It's easy to understand why true crime stories are so compelling.
"This is intriguing stuff, and a lot of time it's taboo material," says "Criminal" podcast host and co-creator Phoebe Judge. "We like the things we're not supposed to like, and anything that allows us to be voyeuristic in a way."
Judge, a longtime radio journalist with a soft, soothing voice, is part of a small team based in Durham, North Carolina, that's been producing "Criminal" since January 2014. Each of the 89 episodes, one of which is released every two weeks, features a meticulously, thoroughly reported crime story. The podcast may dig into a mysterious poodle theft, shed light on the treatment of inmates at a youth correctional facility, or peek into the history of solitary isolation at Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia. Recently Judge and her colleagues debuted a new series, "This Is Love," which tells similarly investigative stories about all things love.
This week, the "Criminal" team will join local podcaster Nick van der Kolk, creator and host of "Love and Radio," on stage at the Broadberry for a live recording on Friday, April 27. Both members of podcast network Radiotopia, "Criminal" and "Love and Radio" came together for a collaborative live show in Durham last December, and Style had a chance to chat with Judge ahead of the upcoming show here in Richmond.
Style: What can fans of the podcast or new listeners expect at the live show?
Judge: We're doing brand new stories and telling them live, mixing them live, narrating them live. There's also a really strong visual component, which we don't get to do very often. If you closed your eyes you'd think you were listening to an episode of "Criminal."
How is performing live different from recording the regular podcast?
I can screw up so easily, and I do screw up. When we make "Criminal" we're in the studio, in the dark room. We're putting out this content and we know people are listening, but we have no idea what their reactions to the stories are. Now we're here on stage and we can look down and see in real time whether people are smiling or frowning or falling asleep.
How is "Criminal" different from other true crime podcasts?
When we started "Criminal," a year before "Serial" started, there weren't really any true crime podcasts. And this is a topic where we're never going to run out of stories. We wanted to take this broad approach to crime. We wanted to take an approach that hadn't been done much. We really shy away from sensationalizing violence and focusing on the blood and gore and sadness, by taking a much more human experience approach to the word "crime." Which is why some of our stories are very sad and some are very funny.
There's been a lot of discussion about the roles and responsibilities of reporters and documentarians when it comes to telling true crime stories. How would you describe your role?
We try to hold ourselves to the highest journalistic standards that we have. Of course, if I were to say that "Criminal" is in no way meant to be entertainment that would be wrong, but we consider ourselves journalists first. I was a reporter before I was anything else. Nothing gets onto the podcast that we have not fact-checked, and we try to keep our editorializing to a minimum. I always say the best episode is the one where you hear me the least. That's our ethos: Get us out. It's not our story to tell. No one wants to hear my experience, they're here to hear the storyteller's experience. No one needs to hear my opinion. Our job is to put forth the information in a way that is concise, truthful and appropriate.
With both "Criminal" and "This Is Love," you're asking guests to share deeply intimate and personal stories. How do you go about that?
They wouldn't tell us if it was too personal. When we conduct these interviews, it's not just me as a reporter with a mic and a list of questions. It's a conversation, and it's a long conversation. Over the course of this conversation, I hope they start to feel more comfortable. I have a plan when an interview begins, but a lot of times that goes out the window. Someone will say something, and I'll say "Tell me about that." These are deeply personal stories, but I think what we've learned and how we've approached it is you can ask anything if you're genuinely interested in the answer.
Do you worry that as podcasts continue to grow in popularity, the market will become oversaturated?
Absolutely. I'm as worried today about "Criminal's" success as I was when we had 50 listeners. That's why we made a second show. We have to be more innovative, to try something new. I think for us, it's the idea that we're not the new kid on the block anymore. We're going to have to really fight for our listeners. There's so much good content and we really have to strive, every episode, to earn and keep our listeners.
Live podcasts of "Criminal" and "Love and Radio" take place on Friday, April 27, at the Broadberry. Tickets cost $25. All ages. Doors open at 7 p.m. the show starts at 8 p.m. thebroadberry.com.