For the release of the second edition of Ezra Magazine, we were fortunate enough to catch up with Criminal’s podcast host and co-creator Phoebe Judge. Here’s the interview.
“One thing that hasn’t changed, is that 83 episodes in I’m just as nervous as I was at episode one. That we’ll lose all of our listeners – that someone is going to wake up one day and say, “Oh, that Criminal is really going downhill,” so we’re constantly grateful for (and terrified) of our audience in the sense that we never want to disappoint them.”
Phoebe Judge is the co-creator and host of the podcast Criminal, a show that explores the meaning of crime through interviews with people who’ve either done wrong, been wronged or fallen somewhere inbetween.
“It’s shocking for me that Criminal has been going for four years, it kind of feels like it’s been going for a year. I’m kind of amazed that this whole thing worked. I think you know, when Lauren Spohrer and I created the show, we really wanted it to be successful and we told ourselves, ‘Even if no one listens, we’re going to take this really seriously’. And the fact that somehow that worked, is still shocking to me and I appreciate it all the time.”
Launching in 2014 Criminal was one of the first true crime podcasts to hit the airwaves and libraries. Its unique approach to storytelling and its exploration into the sociological, sometimes historical aspect to crime is extremely addictive. As the co-creator and host, Judge has created something for herself that she has the creative control over along with Lauren Spoher – a freedom that she thoroughly enjoys as a reporter.
“I think what’s so interesting is to work on something that you own, that you are in control (of). You know, there is no one above me or us that say, “Report this story,” or “do it this way.” And so when you’re making all of the choices there’s a remarkable amount of stress that comes with that, but that freedom to pursue stories that you’re curious about is so wonderful. And I think that’s what makes the work so enjoyable, is that we’re telling stories that interest us, that our bar for a good story, is a story that we’re curious about. And so, that to me and being able to work on a show that has that as the bar of what we’re going to put out, is so nice.”
At the time of writing this article, the Criminal podcast is 83 episodes in [Update March 2019, they’ve now reached over 100 episodes]. In its growth and evolution as a show, Criminal has covered a range of true crime stories such as ‘Jolly Jane’ – an American serial killer who after her arrest in 1901 confessed to 31 crimes; ‘In Plain Sight’ – the story of William and Ellen Craft who disguised themselves to escape the slave trade and ‘Pearl Bryan’ – a story about a woman who was found decapitated after suffering from a botched abortion in the late 1800’s – just to name a few.
“…it makes you want to keep making episodes. And it makes you want to work hard. And with all of that stress of being responsible for every little aspect of it – it’s okay though. It’s such a privilege to be able to make something that people actually want to listen to. I think about that all the time – how lucky I am, to get to do a job like this.”
When listening to Criminal it’s almost as if you’re silently and curiously eavesdropping on a conversation between two people – only Phoebe is acknowledging you’re listening as you go along. And as a seasoned reporter, previously working at North Carolina Public Radio and a reporter based in the gulf of Mississippi, Phoebe has certainly learned a few skills along the way to ensure that Criminal is a genuine and authentic storytelling medium.
“What I’ve learned is that you can ask anyone pretty much anything as long as you’re genuinely interested in what they have to say – in their answer. And so I spend a lot of time thinking about my job as an interviewer, and realising that the best thing that I can do as an interviewer is to shut up, and to let someone tell their story. And, if someone can sense that you’re genuinely listening to their story, they’ll tell it to you. And so, that to me, that challenge of trying to figure out my role as a host is something we’ve been developing over a few years and I think that maybe we’re finally starting to figure it out and what we’ve learned is, don’t talk. Let the ‘someone else’ talk.”
When producing something like Criminal, or even something like Ezra Magazine – there’s always an element of some type of stress. In the media and communications world there are always deadlines and time lines reporters, journalists and producers have to work to. For the Criminal team, they’ve established that they’ll release a show every other Friday and for Phoebe it just, works.
“Of course there’s stress (laughs), but I say all the time, you know, when we have four days to find an episode and write it, record it and put it out, I just say to myself, “It’s going to be okay, it’s going to be okay,” and it always is okay. The world will not end if Criminal is not published at 4am every other Friday. The world will keep going, but in our minds – in my mind – the world will end, it will end (laughs). Everything will stop running, the subway systems will shut down. I have that in the back of my mind. And because I do believe that everything will end, it makes us able to stick to deadlines pretty well, because I feel like if we miss an episode of Criminal everything will end, so we’re able to stick to deadlines because we never want to get to a point where it’s Friday at 3am and we don’t have anything to put out.”
Two common themes between the creators, artists, photographers and innovators that we have interviewed over the years are adaptability and self-belief. As a creator, if you can adapt to your environment and adapt to the challenges you face – you will, as we have learnt, most of the time come out on top and better people for it. As for self-belief – if you can genuinely believe in yourself and take pride, be passionate in what you do – it’ll show through in the work that you create and the people you talk to.
“We’re adaptable – we have a really small staff. And so we all do everything, which means that it’s not waiting for people to come back with scripts, you know we’re all kind of sitting around with each other and if someone jumps to work on something else, someone else will jump in and it’s always worked out. And it’s stressful at times, but then you publish the episode and you have about two hours where you think to yourself, “What am I going to do now?” and then it starts all over again.”
In regards to the nature of Criminal – as to why it’s a show about crime – it seems as if the show really hones on the how, the who and the ‘why’ – the motivations behind why people have done the things they had done, said the things they had said and acted upon those feelings. For Phoebe, she hasn’t always had a ‘soft spot’ for crime, Criminal came about because crime stories, in essence, are captivating stories in their own right.
“Crime stories are good, intriguing stories to report and the reason that we started Criminal is because when we started Criminal there weren’t really any other crime shows out there, true crime shows. Serial didn’t come up for another year, so I think that they are necessarily kind of intriguing stories and, talking about crime now for four years, I’m more confused about the topic than I ever was before, that’s the honest truth.”
Amongst its 83 episodes are all kinds of people who have been involved in crime in some way. Some old, some young. People who have done the wrong thing, or, did the right thing and were wronged along the way. There’s stories about murder, kidnapping, sexual assault and the many other facets of crime – all told by people who I guess in some way, essentially want their stories told.
“You just have a genuine curiosity about what they have to say. When you ask the question, you have to realise that you’re going to have to accept their answer, I mean if they’re lying to you, you can say, wait a second you’re lying, but whatever comes out of their mouth is their answer. So I think that, I hope my approach is one of kind curiosity, and understanding that yes, I might not know exactly what they’re talking about, I might not have had the exact same experience that they have, but I’m a human being too and I know how complicated situations are, and I know how hard things can be sometimes, so just kind of allowing the person I’m interviewing to feel as though they have a genuinely curious, not interviewer but just human being, who they’re going to answer the question for, is what I try to do.”
Criminal is produced by Phoebe Judge and Lauren Spoher. Nadia Wilson is their producer with Rob Byers on the sound design. Julienne Alexander makes their awesome cover art for each episode which can all be found right here: thisiscriminal.com. You can listen to Criminal episodes on their website or through a podcast app like Spotify.