How Filmmaker Payne Lindsey Fell into Podcasting
He was learning by doing—and his true crime series have become hugely successful.
"I've always been fascinated by a good mystery," says Payne Lindsey, the man behind the wildly successful Up and Vanished true crime podcast and its successor, Monster. Lindsey started out in documentary filmmaking, but when he became obsessed with investigating the cold case of the baffling 2005 disappearance of Georgia teacher Tara Grinstead, he channeled his fascination into Up and Vanished instead of a film. The podcast’s second season focused on Colorado’s Kristal Reisinger, a single mom in her late twenties who went missing in 2016. Since wrapping up two seasons of Up and Vanished, Lindsay’s created a TV version of the podcast for Oxygen and picked up steam with a new podcast entitled Monster, which has tackled both the 1979-'82 Atlanta child murders and the late-'60s/early-'70s story of the serial Zodiac Killer so far. We spoke with Lindsey about how his early film experience informed his journey into podcasting.
Spotify for Podcasters: Had you ever touched on true crime topics in your film work?
Payne Lindsey: The first time I ever dabbled in the true crime area was Up and Vanished. My idea at first was to do a documentary. But having just done my own short film, and having to raise the money on Kickstarter and crowdfund it, I just knew how much work it was and I didn't want to do it that way. I wanted to figure out another way to get this off the ground. So my idea was, "Well, if I can make a podcast for little to no money and use that as my proof of concept, if people like that then maybe they'll want to see the visual component of this." So that's what kind of helped prompt me to make a podcast in the first place.
Were there any other podcasts that influenced you when you started Up and Vanished in 2016?
It's crazy how much the podcast space has changed in just three years, but at that point really my only inspiration and influence was [pioneering investigative podcast] Serial, Season 1. I didn't think that I was into podcasts. I gave it a try and I loved it. I was totally immersed in it and I totally understood how this could work. And I wanted to make my own audio story about my investigation into a cold case. At that time I really didn't have many other podcast inspirations. I saw what was out there and saw that there really wasn't another Serial, and in a way it kind of motivated me to try to make one.
How did you become engrossed with the Tara Grinstead case?
To me the Tara Grinstead case was so fascinating because she literally just disappeared from her house. The front door was locked, there was this mysterious latex glove in the yard, and she had left this barbecue, and the next day—gone. Just the fact that this happened just a few hours south from me and very close to where I have a bunch of family in south Georgia, it seemed very close to me. And I just couldn't believe that over ten years could pass and they had no idea what actually happened to this woman. I did tons of research online, watched and read everything I possibly could, and then I started calling around. If you listen to Season 1 you hear me call my grandma, and I really didn't know what to expect… but it turns out her friend had seen Tara the night before she went missing, and it felt like all the things were clicking. It felt right, and I just jumped right into this thing full force and submerged myself in it.
How do you think your film experience affected your podcasting?
I think if I didn't have any background in making documentaries or film at all, then my podcast wouldn't be as good. I was the kind of director who would shoot and edit his own work, so my brain thinks like an editor does. I'm always piecing together the story, whether it's a visual or sound bites—I kind of view them all the same way. I think without that skill and without that passion to build a real story that connects with people, I wouldn't have had the chops to make Up and Vanished. To me it feels like it was sort of the culmination of all the things I did in my life, from writing stories as a kid to filming my brothers and sisters, and doing freelance music videos and short films, then dabbling in documentaries, to basically taking on my own documentary. All that experience to me was very valuable in making a polished finished product.
How did it feel to suddenly be working without visuals?
At first without the visual component I felt pretty weird, just because it was so new and I didn't want it to feel lacking. I had no experience just editing audio. I also felt like I was stepping into a space that I was never a part of. Broadcast journalism, radio—that was never my thing. I just identified myself as a filmmaker. Stepping into this was different and weird in that I didn't totally trust myself as a creator when I first started making this. So I probably went out of my way to make it like a cinematic experience, and I really wanted to make it an engaging listen, and for people to care about what happened to [Tara], and want to help me find the truth.
What parallels do you see between documentary filmmaking and podcasting?
There are tons of parallels between a documentary you watch on Netflix and a documentary podcast you listen to. They're the same thing, it's just told differently. And it all comes down to the story structure and how you engage the listener or the viewer. With a podcast you don't have the luxury of just cutting to a b-roll shot and just hanging there with music. You have to really tell the story a lot differently. But what you can do with a podcast is really develop this much more personal relationship with the listener, because they really do feel like they're with you, and you're in their ears for hours on end. It becomes this me-and-you relationship where they feel like they're in on this with you and they're painting their own picture in their mind.
You must have learned some valuable lessons about people in the course of your work.
I've learned that overall most human beings out there are willing and in some way want to connect with you or other people. People that I thought would never talk to me, nine times out of ten they surprise me. They either want to participate, or come around and [feel] compelled to share their story. And I think that helped me as a creator or a documentarian, just trusting that people do want to share their stories. If you can find a way to connect with them, they're going to do it. At the core of documentary podcasts, you need people who are passionate to help you tell the story—you need voices. You need people who can carry this thing along. People are willing to connect if you'll just listen to them.