VALRICO — It was a Monday afternoon in the Tampa suburbs, all cul-de-sacs and overturned tricycles baking in the sun. In the two-car garage of the three-bedroom house with the tree swing, there was talk of murder.
Justin Drown, host of Obscura: A True Crime Podcast, keeps it cold as a morgue in there. The garage is a converted family room with a couch, a TV and scattered kids toys. It's where Drown, 30, records and edits each episode of his show, looking back at an often grisly, real-life crime.
Drown has recounted infamous cases such as the murder of Ennis Cosby, and Gary Ridgeway, the "Green River Killer," but focuses mostly on the obscure. A recent episode told the tale of Gertrude Baniszewski, the "skeleton lady" who took in a teenager in 1960s Indianapolis before enlisting her own children and some neighborhood kids in the girl's torture.
Sitting on Drown's desk was a microphone and an autopsy report for Iana Kasian, a lawyer and model scalped by her graphic novelist fiance (Episode 37, the West Hollywood Vampire). There was a book titled Profitable Podcasting and stickers featuring Obscura's logo, a yawning skull with crime scene tape threaded through its teeth. Drown sends the stickers, and occasionally one of those autopsy reports, as thank-you gifts to the more than 500 fans signed up to donate $5 a month via Patreon, a crowd-funding site.
Whatever Drown is doing seems to be working. Obscura had 45,000 downloads in the final week of May and, a year in, his audience keeps growing. The podcast earns him around $5,000 to $6,000 a month, partly from donations but mostly from traditional advertising. If things continue to snowball, Drown could have a bona fide hit on his hands.
A year ago he was a dropout from nursing school, creatively unfulfilled, working as an overnight security guard at Port Tampa Bay. He'd sit alone in the dark guarding some desolate warehouse "where nobody ever came, but they were required to have a security guard there because it was in some contract or something." He listened to true crime podcasts to pass the time.
Now his email in-box is so flooded with messages from fans that he can't respond to them all. And the side effects of constantly being exposed to depravity? The freedom and creativity outweigh that stuff, at least for now.
Despite his grave vocal delivery on the show and a promotional photo in which his face is hidden in shadows, Drown does not seem to be a dark soul, maybe just a little serious. In person, he comes off as a warmhearted, thoughtful homebody, who gets joy from hanging out with his family, including a stepdaughter and 2-year-old step-grandson who live with them. He is fond of labeling himself with the hashtag #younggrandpa.
He listens to jazz while he works. He watches live video games and movies with his wife, Rebecca, but not too many horror flicks.
He consumes no true crime when he's not working, but work is always waiting.
Obscura is part of a vast and fast-growing constellation of true crime audio, ranging from prestige journalism by some of the nation's top news organizations to homegrown fare from amateurs taking advantage of podcasting's low barriers to entry.
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For every slickly produced Serial or Dirty John or Peabody Award-winning In the Dark, there are indie shows created by bedroom upstarts like Drown with zero journalism or broadcast experience.
Jami Rice, who worked in commercial real estate, started Murderish as a way to share her experience as a juror. Stephen Pacheco left a job in logistics for a large retail chain a year and a half after launching Trace Evidence. The host of Swindled, known only as "A Concerned Citizen," was searching for a particular type of true crime show. Realizing he could make it himself, he eventually left a "cushy" government job as a financial analyst with benefits for a significant, and mostly fan-supported, podcast income.
The indie hosts share a community, gathering online and at events such as the True Crime Podcast Festival in Chicago, and in many cases share an audience. Many recall a childhood spent watching Unsolved Mysteries and Forensic Files or perusing used bookstores for true crime paperbacks.
All say their shows, with weekly downloads numbering in the thousands or tens of thousands, make money. Most have been able to leave their day jobs. Becoming rich is suddenly a real possibility.
Indianapolis Crime Stoppers volunteer Ashley Flowers started recording Crime Junkie in her home office with a childhood friend producing and her brother editing. It recently jumped into the top 10 podcasts on iTunes, and now gets more than 8 million downloads a month. It could generate millions of dollars.
It's tough to say how many of the hundreds of thousands of active podcasts in existence are devoted to true crime, but it's definitely an outsized amount, said Nicholas Quah, who writes about the podcast industry for New York magazine and his newsletter Hot Pod. He calls true crime the "bloody, beating heart of podcasting."
This week, for example, 12 of the top 20 shows on Apple's Podcasts app are true crime, including Man in the Window, Crime Junkie, The Shrink Next Door, Monster Presents: Insomniac and My Favorite Murder.
There are many theories on why people like true crime, which is most popular with women. Drown said more than 80 percent of his listeners are women.
Perhaps it's because women are much more likely to be the victim of crime perpetrated by an intimate partner, a common theme in true crime shows.
Perhaps it allows people to experience powerful emotions of fear and horror in a controlled environment.
Perhaps listening releases adrenaline, and it becomes addictive. Perhaps it's natural human fascination with taboo subjects. Perhaps we can't look away because we evolved to pay attention to what might harm us. Perhaps it provides a sense of control in a chaotic world. Perhaps it's a comfort for people who have survived abuse or violence — a way of feeling heard.
