Arts & Culture

‘Just tell a story’: Behind the scenes at the thinking person’s true crime podcast

In the still air of a soundproof studio in central North Carolina, veteran journalist Phoebe Judge is messing with the time-space continuum.

Well, telephonically speaking. Judge is sitting in the dimly lit studios of WUNC in Chapel Hill. She’s interviewing David Brown, author and former police chief of Dallas, for an upcoming episode of “Criminal,” the popular true crime podcast now in its third year of production. Brown is actually in another public radio studio, in New York, but thanks to a dedicated ISDN connection, it sounds for all the world like he’s been teleported into the studio for this interview.

Sitting behind the mixing boards in an adjacent room, Judge’s collaborators – producers Lauren Spohrer and Nadia Wilson – watch Judge through a window, everyone silently communicating through laptops and a shared Google doc. With the live audio feed piped in through speakers, the producers can also hear Brown as if he were a few feet away. The crystal clear audio effect is kind of bananas, and it’s a telling indicator of the attention to detail that makes “Criminal” one of the best productions on the podcast charts.

In fact,“Criminal” is arguably the leading series in the busy genre of true crime, which takes its topics from the news headlines and the historical vaults. A remarkable commercial and critical success, “Criminal” examines the historical, sociological and psychological aspects of crime – all kinds of crime. Embezzlement. Vandalism. Identity theft. The clandestine baking of marijuana brownies. It’s the thinking person’s true crime show.

The ‘Criminal’ pedigree

If the names associated with the show sound familiar, that’s because the three women behind the podcast are all public radio veterans, with credits including “Weekend Edition,” “Planet Money” and “Radiolab.” Judge was, until just recently, the midday host at WUNC, and she still guest hosts “The State of Things” from time to time.

When the show debuted in January of 2014, the podcasting landscape was quite different. “Serial,” the game-changing series that’s often credited with bringing podcasts to the mainstream, had yet to debut. Judge and Spohrer, who had worked together on WUNC’s “The Story with Dick Gordon,” came up with the idea of a crime podcast that would take on a broad range of topics.

“When we started, there weren’t any crime podcasts,” Spohrer says. “’True crime was looked down upon in public radio, but we were confident we could tell long-form crime stories through a respectful lens.”

Indeed, one of the core strengths of the “Criminal” podcast is that it stays well away from the ghoulish tabloid tone that often haunts this end of the podcast dial. Early episodes featured unique takes on an intriguing procession of stories, from the trial of Durham novelist Michael Peterson to the death of famed crime writer Raymond Chandler.

“We aren’t lawyers or investigative reporters,” Spohrer says. “We’re public radio producers who are curious about why people do what they do. And we’re not afraid to ask dumb questions.”

“Criminal” is now part of the marquee podcast network Radiotopia, narrowcasting to millions of listeners twice per month, like clockwork. Thanks to the podcast industry’s improved advertising and sponsorship models, “Criminal” is now a full-time job for host Judge, co-creator Spohrer and third producer Nadia Wilson, hired in September.

Taking the show on the road

The remarkable ascension of podcasting as a 21st-century media format has also led to an unexpected development for the production team. They’re a live act now, with “Criminal” traveling all around the country to participate in onstage podcasting events and festivals, typically held in small theaters or nightclub venues. At these events, episodes are taped in front of an audience, with Q&A sessions and other interactive elements.

“We have done more than 25 live shows in about a dozen states,” Judge says. “It is a lot of fun to take the show on the road. Most of the time we are hiding in a dark studio, never really knowing what someone’s reaction is to the stories we put out. By telling these stories live on stage we can look people straight in the face and see what they are thinking.”

The live shows also include a visual element – hand-drawn images and stop-motion animated graphics from Durham artist Julienne Alexander, who also creates custom illustrations for each podcast episode. At the “Criminal” website, Alexander’s work transforms the typical podcast archive page into a compelling gallery of images.

“It’s a lot of fun to share scripts with her and collaborate on how to represent a complex story with one black-and-white illustration,” Spohrer says. “She nails it every time. The illustrations have a lot of heart, and sort of crown the stories.”

Graceful, efficient storytelling

Other than the live shows and regular field pieces, “Criminal” is produced at the studios of WUNC, which helps give the series a professional sheen and that superior sound quality. “We’re friendly with the station and they allow us to record in the studios in Chapel Hill,” Spohrer says. “We’re very lucky to have such a great relationship.”

Spohrer says that the addition of Wilson as a third producer has allowed the series to tackle more ambitious, complex stories.

“We have a process where one of us will take the lead on a story,” Spohrer says. “The demands of researching, writing and producing long-form audio documentaries, often about difficult subjects, can wipe you out. We’re sharper if we rotate who takes the lead on research, writing and mixing.”

Among hardcore podcast devotees, “Criminal” is particularly noted for its graceful storytelling efficiency. Because podcasts have essentially no time restraints – no broadcast slots or set episode lengths – the format can often get bloated and chatty. Not “Criminal.” Episodes typically run between 15 and 35 minutes. The stories move at a fast clip, and there’s always a sense of momentum.

“Each story goes through many edits, always with an eye toward tightening it up and making it clear and simple,” Spohrer says. “We’re mindful of efficiency because we’re asking listeners to devote their full attention to these stories.”

‘Just tell a story’

The podcast’s lean-and-smart approach has earned “Criminal” an enthusiastic and loyal audience. New listeners tend to stick around, and the podcast’s download numbers have been growing at a steady clip since episode one.

A big part of the show’s success is the sense that, unlike so may other media offerings these days, “Criminal” clearly likes and respects its audience. The show’s producers assume that listeners are as curious – and as busy – as they are and can effectively parse complex and difficult topics without condescension or hand-holding.

“There’s so much good stuff to listen to right now that it’s a mistake to expect your listener to hang in there through boring parts,” Spohrer says. “It’s even worse to approach storytelling hoping to ‘teach’ or ‘enlighten’ your listener. No one wants to be talked down to.

“Just tell a story.”

How to listen

Stream episodes of “Criminal” at or download at iTunes or on your favorite podcast app.

Other Local Podcasts

In addition to “Criminal,” the Triangle region is home to dozens of other locally-produced podcasts. Here's a quick sampling – you can find these with a quick search on your smart phone podcast app, or browse around for other local podcast offerings.

  • Scene on Radio: From Duke's Center for Documentary Studies, this ambitious twice-monthly podcast features in-the-field reports from instructors and students on a wide variety of topic in and around the region.
  • Carolina Book Beat: Local writers Mur Lafferty and Samuel Montgomery-Blinn chat with local and visiting authors, keeping the focus on speculative fiction genres like sci-fi, horror and fantasy.
  • Ways & Means: Produced by a veteran team of public policy experts and journalists, “Ways & Means” probes and pokes at the ongoing experiment that is American democracy.
  • Medic2Medic: Hosted by Cary EMS chief Steven Cohen, M2M is specialized professional podcast for first responders and medical workers, but civilian eavesdropping is encouraged. You'll hear some good stories.
  • American Songster: Musician and folklorist Dom Flemons (The Carolina Chocolate Drops) hosts this monthly excavation of American popular music, featuring performances, interviews and historical recordings.
  • She & Her: A weekly series from Hillsborough's community radio station WHUP, “She & Her” delivers insightful discussions on various political and social issues with a Southern feminist spin.
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