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This is Criminal-An Interview with Phoebe Judge and Lauren Spohrer

DC Public Safety Radio

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Leonard: From the nation’s capital this is DC Public Safety. I’m your host Leonard Sipes. Ladies and gentlemen, today’s show interviews the creators of Criminal, a very popular podcast. Listen to Criminal via iTunes, Stitcher or your favorite streaming app. I found that just searching for Criminal podcast got me right to it. Criminal is a podcast from Radiotopia and PRX.

We welcome Phoebe Judge and co-creator Lauren Spohrer, both veterans of public radio who were brainstorming podcast ideas when they hit upon the idea that radio listeners also love a good crime story even if they don’t want to admit it. Ladies, welcome to DC Public Safety.

Phoebe: Thanks for having us.

Lauren: Thank you.

Leonard: You run a huge podcast, very popular. I’ve spoken to a ton of people who really enjoy, in the system, who really enjoy listening to your program. It’s just really amazing. I just want to know before I describe it, and I’m taking an awful lot from a Huffington Post article that you guys previously did, for me describe criminal. Describe what you do.

Phoebe: This is Phoebe. Criminal is a podcast about in the big sense of the word, crime, but I think what we hope to do is use the big sense of the word to kind of surprise our listeners in showing that crime can not just be tragic and sad, but also funny and uplifting and warm. We’re really trying to use the human experience of crime as the basis for all of our shows.

Leonard: The human experience is also neatly described in the Huffington Post article when they talked to the both of you. Call Your Mom 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. When I’ve listened to Criminal I’ve been sucked in very easily by that human dimension. Your big focus is the humanity surrounding a criminal event?

Phoebe: Yeah, I think for us we won’t really do a story even if we really want to do it, we think it’s interesting, we think it’s an interesting topic, a news worthy topic, we won’t do it unless we have a very strong personal story at the center of it. If we can’t find that person, they’re not willing to speak with us, they just, you know, we’ll pass the story down. I think for us hearing that firsthand account, hearing the emotion and the way someone has seen one of these events through their own eyes, having someone who can give us that type of perspective is critical for us.

At the basis of all of the Criminal episodes is a good personal story. I think that comes from both of our backgrounds as producers and reporters where we spent years looking for interesting people.

Leonard: Well, the interesting people part of it is fascinating because they are so extraordinarily interesting and at the same time they communicate unbelievably well. Where do you find your people? As somebody who has been doing crime and justice related podcasts for a quarter of a century, how do you find the people that you find.

Lauren: This is Lauren. I think we get asked this question all the time and we don’t have sort of a clever answer other than to say that we’ve both worked in public radio for along time, so we’re used to searching out stories. I think one thing that’s been a lot of fun for Criminal that we don’t seek out experts or analysts or academics as much as we look for regular people.

We’re here in Boston and last night we got into an Uber and our Uber driver was also a criminal defense attorney. He just started chatting us up about, he just started saying, “The case that really keeps me up at night …” Just started telling us a story. I think our favorite way to find stories to work on is just by chatting with people in our lives.

Leonard: You become enmeshed in the lives of individuals where I do a half an hour podcast. It’s in, it’s out. I edit it. It’s done. I’m assuming that you spend an enormous amount of time on every episode and I’m assuming that you spend an enormous amount of time getting to know the people that you interview. Do you come away from all of these interviews with a collective sense as to who individuals are within the criminal justice system? How they get caught up in the criminal justice system? Is there a fundamental gut feeling that you have about people that you’ve interviewed?

Phoebe: I think that while we do a lot of background work before the interview starts to figure out the facts of the case, once I start having a conversation with something I really never know exactly what’s going to come out of it. I think Lauren and I both allow Criminal to have that flexibility. There will be times where we think we know where the story is going because we’ve done all this front research and gotten the court documents. Then we actually sit down and have the interview with the person. We say, “Oh, this story is nothing like we thought it was going to be.”

Leonard: Wow.

Phoebe: I think we really let the subject dictate the end result of the episode. I also think one thing that maybe makes Criminal maybe a little different than some others, we don’t really try to force a conclusion if there isn’t one for the story. We’re not there to make moral judgements, say someone is good or bad, right or wrong.

Our job is to put forth the information in its most accurate and interesting way as possible. Because we allow ourselves as that, as our guiding principle, I think you do learn a lot more about the person and the subject because we’re allowing them to tell their story rather than us telling the important parts of the story we think you should know.

