Orcutt—just south of Santa Maria—might be the last place on Earth you'd expect to find America's most popular independent podcaster. But that's where Your Own Backyard creator Chris Lambert grew up, lives, and pieced together the hard-hitting 10-part docuseries that investigates the 1996 disappearance of Kristin Smart.
- Photo By Jayson Mellom
- CASE ARCHIVES As part of his reporting on the Kristin Smart case, Chris Lambert kept a chronological binder of newspaper clippings (pictured) that date back to her disappearance in 1996.
The 33-year-old spent a year and a half researching the unsolved local case—collecting more than 20 years of newspaper clippings, interviewing witnesses and family members, and writing a score—before recording the first episode in his modest apartment next to the Santa Maria Airport.
"I recorded all the narration at a dining room table," Lambert says on the patio of Cups and Crumbs, a café in Old Town Orcutt, donning a neat beard, dark-rimmed glasses, and purple plaid shirt. "It was very, very low budget, but I spent a long, long time on it."
- Image Courtesy Of Chris Lambert
- NO. 1 PODCAST Chris Lambert's local podcast, Your Own Backyard, rose to the top of the iTunes charts in April following the arrests of Kristin Smart's murder suspects, Paul and Ruben Flores.
When Lambert self-released Your Own Backyard on Sept. 30, 2019, he had no idea what would come next. Two years later, two men are going to trial for Smart's alleged murder, Your Own Backyard has a global following, and the Ernest Righetti High School grad is turning down lucrative offers from major entities like CBS, Netflix, and HBO.
Lambert's series on Smart is not for sale. It's just a story he felt compelled to tell in pursuit of justice, resolution, and his own creative fulfillment. And the story isn't over yet.
"I'm not interested in selling," Lambert says matter-of-factly. "I see each episode as like an album, and to break that up with a mattress ad, is, like, sacred to me. It's like, no, this is a story, a full story, that I don't want to break up ... . And they haven't found her yet. Until they recover her remains, it doesn't feel done."
How a musician from Orcutt who was voted "most bashful" in high school stumbled into creating a No. 1 charting podcast—helping crack a 25-year-old murder case in the process—is a question Lambert himself still sometimes asks. A lifetime of practice recording music, and later podcasts, at home is a big part of the answer.
"I didn't even think about this kind of stuff. I didn't think I was going to end up in the top echelon of what was charting," Lambert says.
'Only real hobby'
Lambert first developed an "obsession" with recording music in the eighth grade. It was one he never shook.
"I would definitely say that through high school, my only real hobby was recording music in my bedroom," Lambert says, his voice on the café patio drawing glances from nearby patrons.
After his parents divorced, Lambert spent most of his spare time at his dad's house writing new songs on his guitar and recording them onto cassette tapes. When it came time to go to his mom's house, Lambert excitedly brought the tapes with him.
- Photo By Jayson Mellom
- HOMEGROWN PODCASTER Central Coast native Chris Lambert discusses his viral podcast Your Own Backyard in his new home studio in Orcutt.
"I'd challenge myself to try to do two or three brand new songs before I went to my mom's, and play them for her and see what she thought about them," Lambert says. "It became this routine of every time Chris comes over, he's going to have new music to show us. And they very much encouraged me to continue that."
Lambert's mom, a library clerk, nurtured his passion for music, buying him more advanced pieces of recording equipment on each of his birthdays. When Lambert wore out his four-track recorder, he got an eight-track recorder, and so on.
"We kept stepping it up every year," Lambert says. "We were a low- to middle-class family—we weren't privileged—but it was just full force what he's [Lambert's] interested in. Let's see what we can do."
Come high school, Lambert was "notoriously shy," he says. Recording music in his bedroom after school was "the only thing I did." By the time he graduated Righetti in 2006, Lambert joined a local band, A Silent Explosion, which earned some local popularity.
"We won battle of the bands," he says with a smile.
After high school, Lambert enrolled in only music and recording classes at Allan Hancock College in Santa Maria. While he never transferred to finish his bachelor's degree, Lambert's burning desire to record and create remained as strong as ever. Between 2006 and 2018, Lambert says he made a new album of music every year.
"The challenge became can I get an album out by the end of the year, like a brand-new album?" Lambert says. "Can I do an electronic album, a rock album, a folk album? It was like challenging myself, can I do something different than I've done before?"
Lambert says he never put much thought into turning his prolific musical output into a stable career. When he released an album, he wouldn't try to promote it. He was already busy working on the next one.
"It was short-sighted in terms of stability and a career, but in terms of creativity, that's the only part that mattered," he says. "That was my entire life."
In 2014, Lambert took a job at a recording studio in Lompoc, one that he'd hold onto until 2018. At that point, Lambert had already started to dabble in podcasting. His first was a silly conversational series that focused on the '90s cult classic TV show, Early Edition.