"A lot of fans are people with a history of abuse," Drown said. "I've had people reach out and say listening makes them feel better, like a coping mechanism. I had a lot of abuse growing up. That's probably why I'm interested in it."
That abuse, he said, came at the hands of a family member who heard voices that said young Drown was the Antichrist, which led to beatings and sexual molestation.
"Some people, they see true crime, and they would think, like, why would anybody be into that?" he said. "But surprisingly, for some of us that are into it, it's a comfort. You know, it's, you're not going through this life alone kind of thing."
The genre has always been extremely popular in all forms of media, from sober news reporting to sensational tabloids to big-budget docuseries on HBO and Netflix.
The anyone-can-do-it nature of podcasting, Quah said, has been the big difference. Often it is those "shaggy" indie types that garner highly engaged fan communities.
"There's a real conspiratorial power that podcasts can bring, when it's a guy in their basement. It feels like a very intimate form of the internet."
But they can be problematic. While there are many "thoroughly reported, ethically minded investigations, such as In the Dark," there are also "these smaller shops" where amateurs and hobbyists come in.
Quah points to the extremely popular Up and Vanished, which started as an investigation of a 12-year-old cold case of a missing Georgia beauty queen and ended with two arrests last year. It was created by "an aspiring documentarian, and he arguably, accidentally, helped solve that case, but in doing so he handled facts in ways that are slightly unethical or dubious at best."
Drown mostly stays away from unsolved mysteries due to such complications. Early on, he did an episode about a California desert city where people go missing.
"I have a pretty good feeling for who did it," he said, "but I can't say."
He also has strong feelings about the type of people who should be making true crime content. He has sparred publicly and privately with South Florida's Mike Boudet, the controversial former host of the hit series Sword and Scale, which has a similar format to Obscura.
Drown was a fan who was inspired by Sword and Scale and even moderated the show's Reddit page at one time. Now he says he recognizes the nuance "and certain level of decorum and empathy a person should have" if they're going to cover such sensitive topics.
Prominent podcast company Wondery cut ties with Sword and Scale recently, a day after Boudet was called out for posting a misogynistic and violent joke on International Women's Day. Some fans of Obscura have pointed to the show as the antidote for Sword and Scale listeners seeking an alternative.
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Debates over true crime usually come back to this core question: Is it okay to be entertained by the worst thing that ever happened to someone?
In an essay for Vulture that doesn't answer that question definitively, writer Alice Bolin said that, in the end, she prefers obviously lowbrow fare like Dateline and the Investigation Discovery network over prestige true crime like Serial and Making a Murderer. While both can cause harm, prestige true crime is less enjoyable, she wrote, and "in its dignified guise, has maybe only perfected a method of making us feel less gross about consuming real people's pain for fun."
Drown doesn't skimp on graphic details culled from interviews, court documents and archive audio. Episode 34, about a young man who detailed his dark fetishes in horribly candid online videos, is literally gag-inducing. Audio from those videos is part of the episode. People thought the man's stories were just attention-grabbing exaggerations. Then the man was convicted of molesting his stepsister and sentenced to 40 years.
Drown has his own code of ethics. He finds a lot of true crime stuff too sensational. In the garage, he played a clip of Dr. Phil interviewing a murderer about what sound a hammer made on a skull as an example. But what he dislikes even more is when criminals are made more palatable for entertainment, sometimes to the point where they look "cool."
"So many podcasts and TV shows are made in awe of these killers," he said. "So many movies are made that reduce what these people did. Probably the most accurate serial killer movie I've ever seen is Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, but even then they just took the edge off the blade. By the end you almost feel sympathetic for him.
"Unintentionally, a lot of people have created antiheroes out of some of these serial killers over time. You know, Charles Manson, Ted Bundy, they sell them on shirts and shot glasses, which grosses me out. And that's because people don't really understand what's happening in these cases. And so I actually think those details are important."
He said he takes care to tell the victims' stories. To celebrate Obscura's one-year anniversary, Episode 50 was a remake of Episode 1, about Mona Biddy, a disabled child found dead in a Jackson, Miss., reservoir in the early 1970s and the case against her stepmother. The original didn't "honor the memory of the victim." In the end, he said, he just wants to "expose terrible realities, that exist."
Fans who donate get special access to Obscura's "black label" content, which Drown feels the need make without the help of the freelance writers or researchers who work on Obscura. Those are the episodes so dark he's afraid to ask anyone else to work on them, or even upload them to iTunes, where people might stumble on them for free.
"I'm really not a fan of creating them. I actually spend a lot of time telling people not to listen to those," Drown said. "But I think I've covered some really important subjects nobody is talking about."
He has done black label episodes on rape on porn sets and the industry around fetish videos that involve extreme animal cruelty.
Drown, a man who spent most of the year immersed in the worst side of humanity, said it has been the best year of his life since he was a teenager. But he sometimes feels the effects.
"I'm fine though," he said. "If or when I feel like I can't handle it anymore, then I'll take a break."
He has has occasionally had sleepless nights and haunting images he can't get out of his mind. For all the gory details he does include, he's also the filter for everything that gets edited out. He sees the crime scene photos, whether you hear about them or not.
Contact Christopher Spata at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @spatatimes.