How Donald Albright became Atlanta’s podcast kingmaker

In just four years, Tenderfoot TV has amassed half a billion podcast downloads

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It wasn’t Donald Albright’s best idea.

At a conference in Anaheim in 2017, Albright and his business partner, Payne Lindsey, were trying to drum up interest in their fledgling podcast company. Podcast Movement is hailed as one the largest and most important gatherings of podcast producers in the world, and the duo figured they’d have no problem fitting in. Riding a wave of success from his and Albright’s 2016 true-crime surprise megahit, Up and Vanished, Lindsey was scheduled to give a talk called “I Am Not a Podcaster,” about rejecting the industry norms for success.

Albright figured he’d bring his own brand of unorthodoxy to the event. A 20-year music veteran, he went, in his own words, “straight 2001 Miami street team.” This included hiring a promo crew of young, attractive women wearing T-shirts that read: “If I Vanish Call Payne Lindsey,” with the podcast’s tip line underneath. Then, there was the box truck outside the conference headquarters displaying the show’s video trailer on a massive screen and blasting the sound out of loudspeakers. Albright didn’t make a statement—he made a scene.

“We got some shit for it,” he admits.

The podcast industry of 2017 was at that point in the late-adolescent phase of its mainstream success (just three years past the cultural flashpoint that was Serial). And it was populated largely by people unaccustomed to such hip-hop marketing tactics—a crowd more NPR than NWA.

Even beyond the conference, there was backlash. Some Instagrammers groaned in reaction to photos of the T-shirts and other promotional swag posted to Up and Vanished‘s profile. “I was such a fan at the beginning,” wrote @kgraff2016. “The exploitation at this point is beyond sad. Please stop.” Another user, from Ocilla, Georgia, the setting of the unsolved murder the podcast investigates, added: “I wish you would just leave my hometown alone instead of thinking it’s a fun story that you can make a profit off of.”

Today, Albright looks back on that experience not with regret but with the knowledge that, for once, his marketing instincts failed him. He recounted the story earlier this year while reclining in a leather desk chair on the eighth floor of Ponce City Market. In the corner of the conference room, his publicist was silent, checking her phone. The room is the centerpiece of Industrious Atlanta, a coworking space that serves as the headquarters for Tenderfoot TV, the company Albright started with Lindsey in August 2016.

In Tenderfoot TV’s four years, the podcasting business has grown exponentially—a rare success story in a larger media landscape that’s rapidly contracting. At last count, in the U.S. alone, some 62 million people listen to podcasts weekly—up from 19 million in 2013. Major media players like Spotify, Sony, and Amazon are sinking hundreds of millions into podcast-related acquisitions, with Spotify alone dropping $500 million last year (though listenership and revenue, it should be noted, have slowed in the pandemic). Podcast advertising revenue was expected to surpass $1 billion for the first time in 2020, though the recent economic downturn will likely prevent that; regardless, the industry still will see substantial growth compared to its $479 million in revenue in 2018.

Keeping up with and often surpassing the industry’s rapid pace of growth, Tenderfoot TV has released a string of successful true-crime podcasts—Up and Vanished, the Monster series, To Live and Die in L.A.—that have amassed more than 500 million downloads and made the company highly profitable. (Albright is mum on specifics.)

Lindsey, who hosted Up and Vanished and Tenderfoot’s follow-up podcast Atlanta Monster, about presumed serial killer Wayne Williams and the infamous Atlanta Child Murders, is the more public face of Tenderfoot TV. But as president and cofounder, Albright is its behind-the-scenes mastermind, a marketing wiz who has leveraged the company’s success into partnerships with podcast giants such as HowStuffWorks, Audible, and iHeartRadio. He also brokered a television deal with Oxygen, a two-book deal with HarperCollins, and a podcast with HBO hosted by Insecure’s Issa Rae.

“It sounds crazy, but it really hasn’t set in—because I’m scared to act like we made it,” Albright says of Tenderfoot’s current success.

Five years ago, Albright was feeling burned out, struggling to find his place as an underappreciated player in Atlanta’s cutthroat hip-hop scene. As it turns out, the hustle he honed in the music business served him even better in the podcast one. He now runs a multimillion-dollar media company with a diverse portfolio and a lofty mission: Find compelling storytellers, unearth great and often overlooked narratives, and help establish Atlanta as a national podcast hub in the process.

