Late last month, Ashley Flowers, 33, the producer of more than a dozen true crime podcasts, was racing between her home and her office in Indianapolis, preparing for the arrival of two babies. The first, her daughter Josie, was born Jan. 28. The second, due this week, is a new podcast she’s hosting called “The Deck.”
Like her hit show “Crime Junkie,” “The Deck” delves into true stories about murders and missing people. But for the new show, rather than drawing on crime stories in the news and suggestions from listeners, Ms. Flowers and her team have sought out cases represented in playing cards that law enforcement agencies print with the photographs of victims, then distribute in prisons in the hopes of turning up new leads.
“These cards are kind of an agency’s last Hail Mary pass in trying to get very cold cases solved,” Ms. Flowers said last week in a virtual production meeting she conducted from her office at Audiochuck, the true crime media company she runs.
Ms. Flowers knows that it’s important to give her listeners the sense that their communities are represented in her shows. That’s why she challenged Emily Mieure, the lead reporter for “The Deck,” to find a deck from every state in the country.
When Ms. Flowers and her best friend from childhood, Brit Prawat, started “Crime Junkie” in 2017, the true crime genre was already a crowded one. But the hosts cut the chitchat that is a hallmark of other popular podcasts in its category, like “My Favorite Murder.” A spokesman for Apple said that “Crime Junkie” is often the top podcast across all categories.
Ms. Flowers and Ms. Prawat live in Indiana, outside the major podcasting hubs of New York and Los Angeles (and those developing in San Francisco and Austin, Texas).
“One of the things I love about podcasts is that somebody with no name from Indiana could come into this space and make a name,” Ms. Flowers said.
Building an Audio Empire
Ms. Flowers grew up reading Nancy Drew novels and watching “Matlock,” but she didn’t plan on devoting her life to unsolved mysteries or pursuing a career in media. She worked her way through college and began a job search after graduation by Googling companies that have dog-friendly offices.
While Ms. Flowers was working in business development at a software start-up in 2017, her friend Ms. Prawat recommended the first season of “Serial,” which investigated a 15-year-old murder case. (Serial Productions was acquired by The New York Times in 2020.)
That series inspired her to make a podcast, with Ms. Prawat, about the sort of person “who becomes fascinated with a case” to the point of obsession. She decided the first episode would be about a local Indiana woman who had gone missing and created the Audiochuck LLC (named for her beloved mutt, Chuck).
“I never saw this as a hobby,” Ms. Flowers said.
After a year, the show had a loyal, growing audience. So she quit her day job and began to build her company’s portfolio, which now includes “Anatomy of Murder,” “CounterClock,” “Park Predators” and “O.C. Swingers,” which Apple said was one of its platform’s most popular new shows of 2021.
Justine Harman, a former magazine editor who worked with Ms. Flowers and Audiochuck on “O.C. Swingers,” a show about a scandal surrounding a Newport Beach surgeon, said that the network’s podcasts appeal to a broad listenership.
“Her stuff is high quality and captivating without being highbrow for the sake of being highbrow,” Ms. Harman said of Ms. Flowers. “She is giving people what they want, not what the cultural elite tells them they should want.”
“Crime Junkie” remains Audiochuck’s juggernaut and has built a community of avid listeners. They abide by the Crime Junkie Life Rules, among them “never get into a white van, EVER!” and “always get a lawyer.” The show has one million followers on Instagram. Its fan club has tens of thousands of members (Ms. Flowers wouldn’t give an exact number) who pay between $5 and $20 a month for the privilege to text the hosts and to gain access to exclusive “CJ” merch, including a ringtone version of the show’s theme music (a real bop, courtesy of Justin Daniel Prawat, Ms. Prawat’s husband).
The music producer Ryan Lewis reached out to Ms. Flowers last fall to tell her how much he loved the show’s theme song. “In the beginning of Covid, I got really into true crime like everyone else,” he said in a phone interview. He ended up recording music for “The Deck” that includes the sound of him shuffling cards against a leather piano bench.
Even Taylor Swift has listened to “Crime Junkie.” Last spring, Ms. Flowers and Ms. Prawat released an episode based on the lyrics of Ms. Swift’s song “No Body, No Crime,” featuring Haim, as an April Fool’s joke.
“SCREAMING,” Ms. Swift wrote on Instagram. “Well played @crimejunkiepodcast.”