Leonard: Before I do podcasts I do reach out to some people within the criminal justice system, ask them what I should be asking my guest. Many of the issues that you discuss go to the heart of fairness and equity within the criminal justice system. Do you have any observations as to how the criminal justice system operates and what it does?

Lauren: I think it makes us a little uncomfortable to try to … You’re the expert. We’re certainly not the expert. I think one thing that we’ve learned over the course of doing this is that things are never as simple as they seem, things are never as simple as we thought they were from reading books or watching television shows or watching movies.

There’s always sort of a lot more layers, a lot more complications, especially with the court system, but also with police investigations than we ever imagined. I think we’re, if anything I think working on the show has made us less certain about what we know about the system.

Leonard: Because there are so many components to the system, so many people, so many actors, so many individuals making decisions that it’s not just the criminal justice system, but a wide variety of actors. Some of whom could be good, bad, indifferent. Is that what you come out of it with, the sense that it’s fluid, that it’s a system in motion and that it’s just an interesting story to tell?

Lauren: Absolutely and that it’s so specific. Different courtrooms are run different ways. There are different statues in different counties. There are things that I think that I know and then when I actually start digging into the facts of a particular case I’m always surprised that my assumptions were not correct. We spend a lot of time calling lawyers, calling county clerks, calling courthouses, procuring documents just to check to make sure that we really do understand what happened.

Leonard: You cover the entire spectrum of what happens in terms of an individual incident. You’re talking to perpetrators, victims, enforcers, witnesses. You’re talking to all of them to try to bring the listener in to all of the circumstances that happen in terms of that particular episode.

Lauren: Yeah, that’s right. Although I’ll say we put out a lot of requests with law enforcement and they rarely respond to us. Often the response that we get is that officers can’t comment on pending litigation, which we of course understand, but we would like to do more.

Leonard: Possibly I could help you in terms of doing more, but I would imagine that somebody coming out of the woodwork saying, “Hi, I represent a podcast and I want to talk about this particular case,” would seem rather intimidating to a lot of folks within the criminal justice system because they oftentimes don’t get those sort of requests. We get requests from the media, give me the person’s name, give me the person’s charge, what is the court date? It’s pretty matter of fact. You’re talking about an in depth conversation about what’s happening in terms of these particular cases. I’m assuming that that will be intimidating.

Phoebe: Certainly and I think that as you mentioned, there is a perception I think sometimes about crime shows, crime podcasts, is this going to be just a sensationalized, are people making shows going to sensationalize the story and get things wrong just so that they can get a rise out of their audience? I understand apprehension within people in the system who might say, “Wait a second. There’s a podcast called Criminal that’s going to do X, Y, Z.” I hope that people, I hope that what we’ve done is prove that there is a way in which to explore the criminal justice system, the criminal mentality, victims that’s responsible and fair and accurate and not sensationalized.

I think that if we can get past that first hurdle of approaching people within the system and saying, “Hold on. Don’t back away just because it’s a show called Criminal. Wait a second.” Then I think anybody that we have gotten that far within the system who has then listened to episodes that we point out I think has a better understanding of what we try to do with our show.

Leonard: I think that’s the point of getting them to listen to the show so they can understand how complex and how evenhanded it is. Why did you chose the term criminal which is in DC a fairly politically incorrect term?

Phoebe: We thought for a very long time what the name of the show would be. I think that, I like the name. I like the name of the show, but of course, it necessarily makes you think oh, these are all going to be criminals that we’re going to be hearing from which is not true at all. Actually very rarely are we talking to pure criminals on the show.

I think what we wanted to do was to have a title that would allow the listener to know exactly what they were getting in the sense of crime. We could have called it The Crime Show I guess, but something about criminal which I think speaks to the fact that we are dealing with crime, but also that we’re dealing with human stories. We’re dealing with one person. A criminal, it’s kind of in a way to say it’s going to be a personalized version of a crime event.

Leonard: Well, I love the title. I think the title says everything that it needs to say. I think it’s a beautifully crafted title because it gets to the heart and the soul of the matter. One of the podcasts, you were interviewing and individual who had committed a homicide and there was sort of stumble in terms of how to address the person. The person shoots back, “What? Are you referring to me as a murderer? Well, that’s exactly what I am.” Maybe sometimes clarity is what’s necessary in talking about crime and justice.

Phoebe: Yeah. I think for us there’s no topic we won’t take on or I think that our responsibility is to ask fair, accurate questions and portray the events as accurately as possible. If you do that you can call … As long as what you’re calling them is true, you can call someone anything you like. You can do whatever type of show you want.

