Broadcast Mines the Podcast Genre

ALEX, INC. - ABC's "Alex, Inc." stars Michael Imperioli as Eddie, Hillary Anne Matthews as Deirdre, Elisha Henig as Ben, Zach Braff as Alex, Audyssie James as Soraya and Tiya Sircar as Rooni. (ABC/Bob D'Amico)

Though the basis for these two podcasts couldn’t be more different, there’s a key similarity between the ABC comedy series “Alex, Inc.” and the wildly popular podcast “Up and Vanished.”

It starts with the stories. During the session “From Podcast to Broadcast,” moderator Sandra González, entertainment reporter for CNN, asked a question that many in the industry are now posing: With podcast awareness across the country still hovering at only about 50 percent, why are networks and studios looking to mine podcasts for original programming ideas? In short, because there are some amazing stories coming out of them, said Zach Braff, the executive producer and actor who portrays the Alex in “Alex, Inc.”

The story is based on the podcast “Start Up,” written by the real-life producer and journalist Alex Blumberg who was documenting his efforts to start his own podcast company from the ground up. Listening to “Start Up” on the way home in his car, Braff said he realized he had just stumbled on something uncomfortable, real and very funny.

“In the first episode, [Alex] pitches his idea to this self-made millionaire. It’s so uncomfortable and so bad. I couldn’t stop listening to it,” Braff said.

Podcast interest is certainly on the rise. In 2017, the Interactive Advertising Bureau estimated that podcasting is a $220 million business, up 219 percent from two years prior. Interest continues to mount with entities like ABC, Amazon, HBO Bravo and Oxygen are currently adapting podcasts into series for television.

For Payne Lindsey, host of “Up and Vanished” and the new podcast “Atlanta Monster,” his foray into the podcast realm started organically. He began researching a cold case mystery surrounding the disappearance of Georgia teacher and beauty queen Tara Grinstead.

“One of the first calls I made was to my grandma, [and it turns out] her best friend saw Tara the night she went missing,” Lindsey said. “I realized I had no money to make a docuseries. But in listening to the [podcast] ‘Serial,’ I decided to make an audio documentary podcast show.”

Lindsey believes the medium is attractive to networks because podcasts have already, in a sense, proven their worth. The listening audience for “Up and Vanished” started at 5,000; it’s now been downloaded 175 million times, he said.

“You already have a built-in audience that’s ready to be moved to television,” Lindsey said. Ironically, around episode 10 of the series, two new arrests were made in the case — in part because the podcast put the story back in the public sphere and someone came forward with new information, Lindsey said.

The podcast is now being developed into a television series by Oxygen.

What has been unique about the “Up and Vanished” podcast, said producer Donald Albright, is that Lindsey became part of the story too.

“Payne became a character in the story,” Albright said. “He has a relationship in the story. He became the public voice in this case and the face of it [and was able] to tell his experience of digging under the house not sure if he’d find bones. [He could] tell the behind-the-scenes story of it, while still telling the tragic story of this missing teacher.”

What makes podcasts a prime medium for adopting are the great characters, said Matt Tarses, executive producer and writer for “Alex, Inc.”

“Alex was awkward and funny, and this guy is so vulnerable that it was clear there was a story to be told,” Braff said. “We were simultaneously cringing and laughing.”