It’s not often that an entirely new territory opens up in the mass media landscape.
But that’s what happening these days with podcasts, the emerging digital medium in which audio (and sometimes video) presentations are released episodically, streamed to your computer or mobile device. The numbers suggest that podcasts are wildly popular – top-tier shows like “Serial” and “Stuff You Should Know” have downloads that are measured in the tens of millions, worldwide.
But podcasts remain, for the most part, a curiously under-the-radar phenomenon in mainstream pop culture – at least compared to TV or film. The podcast represents a new mass media format that’s growing up right in front of our eyes.
And, as it happens, right in our backyard. One of the industry’s most recent and most remarkable success stories is “Criminal,” a podcast produced out of Durham and hosted by veteran journalist and WUNC host Phoebe Judge. The show’s two other co-creators – Lauren Spohrer and Eric Mennel – are also WUNC vets with public radio credits that include “This American Life” and “Weekend Edition.”
Launched in January 2014, “Criminal” has gradually built a large and loyal audience. Late last year, it cracked the Top 10 on the iTunes media charts, and in January 2015 was picked up by the storytelling podcast collective Radiotopia.
“Criminal” is themed, in a general sense, around true crime: “Stories of people who’ve done wrong, been wronged, or gotten caught somewhere in the middle,” according to the show’s website. A big part of the show’s appeal is its inquisitive and open-minded approach to its own theme.
For instance, the show’s premiere broadcast examined a particularly bizarre aspect of the infamous Michael Peterson case, in which the Durham novelist was convicted of killing his wife. But subsequent episodes have roamed all over the map: teenage hackers, botanical thieves, amateur counterfeiters and one intriguing story of a successful effort to fight crime with Buddhist iconography.
“Our goal, when we started ‘Criminal,’ was to talk about crime in the broadest sense,” said Judge, who currently anchors WUNC’s midday broadcast. “And it’s since then it’s opened up into even more unexpected areas.”
The idea for the podcast was initially sparked when the three producers worked together at “The Story With Dick Gordon,” WUNC’s nationally syndicated show that went off the air in October 2013. “We had been talking for a while about creating a podcast,” Judge said. “It was Lauren that suggested it – everyone loves stories about crime, whether they admit it or not, and there are no public radio programs about crime. Why don’t we do a crime show?”
Recording literally in the closets of their Durham homes – it’s easier to control sound that way – the producers put out podcasts once a month throughout 2014. Through online buzz and shout-outs from other respected podcasts, the show’s audience grew steadily.
Last fall, “Criminal” enjoyed a run of good press as listeners and media watchers caught on. Write-ups in Buzzfeed, The Huffington Post and Time magazine led to “Criminal” peaking at No. 3 in the iTunes podcast charts – just behind heavyweight champions “Serial” and “This American Life.”
Individual episodes of “Criminal” are lean, in the best sense of that term. Stories clock in at 15-25 minutes, and no words are wasted. The disciplined storytelling contrasts with more free-flowing podcasts in which the absence of time restraints can sometimes lead to talky indulgence.
“We do try to keep it tight, and Phoebe’s personality lends itself to a very clean piece,” said Spohrer, who also teaches writing at Duke University and runs the online literary magazine Two Serious Ladies. “She’s just not a big gabber; she’s very focused. So it’s genuine in that way – she’s not going to talk about herself a lot.”
“We’re very conscious of the length of our episodes,” Judge said. “We want it to be just the right length. Is it 19 minutes and 10 seconds, or 14 minutes and 13 seconds? The best compliment we can hear – and we hear it a lot – is when people say, ‘I love your podcast, I just wish it were longer.’”
Another strength of the show is its willingness to chase down a good story no matter where it comes from, or where it leads. For example, one recent episode investigated the weirdness surrounding the death and burial of crime writer Raymond Chandler more than 50 years ago.
That idea came from Spohrer’s love of Chandler, and of noir crime fiction as a genre.
“I’m a big Chandler fan,” Spohrer said. “He’s such a singular writer. He’s so funny, and doesn’t get a lot of credit for that. I wanted to do something on him since we started the show.”
The Chandler episode ended up being among the show’s most intriguing installments so far, and by its very topic expanded the possibilities for storytelling within the podcast’s stated theme. In any given month, “Criminal” might explore true crime or historical crime, but it also might branch out into stories about crime writers or criminality as an element in literature and pop culture.
It might also come to you live. In January, “Criminal” recorded its first live show at Motorco in Durham. That show – concerning issues around right-to-die laws – can now be heard in the latest episode of “Criminal,” which posted March 13.
“I wasn’t sure people were going to show up, and it sold out,” Judge said. “It was nice for us because we live here in Durham. So to have a strong ‘Criminal’ audience in the place that we live – that feels really great. I think that we will do more live events in the future if people want to come see them.”
Spohrer has bounced around several major media markets working in public radio, and said she’s particularly glad to be producing “Criminal” locally.
“We’re excited to be in town. Having worked in media in D.C. and New York, I feel really proud to be making this out of a city that’s not one of those cities,” she said with a laugh.
With the additional funding and promotional support provided by Radiotopia, the team hopes to expand the show on multiple fronts – producing more stories, more frequently, and potentially moving into public radio syndication.
But the podcast’s success has been particularly gratifying, Judge said, in that it reflects the creative, do-it-yourself ethic of podcasting in general.
“We just started doing it, at night, in our closet. We just started making this thing. It’s been a lot of work, and to see this thing you care so much about succeed – we’re just so grateful. It makes us want to work harder.”