Leonard: One of the favorite topics I have when I’m talking to people caught up in the criminal justice system by these microphones is I’ll say people refer to you as a criminal. How do you see yourself? Sometimes that creates a beautiful conversation in terms of how they see themselves and how they believe others should see them. I like the title very much. What has been the exposure or the thought within the National Public Radio community or the public radio community or the podcasting community? How do they see your show?

Lauren: I hope people like it. We put our individual episodes up on a website called PRX that allows NPR stations to purchase it and many of them do, so that’s always nice. Our show gets played in our hometown. We live in Durham, North Carolina and our episodes get played every Sunday evening. That’s sort of a really fun thing. You make something on your own and then you can turn on the radio in your car and you can hear it. That means a lot to us. We both were trained in official public radio communities and I think it means a lot to us that our work now is aired there.

Leonard: I’ve been interviewing people from National Public Radio and I’ve had them before these microphones several times, listening to National Public Radio types of shows for decades. Your show is as good or better than anything that I’ve heard on National Public Radio. The quality of the show is superb. The choice of topics is superb. In terms of talking to people within the criminal justice system, they also like the show. I just was wondering how it was being received by the professional NPR community. I think they’re going to love it as much as I do.

Lauren: I think if they have some negative opinions they don’t say it to our face.

Leonard: Maybe that’s good. Do your parents get to listen to the show when the local public radio station broadcasts it there in North Carolina?

Phoebe: We’re both not from North Carolina.

Leonard: I’m sorry.

Phoebe: No, no, no. They live in Florida and in Massachusetts. Our parents I think are probably the most, the first people who listen to every new episode of Criminal. They are our greatest critics and they let us know what they think. They’re very attentive listeners. I think certainly my parents haven’t missed one. My father I think listens to them a number of times, each one of them, and Lauren, you’re the …

Lauren: Yeah. I love to get, sometimes I’ll send my mom a rough draft and get her feedback before we’re done.

Leonard: Oh, that’s great. That’s great. All right, we’re halfway through the program. Phoebe Judge and Lauren Spohrer are our guests today. They are the producers of Criminal, a program, a podcast from Radiotopia and PRX. My favorite way of getting Criminal is just search for Criminal podcast and it pops up as being number one. It was there before Serial, ladies and gentlemen, and certainly one of the most popular podcasts in the country dealing with crime and criminal justice issues.

You said that you don’t pass moral judgement regarding the people that you talk to. Isn’t that difficult? Because you get so enmeshed in the lives of the people that you talk to. There’s an ongoing controversy within criminalogical circles within the media about the role of the criminal justice system, the role of law enforcement. Isn’t it difficult not to pass judgement?

Phoebe: Who are we to pass judgement? I think that there’s an interesting way to think about that question. I think maybe I feel fair and right in saying that I don’t really believe that there are evil people in the world. I think that if you walk around with that mindset you don’t pass much judgement. You rather try to understand. That’s all we want to do, understand.

We’re talking as you say, to murderers sometimes. I’m not trying to pass judgement on them. I’m just trying to understand how an individual could do something like that. I think that’s what we try to take with Criminal is a better understanding of crime of the human experience of crime with no judgement because I don’t think any of us can really know how we would act in certain situations. We can dream about it and we can speculate, but you never actually know. I think that’s the way we kind of take the worldview we have for crime, moral judgment and the show.

Leonard: You remind listeners that with every episode the truth is many shades blurrier than simply good or bad, guilty or innocent. That’s the point, that there are multiple, multiple layers to any crime story. It’s just not a matter of being being good or of people being bad.

Lauren: Yeah, I think that’s important. I think it’s the difference between reading a small news item in the newspaper, which without any context allows you to pass judgement versus actually what you hear on the show is edited down to somewhere around 20, 25 minutes, but there were many, many hours spent speaking with that person. I think anytime you have a long respectful conversation with someone, obviously things are not so simple anymore. I think it would be in bad faith for us to pretend that we had some sort of moral clarity about something that’s very complicated.

Leonard: I agree with you. I’ve sat and interviewed over the course of years, not necessarily in front of microphones, hundreds of people caught up in the criminal justice system. I indeed find their stories fascinating and that’s exactly the experience that I have. I don’t walk away from that saying this person is blank. I walk away from that experience saying that’s a very complex story by a very complex person.