In Indianapolis, where Audiochuck employs a staff of 18 (including Ms. Flowers’s brother and sister, and her husband, who handles the company’s finances), the company has avoided the exorbitant operating costs that drive many podcasting companies to seek outside investment.
“I want to create a space in the Midwest that creative people can come to and have a job at one of the best podcasting companies in the country,” Ms. Flowers said.
Anyway, Ms. Prawat said, they could never move. “We’re Midwesterners,” she said, “we put ranch on everything.”
Ms. Flowers has lured talent to Indianapolis from around the country, including a new president, Kevin Mills, who moved from Los Angeles.
Scott Greenstein, the chief content officer of SiriusXM, signed a partnership deal with Audiochuck last fall, which gives the satellite radio company the exclusive right to manage the podcast network’s advertising sales. In an interview, Mr. Greenstein noted that a lot of media is made by and for people in cities like New York, but “Ashley has clearly found the mainstream just fine from Indianapolis,” he said.
Ms. Flowers has “built one of the most successful podcast businesses of all time, completely independently,” Ben Cave, head of Apple Podcasts, wrote in an email.
Her business is growing. Ms. Flowers and Mr. Mills said they have their sights on TV and film, and Mr. Greenstein said he’d like her to help SiriusXM build a true crime channel. And in August, Bantam will publish Ms. Flowers’s first book, a thriller titled “All Good People Here.”
The Golden Age of True Crime?
From the moment “Tiger King” captivated a nation under lockdown, true crime’s cultural impact has been hard to ignore. A “Saturday Night Live” skit from last spring spoofed women’s obsession with genre. Over the summer, Hulu released “Only Murders in the Building,” starring Steve Martin, Martin Short and Selena Gomez as New Yorkers who try to solve the murder of a neighbor. The show played on the culture’s obsession (fueled by social media) with amateur detective work and whodunit podcasts. (A second season is coming.)
When Gabrielle Petito disappeared last year during a cross-country road trip, news coverage of her case further fed the public’s appetite for true crime. TikTok, YouTube and Instagram lit up with amateur sleuths certain they could bring Ms. Petito home or bring her fiancé, Brian Laundrie, to justice. The attention the case received set off a national conversation about “missing white woman syndrome,” which refers to the relative lack of coverage when victims are people of color.
Now, true crime obsessives, and the podcasts they listen to, have turned their attention to Lauren Smith-Fields, a college student from Connecticut who died late last year at 23, and her family’s search for answers.
For some, the emphasis on true crime has become too much. Emma Berquist, an author who was stabbed in broad daylight several years ago, wrote an essay during the Petito frenzy stating that true crime “has rotted our brains” and seized on the anxieties of a majority-female audience.
Ms. Flowers stands behind her work, but she believes that people who make these shows need to take on more responsibility. She wants “to change the way people interact with true crime,” she said, calling on listeners to share information, support victims and those at risk, and even help prevent crime.
“I don’t think it’s enough just to say, ‘I’m bringing attention to the cases,’” Ms. Flowers said. Last year she founded Season of Justice, a nonprofit organization that gives grants to law enforcement agencies to fund DNA testing related to cold cases.
A goal for 2022, she said, is to have at least 30 percent of her episodes centered on crimes against “people of marginalized communities.”
In 2019, she caught flak when BuzzFeed reported “Crime Junkie” was using journalists’ work without acknowledgment. Audiochuck removed the episodes BuzzFeed flagged. Ms. Flowers now frequently cites sources on the podcast and shares links to source material online.
Today Audiochuck has a team of seven journalists and writers who do original reporting when possible. Some cases have come from listeners. After Sherri Lynn Snider, 28, reached out last fall to share her story and ask if she could help jump-start an investigation into the 2005 disappearance of her mother, Diane Francis, Ms. Flowers recorded an episode to get the word out.
Since “Missing: Diane Francis” was released last month, Ms. Snider’ has heard from reporters interested in covering her mother’s story and hundreds of strangers have donated to help fund the search.
“It has changed everything,” Ms. Snider said in a phone interview.
Ms. Flowers hopes “The Deck” will help to bring resolution to victims’ relatives. The “coldest of cold cases,” represented by the cards in her new show, were the ones that got her into true crime in the first place.
“There’s no leads, there’s just nothing,” Ms. Flowers said. “There’s someone out there who has information. So what if we brought these stories to a bigger audience?”