Talking with Criminal host Phoebe Judge about storytelling

A different voice narrates the first moments of the popular podcast Criminal every episode, offering a hint of what crime the next 25 minutes may have in store for the audience. The first voice we hear never belongs to Phoebe Judge, the host on the North Carolina-based hit, beloved among listeners for her calm and curious approach. That’s a hallmark of Criminal: Judge is our guide, but someone directly involved in the episode’s crime drives the story forward in their own voice. The show strikes a balance between investigative journalism and first-person storytelling, featuring everything from the bizarre to the shocking. This has propelled Criminal into the type of success that allowed Judge, along with co-founder and producer Lauren Spohrer, to embark on a two-month live tour this fall. Judge and Spohrer brought Criminal to the Cedar Cultural Center in Minneapolis last Sunday, November 6, and we had the opportunity to talk to Judge over the phone last week in advance of their show.

Before Judge and Spohrer started Criminal in early 2014, the two both enjoyed careers in public radio. They were looking for something that would allow them to tell a variety of stories, and be fruitful enough to sustain itself far into the future. “We wanted a show that would match the tone of my voice, which is rather calm and reserved and quiet,” Judge said. Focusing on crime in a broad sense, thus not focusing exclusively on perpetrators or victims, murders or small heists, offers opportunities for intimate storytelling. “I think crime stories lend themselves to very rich conversations; and I think that’s why I like them, because they touch on a lot of human emotions,” Judge said. Judge appreciates the volatility of crime that allows her to tell stories of lost urns, family murders and decade-long blackmailing schemes, treating each with extreme respect and plenty of research.

The podcasting medium creates a familiar connection between host and audience that does not exist in public radio. “Most of the people who are listening to podcasts are listening with earphones; we’re directly in their ear, and I think there’s a kind of intimacy to that voice coming from those headphones when it’s coming right into your head,” Judge said. As writers, we felt that intimacy right away, when we realized that we could actually talk back to the voice we’d grown so familiar with through our earbuds. Listening to Judge narrate with her patented cool disposition each episode instills a degree of trust in the listener, a relationship which has helped build Criminal’s loyal fan base. “On the radio you could turn on the radio and listen to whatever’s on—you love [some] stations, you love NPR—but with a podcast listener they’re making a deliberate choice to listen to your show. They’re deciding ‘I’m going to listen to Criminal now.’ And that feels like a great responsibility for us because if someone’s going to take the time to listen to an episode of our show, we want to make it work for them,” Judge explained.

Judge’s skills have been honed over years of interviewing and investigating. She sees interest in her subjects as the key to her success. “If you’re curious about a topic or someone’s story, you’re really genuinely curious, they can say just about anything to you,” Judge added.

With no shortage of crime to research and discuss, Judge finds it necessary to set a few rules about the kinds of stories that Criminal will and will not do. One such rule is the avoidance of sensationalized violence. “I think it’s cheap,” Judge said. “Violence for the sake of violence, violence for the sake of drama… is not something we ever try to do,” she continued. Compared to other popular true crime podcasts—of which there are many, from Serial to Real Crime Profile to My Favorite Murder to Sword and Scale, Judge’s work on Criminal is unique in it avoidance of copious discussion of violence.

For every story that Judge won’t report on, there is one that Judge can’t report on. One of the biggest problems Criminal faces is finding the right storyteller for obscure and underpublicized events. “We need someone with direct experience or involvement,” Judge said. “A lot of the time the problem is that we have stories that we really want to do, but we can’t find the right person to tell the story.”

Criminal always comes back to the subjects, those who in most crime shows would be treated as weirdos or pariahs. Judge brings both curiosity and compassion to her interviews. She explained her strategy further, and how it keeps her show surprising: “Criminal’s not about me or my voice, it’s about the stories that we’re telling, the people that are telling the stories.”