True crime podcasts are a dime a dozen these days, what with the massive success of Sarah Koenig’s SERIAL a few years back. Few, however, are as instantly gripping as UP AND VANISHED, which, after premiering late last summer, has reinvigorated the interest and investigation into the 2005 disappearance of Tara Grinstead, a teacher and former beauty queen from Ocilla, Georgia.
After attending a beauty pageant in late October of that year, Grinstead went to a friend’s barbecue just eight blocks from her home. It was the last place anyone ever reported seeing her. When she didn’t show up to work that Monday, investigators went to her house. There, they found her unlocked car in the driveway, her front door locked, her cellphone inside, and her purse and keys missing. Law enforcement officials never named an official suspect or made an arrest and there’s never been a single confirmed sighting of Grinstead. It’s now considered the largest cold case in Georgia’s history.
UP AND VANISHED host Payne Lindsay, a filmmaker turned podcaster, didn’t know much about the case when he started looking looking into it, but a cursory post on an online message board immediately began bearing fruit: first, with a message from a private investigator, then with an aggressive (and anonymous) phone call asking about his interest in the case. There’s clearly unfinished business here.
Lindsay investigated and prepared the podcast for roughly six months before launching UP AND VANISHED, and the result is as well-produced and briskly paced as any true crime TV show. The way he weaves emotional touchstones into his dissection of evidence is another high point; it’s easy to become invested in both Grinstead’s fate, Lindsay’s work, and the personalities of those he encounters.
We spoke to Lindsay just after he announced that the podcast would be expanding to 18 episodes, six more than the 12 he thought he would initially produce. Being that he’s investigating, piecing together evidence, and recording in real time, we were grateful that he could take some time to speak to us about the the podcast’s origins and future, the challenges of making a real-time investigative podcast, and how he learned to hone his own approach as an investigator.
BLUMHOUSE.COM: What does your background look like? What led you to starting this podcast?
PAYNE LINDSAY: Before I did this, I was just into filmmaking. As a kid, I was always filming stuff. I got my first camera when I was about ten years old. Before I was doing podcasts, I was doing commercials and music videos, short form stuff. I was starting to get into doing documentary films and more long form projects. I had an idea last year — I’ve always been a fan of true crime and I wanted to do my own true crime documentary so I started digging around for cases. I landed on the Tara Grinstead case, kept investigating it, and decided to pursue it as a documentary. The idea of doing a podcast came up after seeing the success of SERIAL and seeing it as a way of bringing attention to the project in order to get a film or TV series made. So I pretty much put all my efforts into the podcast in hopes of getting enough attention to get my TV series off the ground. That’s pretty much how it all came about.
BLUMHOUSE.COM: Did you have any previous experience making podcasts?
PL: No, definitely not. I really had only listened to a few podcasts before this. Obviously, I was a big fan of SERIAL and that kind of turned me on to podcasts in general and kind of understanding what podcasts even were. Before SERIAL, I had never listened to a podcast before. I set out to make one not knowing if I was doing it the right way. I didn’t know the rules or anything. I was just kinda making it up as I went along. I knew I wanted to make something that I would want to listen to and if I did that hopefully others would like it.
BH: When did the podcast start picking up steam?
PL: On launch day I think I had 5,000 downloads on the first episode and I thought that was really huge. That was more than my friends I had on Facebook so I assumed that some people were into it. Now we have 8 million downloads. It happened slowly at first but there was a core audience of locals in Osilla and people who have followed this case who were immediately tuning in. Eventually it caught the attention of iTunes. We got a New and Noteworthy spot and I was a guest on a couple of other podcasts that were pretty popular and all of those things combined sort of snowballed into a big surge. We hopped up in the iTunes charts and gained a bunch of new listeners and stayed up there for a while. Now we’ve built a pretty big audience and just crossed 8 million downloads in just four or five months.
BH: You’ve guested with a number of other true crime podcasts. Would you say you guys are a pretty tightknit community?
PL: Yeah, definitely. I think just podcasting in general is a pretty tight community. The popular podcasts definitely kind of all mingle with each other, and the true crime community is pretty tight. We try to show some love to each other, but it’s still a numbers game at the end of the day. [One of the best ways] to bring new attention to your podcast is to cross-pollinate and talk about your podcast on another podcast. That’s how I saw a lot of my growth, from that and honestly people were tuning in and they liked it, too, so they kept listening. Having the initial exposure helps, but people were captivated by it enough to keep listening.
