How 'To Live and Die in LA' Racked Up 15 Million Downloads While Solving a Murder

Neil Strauss - SXSW Publicity 2-H 2019
Courtesy of SXSW

The true-crime podcast ended its 12-episode run on May 17.

When Neil Strauss began investigating the disappearance of aspiring Hollywood actress Adea Shabani in March 2018, he was mostly hoping to help family and friends locate her. Along the way, he also developed a hit podcast. 

Strauss' show, To Live and Die in LA, wrapped its season on May 17. Five days later, it still sits at No. 2 on Apple's podcast chart, and it has been downloaded more than 15 million times since its late February debut.

While true-crime podcasts tend to perform well among listeners who enjoy these often grisly mysteries, To Live and Die in LA also has succeeded where others have failed: It ends with an answer to the question of what happened to Shabani. "This horrible thing happened to her that should happen to no one," Strauss says. "The truth needs to come out." 

The journalist and author first became involved in Shabani's disappearance after he met the private investigator on the case while looking into another missing person in his Malibu neighborhood. Soon he was calling his agents at UTA, explaining that telling Shabani's story as a podcast would help him track down more information about her disappearance.

Oren Rosenbaum, who leads the emerging platforms business at the agency, recalls that Strauss told him, "Oren, I have a podcast. I know who killed Adea Shabani. But I need to do it now." He connected Strauss to Tenderfoot TV, producers of the podcast Up and Vanished, who were able to immediately jump in and begin production. "They got the vision for what this thing needed to be," says Rosenbaum. 

That was in spring 2018, not long after Shabani went missing. After it became clear that they were investigating a homicide, they decided to wait to release the show. Albright says ultimately it made more sense to "take our time and find out the truth." 

After the podcast debuted, Strauss began to receive new tips about the case and many of the later episodes are reported in real time as the story is developing. "Someone literally said, 'I don't trust the police because I don't think they'll keep my identity secret. I don't trust the private investigator. I think he's going to go to the police. But I listen to you on the podcast and I trust that you'll keep my anonymity,'" Strauss says of how we was able to track down new information. 

Along the way, he also gained the trust of the families for both Shabani and her boyfriend Chris Spotz, a main suspect in the case, which proved crucial to his investigation. "I've never been in this situation," Strauss says. "It's really hard. These are people's children. Sometimes you're giving them hope and sometimes you're giving them the worst news ever." Adds executive producer Donald Albright, "We tried to be as respectful as possible and give [the families] a heads up with what they should expect."

The abundance of new information posed a logistical challenge for the production of To Live and Die in LA. At one point near the end of the season, a late tip caused them to hold the release of an episode until they were able to fact-check what they had discovered. "You have to be ready and willing to scrap what you're working on to be able to tell it the right way," says Albright.

Strauss, speaking on the phone with The Hollywood Reporter just three days before he planned to release the final episode, acknowledges the challenge of crafting an ending for a story even as new information is coming in. He explains, "I'm trying to almost close the case on a deadline."

Although the last episode ultimately presents a satisfying conclusion, it's clear Strauss isn't quite ready to say goodbye to the story. In the final moments of the show, he reveals that he's received another tip, adding, "If needed, we will continue this in a bonus episode."