Before 'Serial,' Two Women Set Out To Bring True Crime To Podcasts

"Criminal" co-creator and host Phoebe Judge explains how "true crime allows the listener to be a detective for a minute."
"Criminal," Artwork by Julienne Alexander

Maya (not her real name) opens the third episode of "Criminal" describing a guy she had a crush on as a student at NYU: tall, muscular, good at basketball.

Despite their connection, Maya ignored her paramour's inconsistencies, which emerged the longer she knew him -- a jumped train turnstile here, a stolen projector there. "When you're infatuated with someone, you can convince yourself of a lot of things," host Phoebe Judge calmly narrates in between clips of Maya speaking.

"I didn't help him until we started counterfeiting money," Maya ominously explains.

To be human is to sort things into categories: right and wrong, good and bad, guilty and innocent. "Criminal," a podcast from Radiotopia and PRX, reminds listeners with every episode that the truth is many shades blurrier than that. "Our job is not to hold moral judgment," Judge (who plays off her apt surname in the show's ads; she uses sponsor Squarespace to create the free-advice site Phoebe, Judge Me) explained over the phone.

"I hope what we do is put forth an interesting story in as unbiased a way as possible and allow the listener to decide what they think," she added.

Sitting at the Venn diagram overlap of public radio listeners and "Law & Order" fans, the podcast, in so few words, is about crime. It's doesn't rest on the unedited voyeurism of the televised "Cops," nor does it offer the clear resolution of a fictional courtroom drama like "The Practice." Instead, "Criminal" covers the human aspect of the many roles -- perpetrator, victim, enforcer, witness -- that surround a wrongdoing.

Judge and co-creator Lauren Spohrer, both veterans of public radio, were brainstorming podcast ideas when Spohrer hit upon the idea that radio listeners also love a good crime story, even if "they might not want to admit it."

"There also weren’t many crime shows as podcasts at that point," Judge noted. "You know, when [Spohrer] said that -- 'Why not crime?' -- I thought, 'That’s the smartest thing I’ve ever heard.' Because I knew we would never run out of stories." Their first episode launched in January 2014, 10 months before the acclaimed "Serial" landed online.

"That’s how 'Criminal' was born," Judge said, "This idea of us taking crime in a broad sense and doing a podcast about it." Both Judge and Spohrer maintained their preexisting radio jobs while working on the podcast at night. They've only recently been able to make "Criminal" their full-time jobs.

"Crime stories also have this: They kind of write themselves," Judge said, "they have this built-in narrative arc. There’s usually always a consequence of some sort."

Using this framework for storytelling, Judge has investigated a book thief, an impostor, a serial killer, and the tourists who raid petrified forests in search of million-year-old wood, to name just a few criminal subjects. All are explored in the same measured, compelling way. "I hope what we do is put forth an interesting story in as unbiased a way as possible and allow the listener to decide what they think," she emphasized. "Even better if you can put the listener in the shoes of the subject that we’re portraying, be that a victim or a criminal, and let the listener think, 'What would I do?'"

There was a moment, Judge explained, when she interviewed a man who had murdered someone, for an episode called "Bloodlines." "He’d lived a very violent life. I was interviewing him and I was seeing that I was kind of shying away from calling him a murderer," she said. "And finally he said, 'You mean, ‘cause I’m a murderer.' He said it. And I said yeah, and the idea was that many of us have never done things like murder. It’s so big and taboo and wild and strange. But to this guy, it was one part of who he was."

The intimacy of a podcast, in which you can hear someone's voice without landing on the inevitable conclusions one might draw from physical appearances, allows this revelation to resonate more deeply. "He was like, 'I did this terrible thing, and this is what I’ve done with the rest of my life. So, yes, call me a murderer!'" Judge continued.

Judge describes podcasts in general as "intentional listening," wherein listeners deliberately choose to set aside time to enjoy an episode, and the tightly edited nature of "Criminal" benefits from that medium. "For us and the stories that we’re putting out in 'Criminal,' a lot of times they’re pretty complex and complicated and they’re not something that you can really walk away from for 30 seconds and come back."

Another bonus of the podcasting format is the variable length. Unlike TV viewers, listeners don't expect shows to fit into a neat hour or half-hour slot, which means episodes have ranged from 13 minutes in length up to 27. There's no need to sacrifice details or draw out a story unnecessarily: "It is what it is," Judge said. "One of the things we hear most is people writing in, saying, 'I wish 'Criminal' were longer.' We love to hear that. We hope we can hear that person every day. It means, I guess, we’re doing something right."

“True crime allows the listener to be a detective for a minute. They’re allowed to collect the information, evaluate it, make decisions. It’s an interactive experience. - Phoebe Judge”

I spoke to Judge in January, as most everyone I knew with a Netflix account was coming down from a "Making a Murderer" frenzy. I wanted to ask her, a dealer of true crime stories, what made the genre so compelling for audiences.

"Crime is one of those topics that kind of taps into our base curiosity about things: good and bad, right and wrong, and also human emotions," she said. "True crime allows the listener to be a detective for a minute. They’re allowed to collect the information, evaluate it, make decisions. It’s an interactive experience, whereas some other stories, you’re being told a story, and it’s entertainment."

We gain the thrill of the crime and the satisfaction of weighing the evidence, all while retaining the ability to turn it off when we begin to feel uncomfortable.

What sets "Criminal" apart, Judge explains, is the focus on strong personal stories. An episode that sticks out is from the podcast's early crop, titled "Call Your Mom." It covers a mother and daughter in Wyoming who both happen to be coroners. The episode focuses on the way they view death and the unique dinner-table conversations that are an inevitable part of their lives.

"That’s the funny thing about 'Criminal,'" Judge explained. "It’s not all terrible, dark, sad stuff. We really are very deliberate in thinking about the types of episodes we put out, and the fact that if we just put out a dark episode, the next one can’t be so dark."

"That’s the great thing about crime: It’s so big; It’s a big word. I think sometimes in the true crime genre, we equate it with sadness and misery and death and blood and gore. It’s not that way for 'Criminal,' and that’s very intentional that it’s not that way."

Maya, the woman who began counterfeiting money with her boyfriend, describes her and her partner's process of creating fake bills with an inkjet-printer "child's play." She admits that she was generally the one to "drop" the money at bars and bodegas, feigning innocence if the cashier accused her of giving a fake bill. But she was the one who finally ended the scheme after a close call at a nightclub.

"Do you think of yourself as a criminal?" Judge asks Maya.

"I don't," Maya answers. In retrospect, she explains, it's become more of a funny story to tell at a party, because ultimately, she didn't get caught.

Listen to "Criminal" via iTunes, Stitcher, or your favorite streaming app. Episodes also available here.

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