Podcasting is only the beginning for ‘Crime Junkie’ host Ashley Flowers

Ashley Flowers’ dog, Chuck, lent his name to the Audiochuck media company. (IBJ photo/Eric Learned)

Ashley Flowers launched 2023 by redefining her role at Audiochuck, the Indianapolis-based company built upon the chart-topping “Crime Junkie” podcast that celebrated its fifth anniversary in December.

Selected by The Hollywood Reporter as one of 35 Rising Executives 35 and Under, Flowers is giving up CEO duties to become the company’s chief creative officer, and she’s brought in a new CEO to take over the business reins.

Flowers said she’s eager to focus on new podcasting, publishing, and television and film opportunities at Audiochuck. With four projects in the works for streaming platforms, the company plans to expand into filmed entertainment this year.

For someone whose media experience was limited to guest appearances as a true crime aficionado on bygone radio station WNOU-FM 100.9 before her podcast debuted, Flowers represents a remarkable ascent in the entertainment world. “Crime Junkie” ranked No. 1 on Apple’s list of most popular podcasts of 2022.

“I don’t want to be what limits the company,” Flowers said of the shift to chief creative officer. “It was really important to me to bring in somebody who can take it to the next level. I think I was the person to get from A to B, but I needed help getting from B to C.”

Kevin Mills

Audiochuck’s new CEO is Kevin Mills, a Harvard Business School and Kenyon College alum who previously worked for venture capital firms. Mills, who grew up in England, met Flowers when their mutual friend, Mike Daniel, president of Carmel-based Valeo Financial Advisors LLC, suggested Mills as a consultant for Audiochuck.

Mills said Flowers stands out when compared with “high net worth individuals” at other companies where he’s worked.

“Ashley is one of the most impressive entrepreneurs I’ve ever come across,” he said. “She knows her business from top to bottom, from the creative all the way down to the nitty-gritty. Typically, entrepreneurs know one end or the other, but they can’t run the entire gamut.”

With “Crime Junkie,” Flowers already ascended to the peak of podcasting.

At Spotify, “Crime Junkie” wrapped up 2022 at No. 3 on the company’s list of U.S. podcasts. (The top two, hosted by Joe Rogan and dating expert Alex Cooper, respectively, are produced exclusively for Spotify.)

Flowers and “Crime Junkie” are nominated in multiple categories of the 2023 iHeartPodcast Awards. And Flowers already knows she will pick up at least one trophy, the special-recognition Innovator Award.

The South Bend native’s accomplishments aren’t confined to talking about Jane or John Doe victims, luminol and ballistics on true crime podcasts. Her company has a portfolio of 15 podcasts, many hosted by other people.

And Flowers wrote a novel, “All Good People Here,” which debuted in September at No. 1 on The New York Times Best Sellers list of hardcover fiction books—one spot above long-running literary star Danielle Steel.

A six- to eight-episode adaptation of set-in-Indiana tale “All Good People Here” is one of the filmed projects in the “11th hour” of closing a deal, Mills said.

“We’re really focused on showing people that we’re a media company rather than just a podcasting company,” Flowers said.

An Indiana story

Audiochuck and its staff of nearly 40 employees moved last summer into 8,000-square-foot offices in Broad Ripple. People fly in from the coasts for meetings or to see if they can successfully interview to be part of the Audiochuck team.

Representatives of New York City-based satellite radio company SiriusXM, for example, have reasons to visit Indianapolis. In a 2021 deal that Bloomberg reported to be worth more than $100 million, SiriusXM forged a multiyear agreement to sell all ads that appear on Audiochuck podcasts.

Flowers, 34, said the SiriusXM deal represented financial security for Audiochuck and the ability to plan for growth.

“We want this to be an entertainment media hub in the middle of Indiana,” said Mills, who declined to share information about the company’s earnings. “It’s a lofty goal, but we love it, and we’re pushing for it.”

Flowers travels to Los Angeles about once a month, and a recent trip included the recording of two podcast episodes with talk show host Conan O’Brien. She appeared as the guest on the “Conan O’Brien Needs a Friend” podcast, and O’Brien appeared as a guest on a bonus fifth-anniversary episode of “Crime Junkie.”

O’Brien told Flowers about attending the 1990 trial of mass murderer John List in New Jersey.

“He’s a massive crime junkie,” Flowers said of O’Brien. “He can talk about details of crimes the way I can, and I can hardly find people like that. He has every detail in the back of his head.”

O’Brien doesn’t necessarily fit the stereotypical profile of a true crime fan—a persona spoofed by “Saturday Night Live,” the show where O’Brien worked as a writer during List’s trial. The sketch show aired a 2021 short film titled “Murder Shows” in which four female cast members sang, “Late night, true crime, this is my relaxing time.”

