Tales of true crime make Criminal a popular podcast

 In October 2018

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Producer Lauren Spohrer, left, and host Phoebe Judge founded Criminal in 2014. Since then, they have produced nearly 100 episodes. Photo by Juli Lenoard

In a recording studio at the WUNC studios in Chapel Hill, producer Lauren Spohrer sits surrounded by a swath of papers, scripts and schedules like some sort of grand conductor, typing furiously on her laptop. Phoebe Judge is perched in front of a massive microphone in the adjacent sound booth, separated by a pane of clear glass. Today, she is interviewing a Texas emergency-room doctor who was a first responder at the Sutherland Springs church shooting that killed 26 in November.

It’s a sensitive topic, but Spohrer and Judge navigate the difficult questions with a solemn grace, sending signals through the glass window with silent nods of the head and exchanged glances. The doctor provides great detail, giving pause to emotional moments while Spohrer sends Judge the next question. It’s just another day of recording their hit podcast, Criminal, which has covered everything from body farms to professional streakers to a support group for mothers of murder victims.

The podcast has about 4 million downloads per month, according to Judge. Beyond its core U.S. audience, Criminal is heard by people in China, Ireland, New Zealand and other nations.

More than 112 million Americans listened to at least one podcast in 2017, up 11% from 2016, according to Forbes. People can listen to chatter about virtually any topic without staring at a screen, often for no cost because Criminal and most other podcasts are free. Widely available internet access underlies the rapid growth.

Judge describes Criminal as a “show about people who’ve done wrong, been wronged or gotten caught somewhere in between.” It’s more about the human experience than true crime, she notes.

“A lot of times, we find topics that you might not even know would fit under that banner. It’s fun and interesting to do a show that isn’t always sad.”

Judge and Spohrer are public-radio veterans. Judge was a Gulf Coast reporter for Mississippi Public Broadcasting, where her BP oil spill coverage won journalism industry awards. Spohrer worked as a producer at National Public Radio’s Weekend Edition Saturday and Bryant Park Project, and also taught writing at Duke and Columbia universities. The two met while working on The Story With Dick Gordon, a storytelling show produced at WUNC. When the radio show ended in 2013, they decided to start their own podcast.

“We thought it was the right time to build a show where no one was going to tell us what to do,” Judge says. “We were interested in doing a show that was different than so much of the crime-television reporting that we had seen. So much of true crime in any form is exploitative, insensitive, over-sensationalized, gory, bloody — and we wanted to do something completely different. ”

About 50 people tuned into their first episode in 2014, which they recorded at night in a tiny closet to ensure good sound quality. They didn’t know that the podcast would become a smashing success, “but we tricked ourselves into believing that it would,” Judge says. “Whether people listened or not, we were going to be really serious about it. … If it became a financial success or audience success, that would be great. But at least we would know that we’d made something special even if it didn’t.”

Criminal has received various accolades, including best documentary from the Third Coast International Audio Festival in Chicago. In 2016, the show was featured in “Best of” lists in Wired, The Atlantic, USA Today and Rolling Stone. The Huffington Post described it as “the best new radio show in America,” and Time magazine dubbed the podcast the “purist’s true crime series.”

Judge says it’s important for Criminal to stay true to the show dreamed up four years ago. “We have produced two episodes a month since the show started. We’ve never released a rerun. We’ve never taken a month off.”

While Judge won’t provide financial details, she says revenue has grown substantially each year since its launch. Most of the funding is supplied by Radiotopia, a podcast network run by nonprofit media company Public Radio Exchange. Additional revenue stems from advertisements that air during episodes and the 40 live shows that Criminal’s founders have held in the U.S. and Europe. Tickets average about $20, with shows planned this fall in Portland, Ore., Toronto and Washington, D.C.

Judge and Spohrer work on the podcast full time, alongside producer Nadia Wilson. The team also has an engineer, Rob Byers, and artist Julienne Alexander, who creates original illustrations that are featured on the show’s website. They have plans to hire an assistant producer.

Earlier this year, the duo expanded with a six-episode spinoff called This Is Love. Stories ranged from baby spiders that eat their mothers in an act of maternal sacrifice to a woman who wrote 120 books about her first romance. The second season launches this month.

Criminal isn’t going anywhere,” Judge says in the opening episode. But the new show deals “with the inescapable nature of love and how a simple act of love isn’t always pretty or grand and doesn’t always make things better but can change the course of it all.”

Interest in true crime isn’t a new phenomenon. Shows like Law and Order have long touched on the things that most of us don’t actually have daily experience with, according to Judge.

“We’re curious people, and we want to know about the things that even might scare us sometimes,” Judge says. “It’s no shock that crime podcasts are so popular.”

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