Behind the scenes at the thinking person’s true crime podcast
For centuries, live entertainment has come in distinct categories. Music. Theater. Comedy. Monster trucks. When you head out to a venue or arena, you pretty much know what you're going to get.
So, it's a nice change of pace when a show comes to town that offers a new variety of live entertainment. Such is the case with "Radiotopia Live," a kind of rolling storytelling festival that celebrates the young and restless media format known as the podcast. Coming to the Carolina Theatre on May 8, the Radiotopia show features live presentations from seven of the most popular and creative series on the podcast dial.
The Durham show — the second stop on Radiotopia's six-date East Coast tour — includes the podcasts "99% Invisible," "Benjamen Walker's Theory of Everything," "The Kitchen Sisters Present," "Radio Diaries," "The Bugle," "The Allusionist: and Durham's own runaway success story, "Criminal."
As an entertainment option, the live podcast event is a relatively recent development in show business. But it's getting very popular, very quickly. Podcast listeners tend to be fiercely loyal to their favorite shows, and Radiotopia specializes in programming that takes an innovative approach to the storytelling medium.
If you're unfamiliar with the rapidly evolving world of podcasts, it's helpful to think of Radiotopia as a sort of boutique record label or publishing imprint. It's a curated collective of podcasts — like an indie label for audio programming. Radiotopia was founded by Roman Mars, creator of the "99% Invisible" podcast, and is operated by the nonprofit media company, PRX.
“What's different about the Radiotopia shows is that they're not just interviews,” said Julie Shapiro, executive producer of Radiotopia. “A lot of podcast performances trade on standup routines or live interviews between a well-known host and a guest.”
Instead, Shapiro said, each of the seven presenting podcasts have come up with their own strategies for transposing podcasts from your headphones to the stage.
“The bulk of this lineup is going to be narrative stories that play out right in front of you,” she said. “They each have their own style and approach. They do things differently, but all in service of telling stories about the world around us.”
Audiences coming out for the evening can expect live music, visual elements and maybe some surprise guests, Shapiro said.
“There will be videos and props, and generally a more physical approach to telling stories,” she said. “All the senses will be engaged.”
For producers of the Durham-based podcast "Criminal," the Carolina Theatre event is like playing a home game. Over the past four years, host Phoebe Judge and producers Lauren Spohrer and Nadia Wilson have developed the twice-monthly podcast into a popular and critically acclaimed series with an international following.
Like many other podcasts, "Criminal" deals with true crime stories. Unlike other podcasts, it eschews the ghoulish tabloid tone that otherwise haunts this genre. The series brings uncommon insight and journalistic rigor to the topic by exploring the various facets of that one simple word: criminal.
Earlier this year, the producers released their second podcast series, the delightful six-episode "This is Love," which tells stories of "sacrifice, obsession and the ways in which we bet everything on one another."
Judge and Spohrer said they consider it a genuine honor to be on the bill for "Radiotopia Live."
“It's like a festival — you're getting a little bit of everything,” said Judge, speaking from the offices of WUNC, where "Criminal" is recorded and produced.
“And it's a good festival," Judge said. "These other shows we're playing with, these are people we've admired for so long.”
Sense of community
"Criminal" and the other Radiotopia series have each done live events previously, together and separately, including a mini-tour of the West Coast last year. But this new production is designed to be more than just the sum of its parts.
For example, the Durham show will feature a special joint presentation from the creators of two Radiotopia podcasts: the satirical news program "The Bugle" and language-themed series "The Allusionist." As it happens, the hosts of the two shows — Andy Zaltzman and Helen Zaltzman — are siblings.
“The two of them together, live, are so quick and so hilarious,” Spohrer said. “That's something you can't see anywhere else. They don't podcast together, but when they're on stage together, it's magical.”
Back at Radiotopia HQ in Cambridge Mass, Shapiro said the "Radiotopia Live" tour is the latest in what the network hopes will be an expanded offering of live shows for dedicated audiophiles.
Shapiro is a former Triangle resident herself. Earlier in her career, she worked at WUNC and Carrboro music venue Cat's Cradle. Mounting a podcast tour, she said, reminds her of working with touring bands and musical groups.
“There's a real sense of community with the fans,” she said. “People who are in the know find other people who are in the know. That's why the tours are so gratifying, both for the producers and for the people who come out. Everyone gets to experience that live energy. There's an adrenaline to it.”
Judge, as host and lead presenter for "Criminal," said she has come to value the live performances for the immediate feedback provided by the audience.
“It's really refreshing for us, a couple of times a year, to get out of the studio and go see who's listening to the show,” she said. “When we're out there live, I can look out and see if someone is smiling ... or booing … or asleep....”
They've gotten better at it, too. Laughing ruefully, Spohrer and Judge remember one of their first live events, which nearly ended in catastrophe.
“We were doing a show in San Francisco, and I got terrible food poisoning – half an hour before we went on for a sold-out show,” Judge said.
Spohrer remembers the moment: “She called me backstage and she was just green. Now, Phoebe's a very tough person. She would never say anything unless it was an emergency. But she looked insanely sick.”
“We thought, now we're going to find out what it's like to cancel a show half an hour before you go on,” Judge said.
Judge was able to make it through the show – just barely.
“Getting through that performance has made us realize we can get through just about anything,” Judge said. “As long as I'm not about to throw up all over the audience, I'll figure it out.”
What: "Radiotopia Live"
When: 8 p.m. May 8
Where: Carolina Theatre, 309 W. Morgan St., Durham
Tickets: $35, plus various VIP packages
Info: 919-560-3030 or carolinatheatre.org
"Radiotopia Live" will feature live performances — original presentations designed for the stage — from seven of the network's most popular podcasts:
▪ "Criminal": Produced in Durham, Criminal presents true crime stories with an artful twist.
▪ "99% Invisible": Radiotopia's award-winning flagship series explores the fundamental concepts and unseen aspects of architecture and design.
▪ "The Kitchen Sisters Present": Storytellers, journalists and documentary and producers present long-lost tales “from the B-side of history.”
▪ "Radio Diaries": This unique documentary series features everyday people chronicling their lives with borrowed recording equipment.
▪ "The Bugle": The revered satirical news program from British comedian Andy Zaltzman was previously co-hosted by John Oliver.
▪ "The Allusionist": UK broadcaster Helen Zaltzman digs into the mysteries of language and linguistics.
▪ "Benjamen Walker's Theory of Everything": Public radio veteran Walker delves into technology, culture and … well, everything.