When Albright visited Atlanta during the 1996 Olympic Games, he was an 18-year-old from the Bay Area who was wowed by the hip-hop scene, the HBCU experience, and the beautiful Black women he saw walking around the West End. A year later, he transferred from San Jose State University to Clark Atlanta, where he studied business management. At the time, Atlanta-based labels So So Def and LaFace Records were growing in influence, and the city’s hip-hop and R&B scene shimmered with platinum-certified stars like Xscape, Da Brat, TLC, and OutKast.

After a chance meeting with a LaFace employee at a party in 1997, Albright offered to work for the label for free. (They took him up on it.) A year later, Albright cofounded a music-promotion company, D-Day Entertainment, and LaFace paid for its services. Albright’s initial client list included OutKast and Goodie Mob; he’d accompany them to in-store and club appearances and run promotion for “all the little chitlin circuit tours,” he says. Eventually, Albright was hired full-time at LaFace to manage the label’s street teams. At the same time, D-Day Entertainment started doing similar promotional work for Jay-Z’s Roc-A-Fella Records, where Albright’s responsibilities included driving rappers such as Beanie Siegel around Atlanta and other Southeastern cities in—you guessed it—trucks wrapped in promotional art and blasting loud music from speakers, to get potential fans hyped about a soon-to-drop album.

“I was the guy who was 20 years old, in the snow on Campbellton Road putting up posters,” Albright says. “I had to beat the So So Def team to get to that pole on MLK and Northside. I took that mentality with me into podcasting. We always wanted to beat everyone to the punch and do what no one else was doing.”

Albright’s marketing work through D-Day Entertainment later caught the eye of Henry “Noonie” Lee, manager of platinum producer Jazze Pha. As far as first impressions go, Lee wasn’t exactly wowed by Albright. “He had long hair in a bun, a durag on, and these ugly-ass pirate-looking hoop earrings,” Lee recalls. But Lee soon realized that the young upstart was legit; Albright was planning, organizing, and overseeing everything from video shoots to recording sessions to international tours.

It also dawned on Lee that Albright possessed a level of patience that was rare in hip-hop industry circles—and that Albright’s willingness to look past initial setbacks served him well. “There were times I may have wanted to give up on an artist or producer, but he had a long-term plan in mind,” Lee says. “He knew how it could work, and most of the time the shit did work.”

Albright and Lee formed a management company, which took on a Def Jam signee from New Orleans named August Alsina. It was while working with Alsina that Albright met the person who, strangely enough, would change the course of his career: a singer and occasional parody rapper named Payne Lindsey. The two loosely knew of each other; one of the artists Albright was working with had been featured on a song by Lindsey’s now-defunct (and, some might say, eternally embarrassing) hybrid rock-rap outfit, Right Side of the Tree. Albright jokes that if you want to give yourself a laugh, check out the bro-tastic frat anthems and corresponding videos of Lindsey’s past.

Lindsey, fortunately, had moved on from trying to be a musician to making music videos. “I’m sitting at Houston’s with Noonie, and I get an email, and it’s from Payne Lindsey saying he wants to do a music video for August Alsina,” Albright says. One of the guys sitting with them that day in 2012 pointed out that Lindsey was the singer of Right Side of the Tree. Albright saw past that, perhaps when few in his seat would, and recognized in Lindsey’s director reel a young filmmaker with no big-name clients but some real potential. He also saw a videographer he could actually afford.

Albright paid Lindsey $2,000 for his work on the video for the 2013 Alsina single “Downtown.” He wasn’t nervous about working with Lindsey, but Albright didn’t immediately embrace him, either. “At first, I was saying, I’m taking a chance on you as a video director,” he says of their first meetings. “This is how I want the video to be. I want you to shoot it like this. This is the concept.”

Albright was surprised at how easy it soon became to trust Lindsey and his vision: “I started to realize, after a couple of videos, that I should probably just listen to this guy. He knows what he’s doing, he’s getting it done for the right price, and his ideas are better than my ideas.”

With Albright serving as Alsina’s manager and Lindsey shooting videos and working as the artist’s documentarian—and with Alsina opening on world tours for Usher and Chris Brown—Albright and Lindsey were together often and bonded during the tour’s downtime in places like Dubai and London.

But as their working relationship grew stronger, their love for the music industry started to fade. Albright felt as though artists didn’t fully appreciate the work he did for them through D-Day Entertainment. “We were basically putting $100,000 down on these young kids’ careers, hoping that we would one day get it back” when they blew up, Albright says. That’s not what happened. “It’s like amnesia sets in when success sets in,” he says of the artists. “So, I was like, I can’t do this anymore.”