BH: You hit several roadblocks early in your investigation. What kept you going through those early frustrations?
PL: It was tough because I didn’t know if I was gonna keep getting shut out. I just kept trying and went to the outer rims first. Instead of going straight to a person of interest or somebody who knew Tara their whole life I went to the outer rim and tried to find some people who may not have as many qualms with speaking to me. Once I’d talked to a couple of those people the word got out, and I figure it made some other people more comfortable. So then they opened up to me and it was a ripple effect after that.
BH: During that early investigation, did you ever think about pursuing another topic?
PL: There was some periods of time early on before the podcast was out where I contemplated whether or not I was doing the right thing, if I had chosen the right case just solely off of the cooperation of people involved. I knew that the story was compelling and that it was a huge mystery that was worth me spending time on trying to solve it. I never doubted that. But I didn’t know how much cooperation I would get and if i would get enough to make it worthwhile. There was definitely some moments in the beginning where I questioned that, but I just stuck my head down and kept going and kept trying to maneuver myself a little better. I spent all my time and effort in gaining trust and being respectful and trying to get as many people involved and on board as possible. Eventually, it started paying off.
BH: How long were you working on the podcast before the first episode came out?
PL: I first landed on this case in January of last year and that month is when I first spoke to the private investigator, Maurice Godwin. After I spoke with him I decided to go full-fledged into this case, so it’s been pretty much almost exactly a year as of today. I probably put about six months of investigation and gathering information and preparing before I released the first episode.
BH: You don’t classify yourself as an investigator, but it certainly seems like you carry yourself as one. Where would you say you got your investigative skills?
PL: Really, it sounds silly, I’ve always been a true crime fan and you know you watch stuff on TV and you theorize with your friends and try to solve different mysteries and all those kind of things. I’ve always been a fan of the genre, so I kind of applied my passion towards unsolved mysteries and put everything I’ve learned from seeing other documentaries and other reporters do what they do. I tried to be smart about what I’m doing while maintaining a little bit of class, too, being respectful and trying to stay in the middle ground in terms of being objective. [I focus] on what I know and what I’ve learned and hopefully the right combination of everything that works when it comes to being a good investigator. I think it also comes from just being a filmmaker. I’ve done other documentaries before and met tons of people, tried to tell their story and translate that in a way that people understand and can relate to.
BH: What lessons have you learned that helped refine your approach?
PL: The whole thing’s been a learning experience. I’ve never done anything like it. I would say that I’ve gotten better at talking to certain people and I guess approaching people. It’s not so much the talking to them but how I approach somebody and knowing that it might be the only time they talk to me. In other projects I’ve worked on, if we needed an interview with somebody I would just go out and get it and have no qualms about it. In a case like this, in this sort of situation, it’s a lot more sensitive. The subject is really tragic and you’ve gotta be knowledgeable of how to talk to somebody and approach them in a way where they’re not gonna be scared off or you don’t come across as being insensitive. I’ve learned a lot as far as how to approach people to get them to be a part of this and how to talk to those people as well. I think that whole experience has been a real eye opening and very big learning experience for me.
BH: How do you go about constructing an episode? Do you approach it from a storytelling perspective?
PL: I definitely do. I’ve gotten better at my formula of how I put together an episode now, my workflow. I have an underlying narrative I’m trying to tell based off of what I’ve learned and where I see this going. So I’m constantly trying to tell that and with the real-time nature of it now, with it kind of catching up with where I’m at, there’s a lot of things changing last minute. I may have a call with this person that i was expecting to be just a call with a little bit of info about this particular situation or topic, but then it turns out I learn a whole bunch more and I’m really surprised and it takes me in a whole new direction so it’s been a lot of that work.
I put together a backbone structure of this and, you know, I see where it goes after I get all the information. It can be complicated, but i’m just gonna put my effort into planning for the unplanned and not knowing what to expect so I’m always taking that into account. It’s always changing and it makes the construction of an episode very interesting.
BH: How do you balance the work with your personal life?
