was in jail for a crime that happened in 1994, a few weeks before South Africa’s first democratic election. Two security guards were murdered at a Checkers supermarket. Thousands of Rands were stolen and never recovered. We take the listener on a journey to explore if Anthony was innocent or guilty of these crimes. Alibi is a story about one man and his pursuit for justice, but it is also about how our country’s history is broken into pre and post-1994 and how our courts and police have changed during this transition. It also explores how people are still being punished by a system that we wish was long buried. Here is a coloured man who was convicted of a crime that happened before the 1994 election, but he has spent most of our democracy behind bars.

There was a fact (revealed at the end of the first episode) that made me realize this story was more than a possible wrongful conviction story. Anthony was brutally tortured by apartheid police officers while he was in high school in the early nineties (he was kept in the back of their van and driven around for weeks). He miraculously won a court settlement from the apartheid government for the violence he endured. However, his past would come back to haunt him as the same police officer who tortured him ended up being the investigating officer on the Checkers murder case that would send him to jail for most of his life. This is when I realized that there was a possibility this police officer had enacting revenge against Anthony: it was the same police officer, just years later and this fact was never brought up at Anthony’s trial.

When I started work on Alibi (at the start of 2015) what I was attempting had never been done in South Africa. This was a narrative, documentary radio series broadcast over eight weeks on a national radio station. It was produced as a partnership between Citizen Justice Network , Wits Radio Academy and Wits Justice Project with funding from The Open Society Foundation for South Africa, HiiL Innovating Justice and Canon Collins Trust.

A huge challenge was to develop my story into a serialized format, make it compelling and accurate and get the commitment from a major radio station (like SAFM) to broadcast the series.

The second challenge: when I began working on the story Anthony was still incarcerated and we had to communicate over the telephone (with me recording the calls). I would visit him, but it was impossible to bring a recorder into prison and document these meetings. I won the trust of him, his family and his lawyer and they would all become characters in the series. The crime occurred over two decades ago and I had to find paperwork that would confirm what I was being told by my sources. I tracked down the people and places involved in the crime. I wanted to balance the unfolding of the story, the discovery of evidence and also maintain the tension for the listener around if Anthony was innocent or guilty.

The third challenge was the quality of production: I wanted this to be as high as possible. If we were going to bring a South African story to this serialized radio medium, then I wanted it to be on a par with the international examples that had come before. This meant recording and re-recording voice over so it sounded natural. It meant scripting and re-scripting so the episodes flowed into each other professionally. The hit podcast “Serial” explored a possible wrongful conviction and I knew that people would draw comparisons so I wanted the story to be valid and worthwhile beyond the way it was being told. I also wanted to make sure that journalistically Alibi was accurate and to a high standard, even if the tone was conversational (as is demanded of the medium of narrative radio). I put all the documents from the case up on the website and invited listeners to make decisions and ask questions on social media around the case.

I travelled around Gauteng and The Free State visiting people who could elaborate for me on the case. I wanted to bring as many voices and characters into the story as a way to explore the different aspects of the case. I found the man who investigated Anthony’s torture claims (now in his 70s) and found out his opinion on the case and Anthony’s innocence. I found the man who owned the DVD store, outside which the murders took place, and asked him about the bullet holes that remained buried in the walls of his shop years later.

I believe Alibi has broken new ground in terms of investigative journalism being broadcast on national radio. Each week people tuned in (or downloaded the podcast) to see what would happen next. This wasn’t a show that just existed online. I believed it was important that a radio listening public got to experience true, documentary-style, immersive radio on FM. And this was a story that mattered, where a man’s life was always in the balance. Alibi marks the start of ‘event-listening’ for radio in South Africa.

The response on SAFM was perfect and in podcast form, we definitely struck a chord with listeners. I presented the logistics of producing Alibi at The Wits Radio Academy’s annual conference “Radio Days Africa” in June this year. On Memeburn, it made the list of top SA podcasts. And in the Irish Times, we made the list for the best new crime podcasts internationally.

Alibi was broadcast every Sunday on SAFM at 2.30pm (starting on the 5th of March 2017). Articles were written for each episode of Alibi for The Daily Maverick. It created interaction and increased the number of listeners.

Subscribe to the show on iTunes here

Find the articles associated with the episodes published on The Daily Maverick here.

Find all the episodes and more information about the case at www.alibi.org.za

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