Then, in 2016, Lindsey reached out to him with an idea: Let’s make an audio documentary about a Georgia cold case. Albright had taken a chance on Lindsey years ago, and it paid off. Why not try again?

Neither of them knew exactly what they were getting into, but their respect for each other was enough for them to give it a shot. Asked why he reached out to Albright and not someone with prior podcast experience, Lindsey says: “I thought that he would trust me with something that he maybe wouldn’t understand yet—or that no one understood.”

Donald Albright Payne Lindsey
Albright and Tenderfoot TV cofounder Payne Lindsey at the 2018 National Association of Broadcasters show in Las Vegas

Photograph by Getty Images

The success of 2016’s Up and Vanished was a surprise to the media, the podcast community, and, most of all, its creators. Some questioned how novice podcasters could achieve such a huge listenership—150 million downloads, which landed them at No. 18 on iTunes. (The first season of Serial—widely considered the most listened-to podcast in the world—garnered 300 million downloads.) The true-crime, 24-episode saga, hosted by Lindsey, investigated the disappearance a decade earlier of school teacher and beauty queen Tara Grinstead in the small town of Ocilla, Georgia.

Lindsey and Albright had no podcast or journalistic experience, which made Up and Vanished intriguing in some ways and amateurish in others. “Lindsey’s narrative authority feels neither rock solid nor entirely suspect,” Sarah Larson wrote in a 2018 New Yorker article. “He’s figuring it out, and you’re figuring him out, too.”

A large part of figuring it out, for both Lindsey and Albright, was embracing their flaws. “We got to make our mistakes in front of millions of listeners,” Albright says. Of course, they didn’t know they’d have quite so many listeners. Lindsey had been writing, recording, and editing the show “not knowing if one person or a thousand or a million people are going to listen to this,” Albright says.

After 10 episodes, more than 15 million people had tuned in.

That massive listenership raised the stakes for their next podcast. “You do things differently when you know you’ve got this huge platform,” Albright says. The balancing act, he says, is between “how to be as sensitive as possible” with controversial subject matter “and how to still take risks—because the risks, when they pay off, can pay off in a big way.”

Though he hadn’t listened to a podcast until he helped produce Up and Vanished, Albright quickly familiarized himself and his team with the industry’s power players. Once Tenderfoot proved itself with its first podcast, Albright was able to forge a collaboration with Stuff Media, whose HowStuffWorks podcasting arm was among the first to generate substantial revenue with a podcast. Stuff Media, which was acquired in 2018 for $55 million by iHeartMedia (the largest commercial podcast publisher in the world), has a slate of podcasts that generate 61 million downloads and streams per month.

It turns out Tenderfoot’s dubious debut at Podcast Movement in Anaheim hadn’t been a total bust: Albright’s stunts had caught the attention (how could they not?) of a few Apple reps in the crowd. Those reps helped plant the seed of the Stuff Media collaboration: They alerted Albright to the perhaps obvious fact that HowStuffWorks is located in the very same building as Tenderfoot.

Albright and Lindsey began to work with Jason Hoch, who at the time was chief content officer for Stuff Media’s podcast division. Hoch remembers when it felt like the only Atlanta-produced podcasts getting recognition outside of the city were Stuff Media’s utilitarian shows: Stuff You Should Know and Stuff You Missed in History Class.

“We really didn’t have a ton of data on where we sat in the world,” Hoch says. “About five years ago, we got real information, and we were actually one of the biggest players out there. So, we really had something that was becoming a business, that was starting to make money, that had real audiences.”

At the time Hoch met Lindsey and Albright, he specifically was looking to explore forms of audio storytelling that differed from Stuff Media’s more practically themed shows. Lindsey was also looking for his next case to dig into. It was Hoch who suggested Lindsey examine the already vastly explored story of Wayne Williams and the Atlanta Child Murders. Despite having grown up in Georgia, Lindsey, incredibly, was unfamiliar with the serial killings.

“We just went out there and wanted to tell a story that was bigger than Atlanta,” Hoch says. “To be able to excavate those stories and kind of bring them to the modern-day audience, I think, is just really important.”

The resulting podcast, Atlanta Monster, would be a 50/50 partnership between the two companies. Teaming up with Stuff Media gave Tenderfoot the credibility and resources they needed, Albright says. Taking what he’d learned while making Up and Vanished, Lindsey reinterviewed witnesses, experts, and law-enforcement officials involved in the case, as well as victims’ families and Wayne Williams himself. With Hoch’s guidance, Lindsey could focus on being creative while Albright zeroed in on business and future partnerships.

