Before Serial, There Was Criminal, a Local Podcast About the Darker Side of Human Nature | Arts Feature | Indy Week
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Before Serial, There Was Criminal, a Local Podcast About the Darker Side of Human Nature 

Criminal producer Lauren Spohrer researches a homicide.

File photo by Justin Cook

Criminal producer Lauren Spohrer researches a homicide.

In an ordinary recording studio at WUNC, a group of very nice, soft-spoken people report on the darkest, strangest parts of human nature. Criminal, the podcast that recently celebrated its fiftieth episode, has garnered a sizeable following since its launch in early 2014. Through research and interviews, it presents the stories of people—many of them from North Carolina—who've "done wrong, been wronged, or gotten caught somewhere in the middle."

The subjects featured at a live show at Motorco last year included a woman who assists people in ending their own lives, a mysteriously expanding neighborhood shrine, and a Greensboro man trying to figure out who was threatening his family with anonymous notes. The show's appeal lies in its inquisitive, matter-of-fact examination of these stories and the journalistic distance with which they are presented.

"It's not our place to make moral judgments, good or bad," says host Phoebe Judge, an accomplished public-radio journalist you might have heard on The State of Things. "Our job is to put forth the information in a way that's as clear and concise and compelling as possible, and let you decide for yourself what you think. It's an honor for someone to tell us their story. That's our question: Have we done this guest's story justice?"

Criminal posts a new episode every two weeks; they can be streamed or downloaded through outlets like iTunes and the podcast's website, www.thisiscriminal.com. It recently embarked on a live tour that includes a hometown show at the Carolina Theatre on Thursday, presented in tandem with Motorco Music Hall.

click to enlarge Illustration for Criminal by Julienne Alexander - ILLUSTRATION BY JULIENNE ALEXANDER
  • Illustration by Julienne Alexander
  • Illustration for Criminal by Julienne Alexander

Criminal has earned acclaim from outlets such as The New York Times, Wired, and the Huffington Post, which declared it "the best new radio show in America." The success is particularly meaningful to Judge and producer Lauren Spohrer, who began developing the idea after the public-radio series they worked on, The Story with Dick Gordon, was canceled in 2013. Spohrer came up with the crime angle—she says she figured they'd never run out of stories—and they spent several months developing the series on nights and weekends.

The biggest challenge, Judge says, was developing the voice of the podcast, finding a way to make sure "all the parts matched." When the show premiered in January 2014, Judge says the first episode received "about fifty downloads, and I thought that was pretty good. It meant more people than just our friends and families were listening."

That number has grown to millions per episode, enough to let Judge and Spohrer quit their day jobs at WUNC to work on the series full time. Though they premiered Criminal before Serial helped make true-crime podcasts trendy, they're quick to credit it with bringing attention to their series.

"Serial didn't just help crime podcasts, it helped put podcasting on the map," Judge says.

Even now, when Criminal's voice is sure, crafting a story is a complex task. Spohrer says they ultimately reject about 98 percent of the stories they explore for the show.

"When we pitch a story, we always start with the person we most want to talk to for it," she says. What follows is a process of research, fact-checking, and, sometimes, multiple interviews. Spohrer and other producers often pre-interview subjects before Judge talks to them so that the conversation will be vetted, but also fresh and unrehearsed. The interviews are recorded at WUNC and then transcribed to form the backbone of a narrated script, followed by a grueling process of edits to get everything as tight as possible.

"There's a lot of swearing that doesn't make it into the show," Judge says. "The smooth feel is not easily achieved." Criminal avoids melodrama and dramatic suspense to deliver stories from a detached, observational perspective. This "quiet" style, as Judge calls it, keeps the focus on the subjects and stories, which often originate in Durham, where Judge and Spohrer both live.

"The story we did about Sandie Alger at TROSA really stayed with me," Spohrer says. "We see TROSA trucks and signs all around Durham, and every time I see one now, I think of Sandie and her story."

"We were intrigued by the idea of not doing a podcast out of New York or Los Angeles, and potentially making stories from the South part of the program," Judge says. "Life is easier, in some ways, in North Carolina, certainly in the Triangle. We thought, let's stay here, away from the fray of everyone else trying to make a podcast, and just put our heads down and work."

Correction: This story originally misstated the number of times each episode of Criminal is downloaded. It is millions, not thousands.

This story appeared in print with the headline "Quiet Style

  • The acclaimed true-crime podcast has a hometown show at The Carolina Theatre on its current live tour.

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