Off Broadway

Patrick Hinds and Gillian Pensavalle bonded over a love of the big stage. Their show, True Crime Obsessed, shows how friendship and fandom sells.

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Patrick Hinds has been into podcasts for a long time. Back in 2009, the Broadway obsessive was spending an hour commuting to work from his home in New York City—just enough time to tune into interview pods with his favorite stage stars. One, called Downstage Center, stood out.

Hinds loved it. Then Downstage Center disappeared. He assumed there’d be plenty more shows to fill the void. But when nobody did, Hinds thought: why not do this myself?

“If we’re going to have laughter, and make light of a situation that’s horrible—never the victim—then I’m going to respect the story. —Gillian Pensavalle

Hinds—a bespectacled, beguiling superfan—had written a couple books, and had a good job. But he needed a new creative outlet, and podcasting seemed the perfect medium. Broadway attracted millions of people each year, and made over a billion dollars in revenue. But there were barely any pods about it. So in 2013, Hinds created and co-produced Theater People, a show interviewing Tony winners and rising stars. 

The show did well: Buzzfeed loved it, and the 2015 Webby Awards honored it in the “Best Podcast” category. A year later, Hinds’ Broadway Backstory went even deeper, dissecting a show from idea to opening night—and in 2017 Disney tapped his talent to produce its The Official Disney on Broadway Podcast. Broadway podcasts were Hinds’ niche, and he’d brought the curtain down on his competition. But it wasn’t quite a career, and Hinds couldn’t give up his nine-to-five. 

Photo provided by Hinds

That’s when he met Gillian Pensavalle.

That the pair should meet was no surprise: since 2016 Pensavalle—a fellow New Yorker—had written and produced The Hamilcast, a podcast devoted to Lin-Manuel Miranda’s blockbuster Broadway show Hamilton. An actor, writer, and showrunner, she’d spent years in show business: So successful was Pensavalle’s sideways look at the show that cast members began calling it “The official Hamilton podcast.” In 2017, Pensavalle met Hinds through the theater grapevine, and the pair shared happy hour cocktails over a love of the world’s best-known theatrical district. They wondered how they hadn’t been friends forever. 

Their chats soon turned from casting calls to crime. Hinds and Pensavalle shared an obsession with the true-crime documentaries flooding Netflix, Hulu, and other streaming platforms. “We decided we wanted to work with one another,” says Hinds. He was toying with the idea of taking his podcasting full-time. “I wasn’t talented enough to make fancy, NPR-style podcasts. But I had an interest in true crime, and I was a kind of funny personality that people are going to like or not like.”

One day soon after, Pensavalle called Hinds from her Manhattan home. “I want to make a true crime podcast,” she told him. “And I want it to be with you.”

One of the trickiest things new podcasts must navigate is format. It’s not enough to pick a topic and run with it. Imbued with the hubris of crime-busting documentaries, Hinds and Pensavalle first decided they’d solve the mystery of the Zodiac Killer, a serial murderer whose rampage across 1960s and 70s California was never solved by cops. One might have considered it an uphill task. Pensavalle spent hours at New York Public Library poring over sources and using the Zodiac’s infamous cyphers. Nothing.

“We realized very quickly,” she says, “we’re not cut out for this. There are definitely people better suited for solving the Zodiac. 

“But,” she adds, “we wanted to work on something that’s true-crimey.” Hinds suggested a three-section pod that dissected a true crime documentary, TV series or movie. The first part would be true crime news, followed by conversation between the two hosts and an interview. They chose the 2012 movie The Imposter – the tale of French identity swindler Frédéric Bourdin. But during the second segment, Hinds had a eureka moment.

“I never realized Gillian was so funny,” he tells me. “She’s just making me laugh so hard. I didn’t know whether that would be appropriate, I didn’t know if this was what you do in true crime podcasts. And I listened back to it afterwards and I thought, none of the humor comes from the victims or the crime…there’s nothing we’re laughing about that would make the people affected by this story sad or angry. Our humor was coming from how mad we were getting: Why the police couldn’t solve this thing when it seemed so obvious.”

The pair changed their pod overnight, scrapping the first and third sections for a longer, more rambling recap. Hinds and Pensavalle weren’t afraid to kill their darlings—and it worked. Fans flocked to the show, and it received an instant cult following. “That’s what you have to do with any creative endeavor,” Pensavalle tells me. “Just let it evolve into what it’s meant to be. It wasn’t meant to be some regimented, three-segment thing. But that led us to where we are now.”

True Crime Obsessed’s first episode, “The Imposter,” appeared in August 2018. Hinds and Pensavalle inject cathartic humor into difficult and tragic stories. “We don’t victim-blame, we don’t victim-shame,” Pensavalle tells me. “We consider ourselves victim advocates…Most of the humor comes from me being so mad, or so baffled by what could have happened, that Patrick has to laugh.” 

Photo provided by Hinds

Within a fortnight of its launch, True Crime Obsessed was skirting around real advertising money. Things were looking good. Then, around 20 episodes in, Hinds lost his job. It was a sucker-punch. But Hinds’ husband had a good career: he decided to give podcasting a year to become his full-time earner. “We were poor for a while,” he tells me. “Then it worked out.” Ads brought a lucrative Patreon, which in turn drove more advertisers to the pod. Bonus episodes ensured Patreon subscribers got bang for their buck.

The showstoppers, though, are Pensavalle and Hinds. True Crime Obsessed’s loose format allows their larger-than-life personalities space to shine, wrapped around an unscripted package that feels more like “two friends, hanging out,” Hinds says. 

There’s more to it than that, of course. Each show the pair watches takes hours of painstaking viewing and note-taking. “I’m not just sitting watching the documentary for fun,” Pensavalle tells me. “I’m pausing every 30 seconds at least, to write down the proper quote, get the name right, get the date right…If we’re going to have laughter, and make light of a situation that’s horrible—never the victim—then I’m going to respect the story.”

Sound quality is vital, Pensavalle says. But a professional studio certainly is not. More important is an ironclad work ethic, and having enough in the pipeline to take time off every now and then. “Put in the work,” she tells me. “Because it is very, very hard work. Have a couple episodes already done before you release, because keeping up a schedule is very time-consuming and takes a lot of work.” Having four or five episodes on the back-burner, she says, helps avoid the “hamster wheel of week-to-week, week-to-week.”

The duo has now produced 138 episodes and has appeared at a string of sold-out shows and true crime conventions. Hinds’ husband now works as the show’s business manager. Each week, they get more listeners than the last. It’s a story worthy of the stage. When people kept recognizing them at last June’s CrimeCon expo in New Orleans, the pair realized they’d made it from a happy hour dream to an off-Broadway reality. 

“It was a hot ticket to come and see our live show,” says Hinds. “It was so crazy.”

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