Power of the Pod: NHPR’s Bear Brook
NHPR’s Jason Moon reflects on the success and second season of his critically-acclaimed “Bear Brook” podcast
The year is 1985. A hunter walking through the woods of Allenstown’s Bear Brook State Park discovers two decaying bodies in a blue barrel. There are no leads, no tips, no suspects and no real clues. The case remains static — until 2005, when two more bodies are found, 100 yards from the first two.
In 1989, 19-year-old Jason Carroll is convicted for a Bedford murder he later says he didn’t commit. There’s no evidence — except his own taped confession.
Sound intriguing? Jason Moon thought so, too. “You can’t make this stuff up,” Moon says. “Sometimes I get this sense of: People need to know about this.”
Moon, a senior reporter and producer at New Hampshire Public Radio (NHPR), released his narrative investigative podcast “Bear Brook” in 2018, digging deep into the mystery of Allenstown’s four unidentified corpses. Unraveling a time-hopping true crime case that perplexed investigators for decades, “Bear Brook” made headlines as a must-listen podcast of 2018. The New Yorker, Vulture and even Stephen King praised “Bear Brook” as thrilling and thoughtful long-form audio journalism. Now, in 2023, Moon is back at it again, dissecting the uncertainty around Jason Carroll’s 1989 murder confession in “Bear Brook Season Two: A True Crime Story.”
“To the second season, there’s this essential mystery at the heart of the story that has really high stakes attached to it — I would say even higher stakes than the first season,” Moon says. “This guy has been in prison for 35 years and he could be let out. I was attracted to the story because there’s this enormous but simple mystery at the center of it: Did he or didn’t he do it?” As a journalist, Moon is driven by these kinds of human-centric, labyrinthine puzzles. Before starting at NHPR in 2015, he interned at a slew of audio journalism organizations, including a radio station in his native Alabama, a Texas podcast and Brooklyn-based StoryCorps. Moon cut his teeth at an NHPR fellowship and earned a promotion to newsroom radio reporter, where he covered health and education for six years. Then, “Bear Brook” happened. But it certainly didn’t happen overnight.
“It started as a 45-second piece, ironically,” Moon says. Covering a local press conference, Moon was reporting on new forensic-generated evidence concerning the Bear Brook cold case. What started as a short newscast item expanded into a four-minute news feature; soon Moon realized he’d need even more time. “The problem was that I had two angles on one story,” he says. “I had this very science-y, isotopes and neutrons, forensic evidence, and then I had this very human, character-based story about a woman (Ronda Randall, amateur investigator) who would stop at nothing to solve this case. I originally tried to cram both of those things into four minutes, and, to no surprise, it didn’t work. Credit to my editors at the time who basically said, ‘Maybe this is something longer. Maybe this is a documentary, or maybe it’s a podcast with different episodes.’”
“Bear Brook” became Moon’s self-coined “pet project.” He chipped away slowly, toiling during off-hours and in the lulls between other assignments. As time passed, he came to understand the startling undertaking a project like this deserved. “That went on for a couple of years and I hadn’t finished it,” Moon says. “I would actually joke that it didn’t really matter how long it took me to do the story — it’s a 30-year-old cold case, it’s not like anything’s going to happen. And then, of course, it did. I regretted tempting fate in that way.”
In 2018, investigators connected the unidentified Bear Brook bodies to a California case via genetic genealogy — and, just like that, the case burst open. Moon and his editors sat down to hatch a plan. Ultimately, he was given six months to fully dedicate to the endeavor, turning his 45-second news quip into a full-fledged, multi-episode podcast season. The fruits of his labor would garner him national recognition as a “young beat reporter…with remarkable sensitivity and a knack for scene-setting,” as The New Yorker called him. “Getting that kind of feedback and seeing the story reach bigger audiences and really capture people’s minds and emotions…it’s a validation of what we do,” Moon says. “It’s a validation of this as a medium, of this kind of storytelling approach to journalism.”
Along with effusive praise and millions of listeners, “Bear Brook” also partially birthed NHPR’s “Document” team, which Moon now exclusively works on. A long-form narrative podcast series, “Document” lends more time and space to flesh out complex stories. Moon, by all accounts, revels in these kinds of expansive, emotive projects. “When I was a kid and first started listening to ‘This American Life,’ that’s what made me want to be in radio,” he says. “Those stories were the ones that made me care, and I really connected to them on an emotional as well as intellectual level. It’s just nice to be on the other side of that equation and create a story that’s rooted in rigorous journalism but also uses these tools of storytelling to grab people and make them connect to what’s happening in a more complete way. It’s one thing to put in print that a man has been in prison for 35 years or that a woman was murdered, but when you can take the audience there, when they can hear the voices and feel the inherent human drama of those situations, that’s the power of this sort of approach.”
Five years after his big breakthrough, Moon’s second season of “Bear Brook” explores new territory — dissecting the vagaries of the court system, the psychology of false confessions and Jason Carroll’s alleged murder of Sharon Johnson. Moon initially planned to create an entirely separate entity for the story — a sort of “spiritual successor” to “Bear Brook.” The deeper he dug, he explains, the more it made sense to tack on the “Bear Brook” label. While the case doesn’t actually take place in Bear Brook State Park, the murder and initial investigation also occur in 1980s rural New Hampshire; other throughlines include return appearances from season one interviewees and a similarly executed style and format. Apart from the story’s scaffolding, Moon feels that season two divulges deeper, more philosophical quandaries. “There’s something about the concept of season two that gets you into really profound territory really quickly,” he says, “where it’s like, someone says a thing and then they’re put into a cell for 35 years. It really makes you think about the standards of how we know things happen. It’s almost funny how big the questions get really quickly in this case.”
While Moon is carving out quite the reputation as a true crime specialist, he, ironically, has never been a particularly big fan of the genre. He says it’s the great paradox of his career — but, also, possibly a strong suit of the podcast. “I’ve tried to avoid some of the aspects of true crime that are off-putting to me and not retell these stories just for their entertainment value,” Moon says. “I was trying to stay away from that kind of stuff and have a bigger point — have a bigger idea — we were trying to communicate. We wanted to use this opportunity to learn from the cases and leave people with something.”
Even in conversation, Moon possesses an insatiable curiosity and an inherent impulse to educate. Thorough and demonstrative, pointed and fervent, Moon embodies the classic axiom of journalists as watchdogs of society. He describes himself as “the guy at the party asking you what you do for work, and then 15 more questions about your job.” “There are moments when I’m reminded of that special role in society that reporters have,” Moon says. “Those are the moments I’m most filled with purpose as a reporter, where I’ve talked to people and have these interviews that leave me thinking, ‘Gosh, people really need to know this.’ And then it’s like, ‘Right, yeah, I’ve got to let them know. I’ve got to get to work.’”