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How two men turned a Google search and $100 into a hit podcast and a TV deal

(Courtesy of Tenderfoot TV)

Payne Lindsey bought a microphone and some audio equipment in early 2016 after being inspired by the 2014 smash-hit podcast “Serial.” Armed with his $100 recording setup and the result of his Google search for cold cases in his home state of Georgia, the independent filmmaker jumped into a new form of storytelling.

“I didn’t know what a podcast was,” Lindsey said. But he liked the intimate nature of podcasts — people tend to listen to them alone, maybe with headphones — and relished the idea of feeling like he was personally telling millions of people a story.

Fast forward several months later, Lindsey and his partner Donald Albright ended up with a podcast that made Apple’s top 20 list for 2017 which was released Thursday. The podcast, “Up and Vanished,” explored a decade-old cold case about the murder of teacher and former beauty queen Tara Grinstead. The show is now also the basis of a television deal.

Lindsey and Albright’s experience is one example of how podcasts are stepping further into the entertainment spotlight. Podcasts have been around for years, but have seen a rebirth thanks to easier access to high-quality equipment and a consumer appetite for on-demand media. An estimated 67 million people listen to podcasts at least monthly, according to research firm Edison Research. Their popularity has gained interest from television and movie industry insiders looking for the next big thing.

“It’s not just a concept we’re buying into. It’s really everything: the way they tell stories, the way they uncover an element of a story,” said Oren Rosenbaum, an agent at United Talent Agency that picked up Lindsey and Albright as clients.

By the time “Up and Vanished” finished its first season, it had 150 million downloads. It landed at No. 18 on Apple’s charts — between another hit, “S-Town,” and the BBC’s popular “Global News Podcast.” Months after it began airing, someone called a tip into the police who have since made an arrest in the once cold case.

Television and film deals for podcasts are on the rise. Production company Annapurna Pictures was inspired by an episode of the Internet culture-focused “Reply All” podcast and is turning it into a con-man movie starring Robert Downey Jr. and directed by Richard Linklater. Amazon Studios became interested in “Lore,” a podcast about creepy and unbelievable real events and turned that into a eponymous TV series. (Amazon chief executive Jeffrey P. Bezos owns The Washington Post).

Podcasts themselves can be appealing because they require the audience to bring a lot of themselves to the storytelling, Albright said, “the audience gets to create the second half of the story. What these people look like. What these towns look like.”

While some podcast creators have seen early success with television adaptations, Albright’s comments point to  a key challenge to overcome:  Finding a way to flip the intimacy and engagement inherent to a podcast over to television is a challenge to grapple with as more people undertake the effort.

“It’s still early on in terms of taking podcasts to TV, but we see that as a big opportunity and it’s a core focus for us as a group,” Rosenbaum said.

It’s a difference that Albright and Lindsey, who ended up starting their own company called Tenderfoot TV, are thinking about. “The show will be a little different,” Albright said. “There will be an episode or two devoted to retelling the season one story, with updates. Then, each week, we will tackle a new case.” Both men like the idea that their work raises the profile of crimes in which the public has lost interest, but have remained as questions in the hearts and minds of their communities.

Of course, that doesn't mean the partners are abandoning the podcast. In fact, Lindsey and Albright are working with another podcast network, HowStuffWorks, on a new show called “Atlanta Monster.” And “Up and Vanished” will also get another season, exploring a brand new case.

“Obviously, the podcast goes on,” Lindsey said. “We will not forget what was special about this in the first place.”