Interview: 'Criminal' Co-Creator Talks Podcast Success And The Obsession With True Crime Stories


The verdict is in. Now more than ever, we just can't get enough of true crime stories. Whether we want to get inside the mind of a killer, help solve a mystery, or attempt to get justice, this is one killer of a genre right now. Take, for example, the recent craze with HBO's The Jinx, Netflix's Making a Murderer, and the podcast Serial, which have all been a success among audiences.

But before these shows became everyone's latest addiction, there was the podcast Criminal, which has been telling true crime stories since its first episode aired in January 2014.

Created by public radio reporters Phoebe Judge and Lauren Spohrer, the podcast features the stories about people "who've done wrong, been wronged, or gotten caught somewhere in the middle."

When thinking about starting a podcast, the reporters realized there were not many true crime stories out there. And the fact is that people are attracted to these types of stories (we all indulge in Law and Order marathons or just finished binge-watching Making a Murderer), and are always wanting more.

"There's a lot of curiosity that comes with these types of stories because they touch on so many different parts of the human experience, the bad and the good," Judge told Tech Times.

These tales naturally have a narrative built-in where we can follow what allegedly happened that day, learn and sympathize with the characters of these stories and then find out what the final verdict is — no matter if we agree with it or not.

"I think in a well-told crime story, you are given facts, and given bits of information, and what we certainly try to do in our show is have the listener decide what they would have done in the situation, and if could they ever imagine themselves doing something like that," Judge said.

Instead of taking the approach of a podcast like Serial (which launched in October 2014), where the reporter follows one story week to week, Judge and Spohrer decided early on to feature a new story each week. Episodes include those about a man tried for murder with a bizarre owl plot twist, a college student who turns into a counterfeiter, and the superstition surrounding petrified wood that is stolen from a national park.

Tackling one story at a time gives the reporters the ability to include a variety of crime stories. After all, a listener would think the reporters may start to suffer from nightmares after spending so much time studying the more horrific cases (which is explored in an episode where a journalist befriends a serial killer).

"Doing a show called Criminal, is it's not all horrible, blood and sadness. I think the true crime genre can often get a bad rap because its a lot of these sad, tragic stories. What we hope to do with Criminal is say 'wait a second, crime is a big word and its not just one thing,' " Judge said.

With that said, there's a healthy mix of dark and chilling stories along with lighter, everyday wrongdoings, and the creators deliberately decide the order in which they release their episodes. This also helps the listeners to be surprised each week.

But focusing on one story over the course of a few episodes would be "great fun" to do in the future Judge revealed.

No matter the topic, each Criminal episode is as interesting, dramatic and exciting as the last.

"These types of stories allow the listener to not just be a passive listener, but rather an active one. You're asked to be an investigator. You're asked to take a side," Judge said. "And so throughout the story, you are collecting information and deciding for yourself. You're not just being told something."

Judge revealed Spohrer and herself find their own stories to cover in the podcast, a skill they have down pat as journalists. They start by pitching ideas to each other, and then conduct a preinterview with the subject, followed by a formal interview.

"The job that I serve as the host is to ask the questions that the listener would ask," Judge said. "I get to say to the person, 'Why did you do that? You're guilty, but why did you do that?' "

Once the interview is completed, one of them takes the lead on writing a draft of the script. After an edit or two, Judge then goes into the studio to narrate the episode. After adding in some music, they send the episode off to an engineer. Judge said it usually takes them between 40 and 80 hours to finish an episode.

Criminal started off being funded by these two reporters, with episodes being recorded during their free time after their full-time jobs, and it has gone on to see great success, including becoming one of the only podcasts featured in the iTunes top 20 without having major outside financial support.

Criminal now has 2 million monthly downloads, and is featured on the podcast network Radiotopia.

"Beyond the true crime genre, a show like Criminal fits perfectly into Radiotopia because we look for great shows with a compelling narrative," said Kerri Hoffman, COO of Public Radio Exchange, a platform for digital distribution of public radio programs. "The combination of the team's unique perspective matched with their advanced production quality is essential for us. Furthermore, we are building a community of producers and listeners. Lauren and Phoebe are top talent, reshaping the audio landscape with us."

And as these reporters continue to help shape the curated network of story-driven shows, Criminal will continue to cater to our obsession with the crime genre.

"Our goal is not to pass judgment. We're also not trying to moralize about another person's story or vice," Judge said. "We're there to report the facts in the most interesting and accurate way as possible ... and then you as a listener get to go on a journey and decide at the end of it what you think."

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