“He’s a marketing genius,” Hoch says of Albright. “I think his background in the music business has prepared him well for all the kinds of things he wants to do in the podcast space.”

Hoch later left HowStuffWorks to take over the newly formed podcast division of Santa Monica–based Imperative Entertainment, the movie studio behind films like The Mule, All the Money in the World, and the forthcoming Scorsese/DiCaprio collaboration, Killers of the Flower Moon. “When people talk about podcasts, the first thing out of their mouth is probably going to be New York or L.A., and there’s nothing wrong with that,” says Hoch, who still lives in Atlanta. “But we’ve actually got some substantial talent and shows and audience right here.”

As with Up and Vanished, what made Atlanta Monster resonate was the real-time element of the podcast, including Lindsey issuing calls for members of the Atlanta community to speak up, especially those who felt that their experiences related to the Atlanta Child Murders hadn’t been heard. A notorious, four-decades-old case felt brand new with Lindsey helming the narrative—probably because, to Lindsey, the case was brand new.

Hoch was immediately impressed with his coproducers’ gutsiness in telling the story—including Lindsey throwing a dummy body into the Chattahoochee River to recreate the series of events leading to Williams’s arrest. “It’s their I don’t care if this is comfortable or uncomfortable—I’m going to knock on whoever’s door, and I’m going to confront them for the truth–type of attitude,” Hoch says. “I appreciate Donald and Payne being fearless about the approach to storytelling and not playing it safe all the time.”

If not for Albright, Lindsey says, it would have been hard to keep going on this particular story. Albright isn’t just the executive producer; he’s Lindsey’s voice of reason. “Having someone like that close to me, defending me at times, strengthened me,” Lindsey says, “and strengthened what we can do together.”

After its 2018 launch, Atlanta Monster amassed more than 70 million downloads, held the top spot on iTunes for most of its 10-week run, and made Tenderfoot TV a household name. It also drew criticism. Slate called Lindsey “a credulous, self-important bro wandering around [the] city and opening old wounds” and panned Atlanta Monster: “It’s frustrating to listen to a podcast reap reflexive accolades from critics and on social media for repeating observations that have been part of the conversation about the crimes from the very beginning. Simply stating that racism, direct and structural, affected how the Atlanta child murders were investigated and covered is not enough. The Atlantans terrorized and bereaved by the child murders of 1979–1981 deserve a real investigation.”

A year after the last episode was released, Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms announced that the Atlanta Police Department would reexamine evidence tied to the murders. Whether Atlanta Monster had any effect on the mayor’s decision is debatable. Albright bristles at the implication that other, then-upcoming projects focusing on the case—such as the second season of Netflix’s Mindhunter and HBO’s docuseries Atlanta’s Missing and Murdered: The Lost Children—might have persuaded the mayor.

“What I do know is that after listening to our podcast, [APD] granted us access to all those 60,000 files before anyone else,” he says. “Before any of these documentaries, before the press conference that Mayor Bottoms and the chief of police had, we looked at those files.”

Emmy Award–winning television journalist Tony Harris has a career that spans 40 years, including six with CNN and three with Al Jazeera America. After the latter shut down in 2016, Harris was looking for a new challenge. A few years later, when iHeartMedia approached his team about hosting the new season of Tenderfoot’s Monster podcast, he knew it was just the opportunity he was looking for.

Albright wanted a seasoned journalist to take an investigative journey into the 2002 sniper shootings in the Washington D.C. area—and Harris, who’d been a news anchor in Baltimore at the time of the shootings, was looking for a story on which he could spend ample time. He’d grown weary of the quick-hit coverage dictated by the Trump-dominated 2019 news cycle.

“So much of cable news is tied up in ‘panel television’ right now,” Harris says. “How many people can sit around a desk to discuss the reporting that the New York Times is doing? There are so many stories that are being left on the sidelines because cable news is obsessed with Trump.”

To Harris, the ideal counterpoint to that vicious news cycle was to use a new medium like podcasting to bridge generational gaps in journalism. “To have a platform where old-head journalists like me and young people who are coming out of journalism schools get an opportunity to learn how to produce deep-dive storytelling is exciting,” he says.

