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The mechanics of forward-thinking business strategy.

True crime comes of age

US indie KT Studios, lead by LA-based Stephanie Lydecker, is adopting a triple-play strategy for its growing true crime IP library – building out single stories across podcasts, documentary and scripted projects.

The Pike County Murders aired on Oxygen at the end of last year

Tell us about the origins of KT Studios.
We are a LA-based production company that does podcasts, unscripted docs and now scripted projects as well. I’m a former reality TV producer who got into true crime. We started KT, got a round of greenlights and then Covid happened so everything went away very quickly. That was very scary for a small, new boutique company with many on pay roll. We pivoted, we sold a podcast to iHeartRadio based on a doc we’d done. We went in a little blindly, I think. We bought the equipment off Amazon, and our purpose was to turn it in and say we’re in the podcast business. That podcast, The Piketon Massacre, hit number one across the world and that little podcast deal evolved into a far larger deal. Now we have a 160-hour slate deal with iHeart and it’s become this beautiful piece of our business.

We’re making podcasts all the time now. It was a happy accident and I credit Tom Poleman (chief programming officer and president of national programming) at iHeart for giving us a swing. We were ready to kick the door open, we needed it and the stakes were high. Other things have come back post-Covid but our love for the podcast business has come through. Our business model now is a full 360 where podcasts become docs or scripted series, or hopefully all three at once.

Stephanie Lydecker

That podcast grew into The Pike County Murders, which aired at the end of last year on Oxygen, how did that project come into being in the first place?
We’d made the podcast and it became the first thing we sold to Oxygen and Peacock. It’s about a massacre in Pike County Ohio where eight members of the same family were all murdered in one night at four locations. We read an article by journalist Jeff Winkler about this case that had gone unsolved for many years in a place where there are only about 2,000 residents. That peaked our interest. We pitched it to Oxygen and soon after a rural family, mother, father and two sons, were all arrested for this. We started digging in at that point. We did that doc which turned into the podcast, the podcast picked up where the doc left off, and we just did a catch-up on that which has been five years in the making. It seems as if it’s the highest rated premiere in five years for Oxygen and we hope the numbers continue to grow.

How did you get access to the people involved in that story, and how do you go about that in general in true crime?
Thanksgiving 2019 I had to get on a plane and went to look for access. Knocking on doors and seeing if anybody was willing to talk at the time. It was a small town, wildly conflicted, everybody knew somebody involved.

We usually go in person and rarely when the crime just happens. We’ve been told by the victims’ family and friends that when it occured there is an avalanche of press and people knocking on your door. They can be scared by that frankly. We’ve missed some things by not immediately jumping in, letting the dust settle for a second, seeing how it shakes out, we don’t want to interrupt an investigation. As human beings we introduce ourselves by knocking on doors and relationships can begin. Another podcast we do called The Idaho Massacre about an infamous case here in the US where four college students were murdered had everybody clamouring and knocking on doors, we gave it a beat before going into it.

It’s become big business to be in true crime and that was never our intention. We came into this to be a little bit actionable. The Pyke County Massacre looks into domestic violence and mental illness. We work on open investigations mostly and gain access along the way as we follow the journey with the listeners or viewer.

There’s been an Association of True Crime Producers formed in the UK to try and establish best practice in this area and prevent a free-for-all descending on victims of crime, what’s the score in the US?
I see it from both sides. I’ve had the job where you have to be first on the scene; it’s heavy on your heart and it doesn’t feel good. As an owner I get to pick and choose what feels good and appropriate at the time. It’s a fine line to cross. On the one hand, God forbid I lose a family member and want answers, frankly I would want somebody knocking on my door to make a documentary and keep the memory alive and shout from the rooftops about my case. So you want to set the stage for that, but you also don’t want to be disrespectful in a traumatic time. The third part and a guiding light for us as a company is how do you stop this happening again? You don’t know the boogie man is next door unless you see it, examine it, unpack that a bit. How do we protect ourselves? That’s why we’re seeing a boom. Docs, pods, scripted shows can be actionable. It can just take a fresh set of eyes on old circumstances.

How does that fit with this new trend for online sleuths and TikTok detectives descending on cases, scenes and victims and basically having open season where all laws and reporting restrictions are ignored? 
It’s scary and dangerous stuff. Accusing somebody of murder, publishing a licence plate number, it’s very dangerous stuff.

Every single thing we put out is vetted by the scariest lawyers in the world so we’re not interrupting an investigation. Our goal is to work alongside law enforcement and be an added hand, voice or loud microphone for the police who have their own set of problems. We don’t want to cause confusion in an investigation. You see names and likenesses being brought up as a potential assailant and you can’t put the genie back in the bottle for that person, it’s something we’ve seen happen more than once online. Furthermore you want to make sure you’re speaking on behalf of victims and not filling in blanks. A lot of things we work on will never see the light of day because it’s either gossip or couldn’t be confirmed. We did Murdered and Missing in Montana about girls who go missing from native American reservations and a lot of the info we attained we couldn’t legally prove so we couldn’t air it. It was juicy, it would feel groundbreaking and important, but it wasn’t guaranteed true. We bump into that a lot.

Our primary focus is keeping the victims at the centre of everything we do. We’ve debated this, the accused are accused at the time and we’re not in charge of convicting people, we lay out information as reported, we don’t make it up, our opinion doesn’t matter in the slightest. With the Idaho Massacre we have to talk about the accused, Bryan Kohberger, who claims innocence. We made the decision to discuss him because he’s a curious person. He was a student, PHD person in criminology, to not unpack him wouldn’t be doing justice to the story, but we have to be mindful not to unpack it in a way that guarantees his guilt because he may not be. With the Pike County case, until they confessed I believed they were innocent because it didn’t add up and we spent time digging into other scenarios. We cried when we heard the information. It seemed inhuman.

Where next for KT? What’s the three-year plan?
The same audience that likes to follow love also likes to follow grief. We’ll see a resurgence in love type shows, not so much The Bachelor and experiment type shows, we’ll see that and we’re down that path. Post-Covid, when we first premiered our podcast we wondered who would listen when there was no commute and a global epidemic. We heal together and through watching and sharing things. We’ll always do true crime, we love it and it’s part of DNA, but I think the complete opposite is at the forefront. We’ll get to the other side and have more of a giggle.

I hope in three years we’re thriving and continuing to do what we do now, which is taking stories and doing 360 conversions, podcast, unscripted and scripted. Limited series, maybe a film, being able to do all three at same time with a project is the spirit of where we’re heading. At the moment, we’ve been piecemealing it and being able to convert our entire library into podcasts, unscripted and scripted is where I see us.

We’re in a unique period where big name stars want to attach to a project because the research is done, and it has a marketable audience. In our case, identifying a fancy movie star and being able to partner them with IP and getting that quickly to audiences is the name of the game. We’re in that process now speaking to writers and seeing the process from the inside. With true crime especially, so much is written in terms of research, be it a podcast or doc, some of that lift is over so it’s a chance for writers to get creative.