"It's about a guy who gets tomorrow's newspaper delivered today, so he can tell the crimes and all the bad things that are going to happen and try to stop them," Lambert explains.
- Art Courtesy Of Alli Wallace
- CREATIVE BRAIN Recording music is Chris Lambert's life-long passion. He's recorded more than a dozen albums since high school. Podcasting is a more recent pursuit for the 33-year-old Orcutt native.
Lambert invited his friends on as guests to discuss the various episodes. One of those friends, Weston Scott, said the venture showed off Lambert's goofy side.
"Chris is the person who can be quiet the entire time and then say the funniest thing you've ever heard in your life," said Scott, a fellow Righetti grad.
Despite the absurdist premise, Scott said Lambert never cut corners on the podcast's production and editing.
"He's always been so meticulous, even with something goofy like the Early Edition podcast," Scott said.
When that was over, Lambert started another conversational series, Are We Okay? Each week, Lambert invited a new local guest to talk for two to three hours about life and creativity. That podcast developed a steady following, and Lambert produced 160 episodes of it without missing a week.
"It was a lesson in sitting down with a brand-new person," Lambert reflects, shifting in his chair. "To be the host of a show every week and have to sit down with a stranger and be like, 'Let's talk for two hours,' I think was a challenge to myself to kind of get better at communicating with people."
Meanwhile, Lambert began keeping tabs on recent developments in the Smart case. Lambert was 8 years old when Smart, a 19-year-old Cal Poly student from Stockton, went missing on campus in 1996. He'd heard a lot about the case growing up, but never really grasped that it was a local story until years later.
"It started eating at me when they dug up the Cal Poly 'P' in 2016," Lambert says. "In 2017 and 2018, there were no updates. It just went silent. ... It was like, are they even looking for this girl?"
Lambert dove deeper and deeper into the circumstances around Smart's disappearance and the subsequent police investigation—the starts and stops; the key suspects, Paul and Ruben Flores; and the maddening mistakes made over nearly 25 years.
Just like his itch to record album after album, Lambert couldn't shake his vision for a docuseries podcast about the case. In 2018, Lambert quit his job at the recording studio to focus on it full time. His girlfriend of 11 years and roommate, Alli Wallace, said she fully supported the decision.
"There was no question," Wallace said. "I was honestly pushing for it more than he was. I just knew without a shadow of a doubt he was onto something. The direction he was going before people even knew about it, it was clear this was going to be something remarkable.
"It was just the perfect culmination of all the best parts of his storytelling abilities."
'Has to be as good'
Several months into the pre-production of Your Own Backyard, Lambert had done extensive research on the Smart case and recorded several interviews. But he had not tried to reach out to the Smart family.
"I thought, they probably don't want to talk to me," Lambert recalls, shaking his head. "They're done speaking with the media."
It took a stroke of good fortune for the two to connect. In honor of Smart's birthday, on Feb. 20, 2019, Lambert drove up to Shell Beach where Smart has a memorial. When he arrived, it was pouring rain.
"I was going to have my microphone ready and if anybody showed up with flowers or candles I was just gonna ask, 'Hey would you mind sharing a few brief words about the impact that Kristin's disappearance has had on our community?' Instead, it rained and nobody showed. It was just me sitting in my car in the rain," he remembers.
Drawn to an eerie lone egret that was perched out by the memorial, Lambert decided to walk out to the cliff and take a photo. When he was about ready to go back to his car, he noticed a woman joining him: It was Kristin's mom, Denise Smart. Lambert introduced himself and told her about the documentary he was working on. After playing some of Kristin's favorite songs on the cliff, Denise invited Lambert out to dinner.
"Every instinct in my body was like 'say no, thank you very much but it was nice meeting you.' It's very, very not typical of me to accept an invitation like that. But instead I said yes," Lambert says.
The dinner went well, and Denise gave Lambert her phone number at the end of it. Later on, Lambert called her to schedule a trip to Stockton to interview the family and some of Kristin's old friends.
"Once I got that done, I thought, 'OK, I think I have the first episode ready to go,'" Lambert says.
The Smart family was not available to comment for this article. In previous public comments, they've expressed appreciation for Lambert and his work.
It took Lambert a few more months after that to produce the first episode, which he describes as a "full-length movie of who Kristin was." He spent countless hours making it sound as professional and cinematic as possible. He wrote and recorded the entire score and did all of the editing.
"This American Life was sort of my template," Lambert explains. "I wanted my interviews to be at least the quality of Serial or S-Town or those high-production podcasts. I bought the same shotgun microphone that they use. I bought the same recorder. I bought everything used on Ebay. I was like, it has to be as good as the things I'm hearing other people do."
Writing the music for the podcast proved especially challenging.
"It was a lot harder than I thought it would be," he says. "The tone of the story ... it's a tone of emptiness or longing. It's not a scary, dark, heavy-handed score. It's got to be a little more subtle than that, and I really didn't know how to do it for a long time. It slowly came to me in little pieces here and there."
