"We're Alive" ran from 2009 to 2014, offered about 48 hours of post-apocalyptic entertainment, amassed 35 million downloads, became part of a well-known podcast network and drew enough fan support that two other fan-run podcasts cropped up, allowing listeners to share their thoughts on the story.
"There's one particular hotel that was sort of the inspiration for The Tower in the story," said Wayland, describing an early base of operations for his band of protagonists. "The military secured the bottom floor [of an Iraqi structure] and they were able to keep everybody safe in the entire building. I was like, 'That would be amazing — the perfect zombie plan.' "
Blockbuster, on a budget
Finances led Wayland into the audio realm in the first place. After leaving uniform in 2008 — Reserve duty, even limited, didn't mesh with entertainment-industry projects that didn't allow for weekends off — the former sergeant hoped to make a version of "We're Alive" as a TV series.
"At the time, there was no 'Walking Dead,' " he said. "There was no big survival/horror show with an ensemble. I thought, 'Hey, this would be great!' "
The action sequences, explosions, large crowds and multiple locations that made up the zombie drama didn't lend themselves to low-budget film-making. Wayland, whose documentary on his time in Iraq had earned awards and been shown at multiple festivals, needed a new medium.
"When a character pulls out a gun [in a radio play], they immediately describe the gun in awkward dialogue," Wayland said. "You know, 'Hey, why'd you pull that gun on me?' instead of using sound effects."
"We're Alive," with Wayland doing much of the sound work, has drawn praise for its audio techniques, including from another former soldier, this one a retired sergeant first class who was with Wayland in Iraq in the 222nd.
"He's always been great at the technical stuff," said Scott C. Marvin, who served 20 years and made multiple deployments as an Army broadcaster before retiring in 2008. "But he was also able to work with language. Some people can't do English and math."
Marvin, a former morning man for Armed Forces Network-Bosnia in the 1990s, switched services after retirement; Wayland brought him in to provide the voice of former Marine Burt Scott, who was running a gun shop before civilization broke down.
"I listened to all the tales of 'The Shadow' and all that," said Marvin, who still went through the casting process despite ties to the show's creator. "It was a natural fit for me."
The series has grown a substantial military following, Wayland said, and not just stemming from characters with military ties and the occasional zombie-busting tactic based on the creator's Army background.
When the protagonists band together for battle, service members "love the realism of how people don't just get along," he said. "Nobody has the right idea, everybody has something else they want to throw in there. That's how people work. When you get into the muck of things, everyone has an idea, and sometimes people just don't want to listen."
And despite the undead antagonists, there's a bit more combat realism in "We're Alive" than similar dramas: Weapons jam, ammunition and supplies run out, and there's even an early scene where the main character has to deal with an untested second lieutenant who's woefully unprepared to give orders as all hell begins to break loose.
Big Army even gets involved when the drama shifts to Fort Irwin and U.S. forces square off with the horde.
Spoiler alert: Score one for the bad guys.
"I wanted to show how our best-trained [troops], our best equipment would do against them," Wayland said of the monsters. "And they didn't do very well. … It was just a way to elevate how much of a threat these things are."
(Zombie) Podcasting 101
The show found a new online home a few years into production, after Wayland and his wife attended a stand-up show by comedian Chris Hardwick, noted zombie fan (he hosts "The Talking Dead," a recap show that airs after AMC's zombie drama) and podcast pioneer (his "Nerdist" show reportedly topped 4 million monthly downloads in 2012 and is still going strong).
One post-show discussion and one follow-up email later, and Wayland's creation was part of the Nerdist network, offering advertising and promotional support to spread the undead word to a larger audience.
"You're looking for ideas, well-executed," said Perry Michael Simon, director of programming at Nerdist Industries. "Kc at 'We're Alive' clearly executes the concept beautifully. It's a compelling story that keeps you coming back for more, and I imagine that whatever they're going to be doing in the future would be the same."
There are about 30 active podcasts on the Nerdist network, Simon said. He wouldn't provide download figures — "We're Alive" did "tremendously well," he said — but there is room to grow: A recent survey cited by the Wall Street Journal said 17 percent of Americans over 12 years old have listened to a podcast in the last month, up 2 percent from the previous year.
Donations had approached $33,000 toward a $50,000 fundraising goal as of Thursday afternoon. The creator's offered few details on the new series, although character crossovers are planned and Marvin's part of the new cast.
"I wanted to have it act as a stand-alone piece, as a way to bring in new listeners," Wayland said. " 'We're Alive,' is pretty intimidating at over 48 hours. ... I thought a side story would be great, [and] the fan response has been incredible."