PL: It’s pretty time-consuming. Somebody could call me at any moment. It’s not like I clock in at 9 o’clock and clock out at 5 o’clock and the investigation stops or nothing new comes in after a certain time. That part of it is difficult because that part of it never really leaves me. I can stop working on an episode and go home and put my pajamas on or something at 8 o’clock at night, just relax for a minute, but then I could get some information that would take me out of the house immediately. So that part of it is always kind of lingering out there. Thankfully, my wife has been really supportive and understands how big of a project this is. I got support with my friends and family and my wife. I think that that’s helped me balance my life. It’s tough at times but it’s also what i signed up for.
BH: How personal has investigating this case gotten for you?
PL: It’s definitely a lot more personal now. It’s actually 100% personal now. At first it wasn’t. You read a Wikipedia article about something, but you don’t have an emotional connection to those people. It’s not personal to you. I’m way past that now. I’v established relationships with people, gained trust, so there’s a lot of responsibility I have as far as being faithful to what I’ve promised certain people about using their voice or how I will portray them. There’s a lot of responsibility to it so it’s definitely very personal to me. I never could’ve imagined what it would be like.
BH: This case has a long history of people anonymously threatening and speaking out against those who speak on it. In a recent episode, you mentioned the same happened to you. Are you ever worried about your safety?
PL: It’s definitely kind of nerve wracking, just the general idea of somebody hiding their identity and talking about you when it comes to a murder case or a missing persons case that you’re involved in. Clearly that can be kind of scary, but I don’t let those kind of things hold me back or give me pause when it comes to doing what I set out to do. I don’t have any fear for my safety or anything like that. If I was in somebody’s basement with the door locked by myself, then I’d fear for my safety, but unless something like that happens I feel comfortable with where I’m at and how i’m approaching things and the support I have. Focusing on that helps me tune out any sort of doubt or fear that injecting myself in a dangerous situation.
BH: You just extended the podcast to 18 episodes. What sort of endpoint are you looking for? What do you want to accomplish by the time the podcast wraps up?
PL: What I want to accomplish is to solve it. Any true crime podcast you listen to, they want to have the big finale. Of course that’s what I want to happen. I don’t know if I can do that, but I hope that I can and that’s what I’m trying to do. But even if that doesn’t happen I think that the more important thing is to land on some sort of conclusion or tie it up where we feel like we learned something. I think that’s the biggest challenge when it comes to a true crime story, the ending to the story. In real life, the story isn’t over. And that’s the catch. The Sarah Koenig [of SERIAL] problem is what I’m having. My friend jokingly texted me the other day: “Are you having the Sarah Koenig problem?” Yes and no. I’ve planned a lot in advance for being prepared to end this at some point. I didn’t expect to get as much information as I got. There was no way I could do it in 12 episodes and, on top of that, getting so much new information on a daily basis up until even today that it would be it wouldn’t be right to end it right now.
BH: Do you have an interest in continuing the podcast or pivoting it off into a TV show?
PL: I want to do both. I really enjoy the podcast. I’ve met some really awesome people. I’ve grown to really enjoy the format and the medium. And the process of making it. I didn’t know I would enjoy making a podcast and being a podcaster as much as I have from having a film background. In a perfect world, I’d like to keep the podcast going with a second season, even another case. And for UP AND VANISHED to jump to TV and do the same thing.
BH: Have you taken any steps towards that?
PL: I have. I’m in the very early stages of the television part of it, but hopefully in the next several months or by the end of the season I can make some sort of announcements.
BH: Why should people keep listening to the podcast? What can listeners expect?
PL: You should keep tuning in because this is really just the tip of the iceberg. Going into this case, my head was spinning for months trying to just understand and process all this information. There are a lot more suspicious elements to this case that haven’t been entirely touched on yet. And if you were to be given all this information at one time, it would just be too much to even process. And so I’ve spent a lot of time in trying to unfold this in a way that’s digestible. So you can feel the same way I felt and am feeling as I go through this same process. From this point forward, for the rest of the season, we learn about a lot more. There’s a lot more we haven’t talked about yet. Some things you can find out there, but a lot of it is new information. It’s just the tip of the iceberg, that’s the best way I can put it. There’s so much more to the story that we gotta dive into. And we’re going to.