When Lambert finally dropped the first episode of Your Own Backyard on Sept. 30, 2019, that's when he says his life turned to "insanity."
'How did this happen?'
Within the first week that Your Own Backyard came out, the episode had more than 75,000 downloads. Lambert thought it might get 1,000, which was what Are You Okay? got at its peak.
"The statistics were if you get 30,000 downloads in the first week, you're in the top 1 percent of podcasts in the world," Lambert says. "I thought, 'Whoa that's crazy.' And then I thought, 'Now episode 2 has to be just as good, and I don't know if I can do that.'"
Lambert knew he had enough material for a six-episode series. He committed himself to putting out a new episode each week, a brutal pace that tested his mettle.
"That stretch of six weeks where I put out those first six episodes was just insanity," he remembers. "Every day, I was like, 'I have a deadline. I have seven days to finish this episode.' I know I've got the material there. I know I've got some score, but I need more. It was just ... I stayed up. I didn't sleep several nights in a row every single time."
On top of that, more witnesses and sources in the Smart case started to reach out to him after they listened to the podcast. Similar to a real investigation, the podcast began to evolve.
"People were starting to listen and then come to me and say, 'I didn't want to talk to you before, but now that I've heard what you've done, I'm willing to talk,'" Lambert says.
From there, Your Own Backyard took on a life of its own. At the conclusion of the six-episode sprint, the podcast hit No. 3 on the iTunes chart—with no marketing or advertising to boost it—garnering massive audiences in countries like England, Australia, and Canada.
"It was, like, Oprah, Joe Rogan, and me, and then somebody else. It's like, how did this happen?" Lambert says.
- Press Pool Photo By David Middlecamp
- MURDER SUSPECT Paul Flores (pictured), who grew up in Arroyo Grande, is accused of killing Kristin Smart in 1996. He will face a first-degree murder charge at a jury trial.
More importantly to Lambert, though, the podcast going viral coincided with major new developments in the Smart investigation. It appeared that the long-dormant case was finally kicking back into gear.
"By the time that sixth episode finished airing, it was just boom, boom, boom, boom, search warrants, phone wire taps, all kinds of things started happening," Lambert says. "It was, like, wow, things are really happening."
In April 2021, authorities arrested longtime suspects Paul and Ruben Flores for Smart's murder, and SLO County Sheriff Ian Parkinson credited Lambert with helping draw in new witnesses and leads in the case.
That month, Your Own Backyard shot up to No. 1 on the charts.
'Too close to me'
Lambert's still processing all that's happened since that first episode aired.
He's still getting used to being recognized in public. Even at the Starbucks drive-through, his voice gets identified through the intercom. His girlfriend often catches people sneaking photos of Lambert when they're out to dinner.
Lambert's also still very much at the center of the Smart case—more so than he'd like to be. He'd spent Sept. 20 in court for the final day of a grueling two-month preliminary hearing in the Floreses' criminal proceeding. On Sept. 22, a judge ruled to send the murder charges against the father and son to trial.
During the hearings, in an unorthodox move, defense attorneys filed a subpoena to try to gain access to all of Lambert's notes, emails, sources, and raw recordings used for the podcast. The judge threw it out, citing shield laws protecting reporters and their sources, but the experience rattled him.
"There was a list of everything they wanted me to turn over to them, and it was just this sick-to-my-stomach feeling," Lambert recalls. "The thought of them combing through my raw recordings. ... It's scary. I'm mentally exhausted. This prelim has been just a killer."
Lambert isn't sure yet whether Your Own Backyard will have an episode 11. He says he'll make new episodes "as it feels necessary." He's also not sure what his future holds. He's refrained from selling the podcast or partnering with any major entity or network to reap financial benefits from it.
"I said no to every offer I've gotten," he says. "And I'm not tempted—that's the weird part. I'm not willing to compromise anything ... not with this case. Maybe season 2. This story is just too close to me."
At the persuasion of many friends, family, and fans, Lambert recently added a "donate" button to his website where listeners can contribute.
"I was like, 'I'm not going to do it, I'm not going to.' Finally, enough people were just like, 'Put a link on your website!' I did it, and I've made more money in donations than I've made in the last 10 years of working," he says. "I'm so grateful to the community and the listeners."
Lambert says he's received thousands of emails from people around the world who want to alert him to other unsolved missing person cases, which he keeps in a folder on his computer.
"If I ever do want to do another season, I have tons to look through," he says.
But just like every other creative decision Lambert's made in his life, he knows it needs to come organically and for the right reasons. That's what led him to Your Own Backyard, and what made it special.
"It's just about the creation," Lambert says. "It's always been about can I just make the best thing that I'm capable of making creatively. And that's what this was, too. I just wanted it to be a really good documentary." Δ
Contact Assistant Editor Peter Johnson at email@example.com.