Lauren: Yeah and this person’s life has been very different from mine in a number of ways that I can’t pretend to understand or have some sort of moral mastery over. I think a lot of times when we talk to people it becomes more clear that we all sort of do the best we can within a certain set of circumstances.

Leonard: I remember being a police officer a lifetime ago and it was a terrible automobile accident. There were three or four of us gathering up medical supplies from the back of police car. Somebody saw us laughing and it was a terrible accident with a family, multiple victims, bleeding profusely. We were trying to save their lives and we’re back there snickering and laughing as we’re loading up on medical supplies in the trunk of a car. There was a complaint.

People said, “Well, what were you doing?” We said, “We were trying to deal with the horror in front of us and to deal with it in such a way that we could effectively deal with it. We weren’t being disrespectful. We we re just psychologically trying to cope with what it was that we were seeing in front of us.” There are many different layers of complexity when you’re dealing with the criminal justice system. Where are you taking Criminal? What’s going to happen? Is it going to be more of the same? Are you looking at specific topics? Do you just float through your professional lives until somebody gives you a very interesting story?

Phoebe: No. We come out every two weeks and so we’re constantly searching for stories and looking and in various modes of production. Later this afternoon we’re off to do an interview. We also do live shows which is kind of a fun new thing that we started doing.

Leonard: Yes it is. Watched one.

Phoebe: Yeah, yeah. We travel around. It’s different when you’re podcast hosts used to being behind a microphone in a studio with no one watching you to be up on a stage and do it live. It’s a whole other ballgame. That’s kind of fun too. It pretty much, Criminal, it takes a lot of work so we constantly have our heads down and just trying to get the next episode out.

Leonard: You were doing this on a part time basis for most of the history of Criminal, correct? Just recently within the last year that you’ve started doing this on a full time basis. Doing all of that and doing the podcast that you do had to be a tremendous challenge.

Lauren: It was. It was a lot of work. We would do our regular jobs and then come home and work on the show late at night or on weekends or in the morning before work. It was so, it was then and it still is so exciting to build something yourself that I think we had a lot of energy for it that we weren’t expecting. I think this is the most exciting, challenging job I’ve ever had.

Leonard: I get reading from the Huffington Post article using this framework for storytelling Judge had investigated a book thief, an impostor, a serial killer, a notorious who raid petrified forests in search of a million year old, in search of million year old wood just to name a few of the criminal subjects, all are explored in the same compelling way.

Your interest level, it’s not like you’re looking at rapists. It’s not like you’re looking at cops. It’s not like you’re looking at judges or necessarily just people caught up in the system. You’re looking at a very carefully crafted in depth conversation with anybody who happens to come into contact with the criminal justice system.

Lauren: I don’t think we would be able to work as hard as we do if every episode was the same. I think that that’s something that’s interesting about … We just recently did an episode about a man who tried to poison a historic tree. The fact that there is also a trial and someone could be prosecuted for that and the sort of police investigation, that is to me, it’s the sort of lesser known, more unexpected angles here that really make it always feel fresh for us.

Leonard: You make it fresh by the variety of topics that you bring to the show. Is that the point? Because again, every time I listen to a different episode it’s an entirely different subject. It’s the complexity of human fault, the depth that you bring to the individual that you interview, that’s what makes it compelling and that’s the success of the show I’m assuming.

Lauren: I hope so. That’s very kind of you.

Leonard: No, I don’t think it’s kind at all. I think it’s a straight observation by somebody who’s been in the criminal justice system for close to 50 years. It is just a very strong, very compelling storytelling. How you find these people I just find amazing because they’re all extraordinarily articulate. When I bring people into this studio I never know what I’m going to get. The person is interesting, but is the person going to cooperate? Is the person going to tell an extraordinarily interesting story? How many hours do you put into every episode?

Lauren: It really depends. One thing I’ll say is that we do have a pretty lengthy preliminary conversation with them before we record. If someone, if it’s clear that someone maybe isn’t comfortable or just isn’t ready to talk about it or just doesn’t want to, we’re not going to schedule time to record with them. We do try to be somewhat strategic about how we spend our recorded hours.

We do know, when Phoebe sits down with someone for their recorded interview we know and they know exactly what’s going to happen. We do it very informally so it’s usually a long informal conversation. Then we edit that tape down. We transcribe it all. We have some great people who we work with who help us transcribe. Then we sort of read it as a document. We say what are the most important parts of this? What are the most surprising parts of this? What order, in what order should we deliver this information?