The 15-episode podcast Monster: DC Sniper, which debuted in January and ran through early April, was among the most sophisticated of the nine podcasts Tenderfoot has produced. That it failed to garner as many downloads as Up and Vanished, Atlanta Monster, To Live and Die in L.A., and, narrowly, 2019’s Monster: The Zodiac Killer speaks not to its quality but to the increasing saturation of the podcast market. (There were 27 percent more podcast episodes released in 2019 than 2018.) Monster: D.C. Sniper also was the last podcast Tenderfoot released before the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic, the effects of which on the podcast industry remain to be seen. But it still allowed Tenderfoot to break new ground.

With Monster: D.C. Sniper, Harris brought his journalistic pedigree to the table, and Albright was able to impart his knowledge of podcasting to help the self-proclaimed “old dog” learn new tricks. One example: Albright coached Harris on toning down his anchorman voice and finding a more relatable and subtle approach. But he still wanted Harris to feel like he had control. “I try to give every host the same creative freedom that Payne had, because it’s going to be their voice, their investigation, their case—and I want them to feel confident and comfortable both in how they’re reading their ads and how they talk about these victims,” Albright says.

Albright was able “to say to me in a very encouraging way, Look, you got the chops to do it. So, let’s show you how to maximize your chops in this space, and in intimate storytelling,” Harris says. “Not many people are willing to step up and give you that kind of instruction and work with you to that extent.”

That willingness, Harris says, will ultimately reap even greater rewards. “I think it’s just the beginning for them,” he says of Tenderfoot. “I will also say this: They’re one of the teams that’s going to make Atlanta a real hub for podcasting.”

Back in the conference room at Industrious, Albright’s phone was buzzing. He was in the midst of talks about potential projects with This Is Us star Milo Ventimiglia, Insecure‘s Rae (that one later got green-lit), and hip-hop journalist and radio vet Sway. Albright says he’s also had very loose discussions with André 3000’s manager about doing something.

Creatively, Albright is in a groove. The Up and Vanished docuseries on Oxygen, hosted by Lindsey, premiered in February, with each episode featuring a different missing-person case. In June, Albright and Lindsey launched new episodes of their 2019 fact-fiction hybrid show, Radio Rental, a collaboration with Rainn Wilson in which real-life horror stories are narrated by a made-up video-store clerk. Tenderfoot TV is working on new podcasts with iHeartRadio, including one that digs through mountains of archival material on the life of Martin Luther King Jr., and is launching a content partnership with Amazon’s Audible.

Albright says there have been offers to buy Tenderfoot TV, but they’re not actively trying to sell. “The end game is ownership and control—either having complete control or joint control but never to be working for anyone,” he says. “If we’re a partner with an individual or if it’s a $100-million company, I want to be looked at as an equal, not as an employee.”

Of course, many of Tenderfoot’s grand plans have been somewhat tempered by the pandemic. Field production has been cut back, and advertisers are tabling buys until later in the year and into 2021. As far as audience, Albright suspects there’s less of an appetite for stories about murder and mayhem when it feels like the world is approaching an episode of The Walking Dead. As of June, it seemed there was limited appetite for anything unrelated to COVID-19, racial justice, and the presidential election. “We’re competing, not just with the general podcast market,” Albright says, “but with very topical, news-related podcasts.”

Still, Tenderfoot’s nine-person staff remains intact; Albright says he doesn’t foresee any layoffs or furloughs. They’re having discussions about finding a new workspace—outside of a coworking environment—when the time comes to return to an office, because they need more space. On a personal level, working from home has been tough on Albright, a father of two, who has a daughter with autism spectrum disorder.

Beyond his work with Tenderfoot, Albright is contributing as much as he can to the larger podcast community. He was deeply engaged in the formation of the Podcast Academy, a national organization devoted to recognizing excellence, establishing best practices, and offering networking opportunities for podcasters. As a founding board member and vice-chairperson, Albright has been crucial in bringing together aspiring minds and podcast leaders in an effort to create more opportunities for those with an interest in the craft.

His involvement in the organization, whose board of governors includes Apple’s global head of podcasts and Spotify’s head of studios and video, also gives him another opportunity to hype his hometown on the national stage. “Atlanta has the stories and the people here,” he says. “This is the creative hub. It’s not just music, not just film, but podcasting as well.”

Albright’s music-scene mentor, Lee, has watched his swift ascension in the podcast realm—and marveled at the fact that Albright is now a mentor himself.

“I call him the Black Podfather,” Lee says. “It’s interesting to hear him talk about the podcast world, because he knew nothing about it in 2016—and now, he’s helping shape it.”

This article appears in our August 2020 issue.

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