But while it’s easy to assume “Crime Junkie’s” fan base is dominated by millennial women, Flowers said her recent book tour to promote “All Good People Here” has made her question whether that’s accurate.

“I see the people who stand in line to do the meet-and-greet,” she said. “It is people from all walks of life, every age and from every cultural background. I’ve had an 11-year-old who’s crying to meet me and then a 55-year-old trucker who says, ‘You keep me company on the road all day.’”

True crime nation

But why the fascination with stories that are grisly?

Autumn Bones, an Indiana-based true crime expert, said audiences gravitate to true crime stories for a variety of reasons.

“People empathize with both the victims and their families, or maybe they relate to the victim in some way,” Bones said. “You think, ‘That could have been me,’ or, ‘I was in a similar situation.’ But we also want to understand these people who do these things. It allows us to examine the darker sides of humanity but from a safe distance.”

A sense of community is another factor, said Bones, who also cited the general appeal of mysteries.

“I think people like the problem-solving element,” she said. “Humans like puzzles.”

The 33-year-old Brown County resident works in less of a spotlight than Flowers but still maintains a following. She is a top contributor to a Reddit page titled Unresolved Mysteries, where membership tops 1.8 million users.

And Bones wrote a 2022 book titled “Unsolved Indiana: Murder Mysteries, Bizarre Deaths & Unexplained Disappearances.”

Ashley Donnelly

Ashley Donnelly is a media professor at Ball State University who co-wrote a 2020 book based on the 1986 film “Manhunter”—the first film appearance for the fictional character Hannibal Lecter.

“My field of study is horror,” Donnelly said. “As a media and cultural theorist, [I think] horror is extremely important. I feel like, when we study horror fiction, that is one of the best places for directors and writers to project and discuss sociopolitical issues. And audiences have a vehicle to discuss those issues.”

Although students plead with Donnelly to address true crime storytelling in classes she teaches, she said it’s difficult for her to make the jump from fictionalized crime to factual cases Flowers covers on her podcasts.

“On one hand, it’s kind of the same as horror,” Donnelly said. “When we learn about crime, especially things in detail, there’s kind of a sick aspect of, ‘Well, now I know what not to do,’ or, ‘Now I know what happened to that person, and I can make sure it doesn’t happen to me.’ … People are fascinated with and scared by the idea that normal people or normal-looking people have the capacity for these horrific things inside themselves.”

Flowers said she hasn’t lost her love of the genre.

“It’s all I consume, too, even though this is my job,” she said. “You would think I would want a break. It’s still what I’m drawn to.”

A sample of logos from Audiochuck’s portfolio of 15 podcasts. (Courtesy of Audiochuck)

Taking it on tour

The Audiochuck network has racked up 1 billion downloads since “Crime Junkie” debuted on Dec. 18, 2017.

But Flowers started modestly—and thanks in part to podcasting’s low barrier of entry.

“There isn’t another industry—radio, TV, anything—where I could have broken through,” Flowers said. “I had no background in this. I had zero connections.”

In fact, before “Crime Junkie,” Flowers had jobs at a medical device company and a custom software development firm. But she had grown up on the stories of Nancy Drew, “Columbo” and “Matlock.”

“At some point as I got a little bit older, I realized that these kinds of stories don’t just happen in fictional writing and fictional TV,” she said. “They were real, and I became really interested because it was just something I couldn’t understand.”

Flowers graduated from Arizona State University and moved to Indianapolis in 2013 to live close to her future husband, Erik Hudak. A few years later, she launched “Crime Junkie.”

The couple became parents to a daughter, Josie, in January 2022. Their dog, Chuck, influenced the Audiochuck company name. His approving howl is heard at the conclusion of every Audiochuck podcast episode.

“Crime Junkie’s” big breakthrough came when Rolling Stone magazine named it one of the best true crime podcasts of 2018. Flowers’ popularity has been growing since, opening opportunities along the way.

While advertising is the primary revenue stream for podcasts, Flowers said Audiochuck also makes money from its Crime Junkie Fan Club mobile app, a merch store and in-person tours such as the one that will take her to 11 cities this year.

The tour titled “The Deck Investigates” is an offshoot of “The Deck” podcast Flowers launched in February. On Apple’s year-end list, “The Deck” ranked as the most popular podcast that debuted in 2022.

The podcast’s name is a reference to customized playing cards that feature images of missing and murdered people. They’re used by law enforcement agencies in an attempt to prompt answers when the cards are distributed in jails and prisons.