It is sort of like a writing process from there, but we do everything we can to choose stories that will sort of just tell themselves, where the events unfold naturally. It’s just a question about being thoughtful about how to present that to a listener. Sometimes it’s 80 hours and episode. Sometimes it’s less. It’s been more. It just depends on how many interviews and really how much work we put into the editing and revising process. That just sort of depends on the story.

Leonard: Do you allow people to pitch you stories?

Lauren: Oh absolutely. We love to get pitches. We absolutely get some great ideas from listeners and we really encourage that.

Leonard: We do that through the PRX website, Radiotopia?

Lauren: Or you can just go to our website, and there’s an about page. You’ll find both of our email addresses and also a catchall for the whole show. We read all of our emails and we respond to all of them.

Leonard: Well, I’m going to take the most interesting people I’ve interviewed and the next time I talk to them I’m going to suggest that you talk to them because telling these stories, they’re just fascinating.

Lauren: I’m thinking that you might have some fascinating stories for us. I think we should set up a time where you can tell us some of your stories for the show.

Leonard: Well, after 50 years the stories are endless, but I come to the conclusion that those of us in the criminal justice system have, we’re pretty cynical. We have a very strong sense and very strong opinions about the world around us, whether or not people understand who we are, people understand what it is that we do. There’s a lot of controversy surrounding police officers in terms of are these good and decent human beings. I was watching a piece on CBS where an 11 year old boy was asking his mother, “Should I continue to want to be a cop? Are cops still the good guys?” He created a benefit for police officers and police officers came from all over the country just to attend this 11 year old’s benefit.

There’s a dynamic that’s going along in the criminal justice system that breaks those of us in the system and the issues that we deal with into good or bad, right or wrong, moral or immoral. That’s not criminal. What you do is to get into the very heart and soul of an issue and explore it to its very limits.

Lauren: I do think that that helps us. We’re not lawyers. We don’t have any background sin criminal justice. We’re just curious. I think we were not cynical. We really were coming at it with a lot of questions. I think that is the right place to start work like this.

Leonard: The curiosity, we all start off with that same sense of curiosity and so there is a sense of me that says you guys probably have developed a sense of the system and developed a sense of the people within the system. It would be almost impossible not to.

Lauren: Saying exactly what you’re saying.

Leonard: What’s that?

Lauren: I think we should check in [inaudible 26:18]. We might be cynical then too, but that hasn’t happened quite yet. We’re only two years in so we’ll see what happens down the road.

Leonard: Okay.

Lauren: No, if anything I feel less sure about what I know. I grew up in a family of lawyers and I used to think I had a really strong grasp of the legal system. I think over the course of working on this show I have come to see how little I understand and that there aren’t any sort of hard and fast rules that you can keep in your back pocket and that will always prove to be true. That just never ceases to fascinate me.

Leonard: You said in the Huffington Post article, true crime allows the listener to be a detective for a minute. They’re allowed to collect information, evaluate it, make decisions. It’s an interactive experience whereas other stories you’re being told this is and it’s entertainment. You’re allowing the person to float through the person you’ve interviewed, to float through their lives, make an informed decision based upon the evidence that you present, allow the person to be a detective and allow the individual to come to their own conclusions. That’s why I think the show works.

Phoebe: We want the listener to remain just like as completely invested as possible because we’re not telling them what to think I hope.

Leonard: That’s obvious. The whole idea is to make sure that they come to their own conclusions and that you’re telling both sides of the story. I plan on using my experience with the Criminal podcast to get everybody to listen, to get them to understand that it’s just not all, all the coverage of crime and criminal justice, it’s not just the 30 second soundbite or the one 20 minute package. That there are people out there doing in depth interviews and just basically presenting the evidence and letting other people decide. I think that’s the heart and could of Criminal and I think that’s why you’re going to be popular with people who work within the criminal justice system.

Phoebe: That’s great. We would really welcome that audience and hope that people within the system do appreciate what we’re trying to do.

Leonard: We’ve had a wonderful time. I’ve had a wonderful time talking to Phoebe Judge, Lauren Spohrer. They are the creators of Criminal. It is just an extraordinarily interesting podcast on crime and the criminal justice system. It’s on iTunes, Stitchers or just go to your favorite search engine and listen from there. It’s a radio program from Radiotopia and PRX> you can contact them on their own website, Ladies and gentlemen, this is DC Public Safety. We appreciate your comments. We even appreciate your criticisms and we want everybody to have yourselves a very pleasant day.