THE BLOG

This Is Criminal: The Best New Radio Show in America

08/15/2014 04:38 pm ET | Updated Oct 15, 2014

2014-08-15-Screenshot2014081512.32.20.png

While rumors of True Detective's second season ripple across social media, Criminal, the next name to know in radio, has emerged for those still craving that fix for nuanced depictions of crime. In just months, the show has catapulted from local darling to national up-and-comer, receiving attention from major media outlets such as The Believer and The A.V. Club.

Criminal is the creation of Phoebe Judge, Eric Mennel, and Lauren Spohrer, who met while working on The Story with Dick Gordon at WUNC, and whose collective radio credits include All Things Considered, NPR's Weekend Edition Saturday, This American Life, and 99% Invisible. When Gordon moved back to Canada last October, the three felt the push to create something new. Unlike many programs that deal with crime, Criminal ditches moralization in favor of documentarian integrity. Each episode, currently delivered in a monthly format through Soundcloud and iTunes, features a different, real-life case, ranging from grisly to absurd. These cases aren't likely to have tidy wrap-ups; in hearing from a variety of perspectives involved, we find that the world of crime is much more complicated and ambiguous than what tends to occur in the narrative confines of CSI and Criminal Minds.

In the spirit of collaboration, the "hive mind" of the show answered some questions about the making of Criminal, crime, and the future of radio:

Jesse Damiani: First, how'd you conceive the idea?

Criminal: We met working together at a public radio show called The Story with Dick Gordon, based here in North Carolina. When that show was canceled back in the fall, we wanted to keep working together and to keep doing creative stuff. It was this weird time for each of us, professionally, when it didn't seem crazy to just invent our own show and put it online. Even if no one listened, we figured we would be having fun. Lauren was the first to conceive of doing a show specifically about crime. Which everyone thought was really smart. Thus, Criminal.

JD: There are all sorts of media dealing with the subject of crime: what's different about the approach in Criminal?

Criminal: Our first episode explores the theory that a woman may have been killed by an owl. Our latest episode is about a murder that occurred 50 years ago. So, obviously we're not a news show and don't chase the same stories as Nancy Grace. We're looking for stories we aren't familiar with, and we try to present them thoughtfully. That said, we do come from public radio backgrounds, and some of that sensibility comes through. Someone on iTunes recently described us as "calm," which seemed funny but accurate. We're calm. Most crime media is not.

JD: You certainly live up to your name: the show offers so much insight from the criminal perspective (rather than focusing exclusively on the victim[s]). Why is this important to you?

Criminal: We're not trying to be crime fighters. We're just interested in people, and people who've collided with the criminal justice system have good stories. The challenge for us is to tell important, surprising stories without romanticizing or damning the criminal. Our third episode tells the story of a woman who graduated from NYU with honors, and then started counterfeiting money in her apartment. She's really funny and likeable and it feels complex. We like to find people who operate in that gray area -- maybe not entirely perpetrator, not entirely victim.

JD: Your collective public radio pedigree is impressive: how'd that training prepare you for Criminal? And how do you see this as a different sort of beast? In other words, why do you think the podcast is the best format for Criminal?

Criminal: We've worked for so many different kinds of public radio shows -- producing long conversations and short conversations and live conversations -- and also reported features (that means multiple scenes and voices). Phoebe was a reporter in Mississippi during the BP Oil Spill and had to churn out new stories every day. We're pretty young, but have put in some collective years learning the trade. We have different backgrounds and different sensibilities, but the combination gives us a nice toolbox for Criminal. It isn't a show we could have made five years ago. We didn't have the talent or the knowledge to manage something like this. Plus, we didn't know each other.

The podcast format works well for us because we aren't constrained by the standard hour-long broadcast clock. We can tell each story in the best way we know how without being worried about fitting it into a pre-timed segment that bridges newscasts. The podcast format also allows us to include language and subject matter that might not be deemed "appropriate" for radio. It might be funny to say this about a crime show, but some of our stuff is probably too subtle for traditional radio. There's no pro forma "elevator pitch" for these stories.

JD: In many ways the podcast seems to have supplanted airwave transmission in recent years for many things we've traditionally called "radio." Given your experiences as both podcasters and public radio employees, how do you see this situation? Where do you think the world of radio is headed?

Criminal: There's a big DIY mentality in radio right now, maybe like was there right when NPR started in the 1970s. It's spinning off a lot of amazing shows like Love + Radio, 99% Invisible, Nerdette, and TLDR. Those are people who've worked/are working in the public radio world and are now doing really cool things with what they know. Many of these shows have more listeners than standard public radio shows, and some of their Kickstarters get more donors than pledge drives.

Radio isn't going anywhere, but the future is less about the medium and more about the content. People aren't giving up TV shows, they're giving up TV. If radio folks can keep doing what they do best (telling great stories), there will be an audience. On-demand listening is really forcing us all to work a little harder and be a little better, which is probably a good thing, right?

JD: What's your process for finding and curating the cases that appear on the show?

Criminal: We've been lucky to find almost all of our stories through conversations at parties and with people we know. Other times it's just a lot of creative Googling. We try to balance the perpetrator-focused episodes against those that feature a victim, and similarly balance the very dark with the less-dark. For instance, Episode Seven is about a mugging victim who was told he needed nicer pants. By the State Attorney. More than once.

JD: How do you guys divvy up work? Do you have specified roles or does it change from episode to episode?

Criminal: We share the workload equally because we all like the production process. Everyone looks for stories, does pre-interviews, everyone logs tape, etc. Usually one of us will take the lead on writing an episode, and then we have several rounds of heavy edits. Mixing gets split up. We all fight over the music. It would be a terribly inefficient model if we were a weekly show. But so far, it seems to be working. That might change if we make a million dollars. But for now, why mess with a good thing?

JD: Now some technical stuff: what's the rationale behind the 15-to-20 minute episode lengths?

We wanted people to be able to listen in one sitting, without needing to set aside time in their schedule. 15-20 minutes seems like a reasonable amount of time for someone to give us their focus.

JD: You've maintained a stark, black-and-white, DIY Punk vibe for the visual aesthetic. What's the idea there?

Criminal: Our episode art is by a really talented artist here in Durham, her name is Julienne Alexander. We knew we wanted the "look" of Criminal to be spare, and she really understood that and made it better. We tell her what each episode is about, and she creates the image. People talk about the law in black and white terms. We didn't plan this, but there's pleasure in such a stark, black and white aesthetic when we're explicitly seeking the gray areas. From a sound perspective, we wanted to make a show that fits in with the current storytelling aesthetic (think Radiolab but also harkens back to a more sparse kind of radio [think Bob Fass]). If you look at our logo in the iTunes store, it's a lot less flashy than most of the others. But (we think) it's pretty sharp. That's how we want the show to feel as you're listening to it.

JD: What are your hopes and plans for the show moving forward?

Criminal: Funding would be great. We've had a handful of donations from listeners (which are always unexpected and humbling) and received a grant to do one episode. Otherwise we've been calling in favors and doing things from our pockets. More listeners would be great too, obviously. Really we just want the show to keep getting better. Not to get too comfortable.