Flowers described “The Deck Investigates” tour as a multimedia documentary production based on the unsolved 1984 slaying of a woman in Argos, a community of 1,700 about an hour north of Kokomo.

The tour includes a Feb. 18 date at Old National Centre among stops in New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Chicago, Boston and Philadelphia.

Always learning

Margot Davies, the protagonist of “All Good People Here,” is a newspaper reporter. Flowers said she wanted to steer clear of writing about a podcast host, and she’s had the chance to work with investigative journalists in recent years.

Flowers wrote “All Good People Here” with Texas-based novelist Alex Kiester. Flowers said she consulted with Florida-based investigative journalist Delia D’Ambra, who hosts an Audiochuck podcast titled “CounterClock,” on the story of “All Good People Here.”

Newspaper reporters haven’t always been fans of “Crime Junkie.” Flowers and co-host Brit Prawat presented early episodes of the podcast as summaries of crime stories but without verbal citations of reporting by other sources.

In 2019, “Crime Junkie” was accused of plagiarism by Cathy Frye, a former Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reporter. The podcast series removed episodes in response to complaints by Frye and other reporters.

Flowers pledged to modify her approach to attribution, and current episodes of “Crime Junkie” are punctuated by instances of credit given to source material.

“It was a growing moment,” she said. “When I came in, my biggest strength was my ignorance. But it also was a huge weakness because I didn’t come in knowing how to attribute within audio.

“I made a lot of assumptions where I would say, ‘Clearly, I’m not a journalist.’ I wasn’t trying to make anyone believe that I was out there finding this information. I thought that it was enough to say, ‘Oh, it wasn’t me.’ And it clearly wasn’t. I was grateful for the opportunity to learn to do better and to give credit where credit is due.”

Prawat, who was absent from episodes of “Crime Junkie” beginning in May because of a health problem, returned to the show in December.

Flowers said she’s received on-the-job training in looking into cold cases. While doing research for her upcoming tour, Flowers said, she was “heavily involved in getting records” and “knocking on doors.”

But when “Crime Junkie” debuted, Flowers didn’t venture outside her home recording studio.

“I feel like I got the coolest college course ever,” she said. “For five years, I worked side by side with some really great journalists.”

Brad Shoemaker owns Indianapolis-based Creative Zombie Studios, which has produced podcasts, designed websites and made online videos for businesses since 2013.

It’s not unusual, he said, for podcasters to launch shows but fail to sustain enthusiasm.

“A lot of podcasts come up, and a lot of podcasts leave at the same time,” Shoemaker said. “It takes a lot of work to put content together.”

According to a 2022 report by Edison Research, more than 175 million U.S. residents have listened to at least one podcast. More than 4 million different podcasts are available to listeners, according to the Podcast Index.

Shoemaker credited Flowers with being a leader in the competitive field of true crime.

“Crime Junkie” hit its stride “right at the time when true crime was really blowing up,” he said. “What they’ve done is nothing short of amazing. They were able to stand out in front of the crowd, they were able to get listeners, and they were able to somehow pull it all together while thousands of others were trying the exact same thing.”

Making a difference

Flowers volunteered with Crime Stoppers of Central Indiana before her podcasting career.

“I felt like I was consuming and consuming all of this [true crime content], whether it’s for entertainment, education or whatever,” she said. “I wanted to give back.”

In the past two years, Audiochuck created a pair of $1 million endowments: one for Coburn Place Safe Haven, which supports survivors of domestic violence, and one for Gennesaret Free Clinics, which provide medical treatment to Hoosiers experiencing homelessness.

“Unsolved Indiana” author Bones is presently raising money to buy three grave markers for members of an Evansville family murdered in 1882.

Bones specializes in writing about long-ago mysteries.

“I decided that I was going to make it my mission to get these cases out there,” she said. “They have no presence online. The only place they exist anymore are mentions in old police files or in the newspapers—very deep down before the internet was even around.”

Cold cases are central to Season of Justice, a not-for-profit founded by Flowers in 2020. The organization provides grants for DNA testing to investigative agencies.

“There’s often evidence to test but no budget to pay for testing,” she said.

To date, tests funded by Season of Justice helped solve three homicides, she said.

“We’re telling the hardest stories,” Audiochuck CEO Mills said. “But they are important stories for families and for victims and the advocacy that goes along with that.”•

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One thought on “Podcasting is only the beginning for ‘Crime Junkie’ host Ashley Flowers

  1. Broad Ripple is the new epicenter of the Indy business resurgence. Audiochuck is one of the great success stories of Midtown. Come to Broad Ripple and see the energy. Congrats to Ashley, Erik, Kevin, and crew! Keep charging.

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