CRIMINAL Live in LA: the Podcast About Criminals, Victims, and the Gray Area in Between

By Kimberly B. Johnson
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Right now, Pheobe Judge and Lauren Spohrer are somewhere in Denmark preparing to speak to an audience of several thousand Danish indie film fans. The final days of the Copenhagen Documentary Film Festival will be the duo’s last of a 5-city, bi-continental tour.

Days prior, in the middle of their multi-state excursion, the co-producers found themselves maneuvering through midday traffic on their way to The Regent Theatre in downtwon. Here, several hundred listeners– connected by their iTunes Podcast interests– were treated to the CRIMINAL experience with a brand new episode of the highly acclaimed series performed and taped live on stage. While in town, host of the monthly podcast, Phoebe Judge, sat down with LAC to tell us more about the podcast, its origins and true crime.

The Huffington Post calls the show, “Much more complicated and ambiguous than what tends to occur in the narrative confines of CSI and Criminal Minds.”

Vogue asserts we should, “Think of it as a condensed, audio-only, true-crime version of Law & Order on your phone.”

However you’d like to view it, what Phoebe Judge and Lauren Spohrer have been up to over last year-and-a-half is turning out to be something kind of special.

In bite-sized, roughly 20 minute portions, Judge and co-producer Lauren Spohrer, deliver confessions, cover-ups, coercion, conspiracy and often times, an unexpected dose of comedy in their innovative, true-crime podcast.

Before taking CRIMINAL seriously in any sense, Lauren and Phoebe had spent their entire lives in public radio jockeying against the clock for time on air. In fact, the two met while working as producers on a North Carolina public radio station where the two produced daily radio for seven years.

“When that show got cancelled, it was kind of the precipice for us to finally start CRIMINAL.”

And so, the team set out on a laborious journey– one that entails hours of pitching stories back and forth, pre-interviews, interviews, first drafts, second drafts and third drafts– to unearth true-crime tales with an intimate and personal twist. Up until just a few weeks ago, Lauren and Phoebe still had full-time jobs: Phoebe in public radio and Lauren as a professor at Duke.  And while both ladies etched away the hours at their respective gigs, they spent another 80 hours a month refining their show.

“The key to accepting us and CRIMINAL’s stories is [knowing] that there’s a personal narrative behind the story of each crime. I think speaking true to this has helped us a lot because we’re not just a regular news show and we’re not just an issue-based podcast, we’re a story-driven podcast and we happen to do it about true-crime. We’re not trying to cover ‘certain types’ of stories. We don’t have a mission we’re trying to [push]. CRIMINAL is really an idea that Lauren and I dreamed up on my back porch and had no idea if anyone would even listen to it.”

While worrying if anyone will listen to the product you’ve been working away at for nearly two years is a blunt exertion of self-doubt, Phoebe Judge is equally charming and humble as she is honest and aware.

Podcasts exploded on to the digital media scene early last year after the first season success of Serial catapulted the subculture out of the NPR offices and onto millions of phones around the country. Now, talented and ambitious journalists are burdened with the duty of giving us, the listeners, more of what we want and didn’t even know we wanted, executing the product in distinctive and unique ways and above all, doing the job with the right formula which allows a series– in a sea of other series– to rise.

“We have a show called CRIMINAL, but the goal was always to have a show about crime in the broad sense of the word. And so we didn’t just want to have a show that was gonna be about criminals and be necessarily sad or scary or dangerous; we wanted to talk about crime in the sense that it really can touch people in so many different ways– and that’s not always the most negative thing, there can be funny ways too. So our hope is that we talk to as many criminals as we do victims, but also to those who skirt the line. “

Now, as a member of the Radiotopia family alongside other buzz-worthy podcasts such as 99% Invisible, Love + Radio and The Heart, CRIMINAL exists in this moment of time when literally every in-the-know news source is publishing their list of Podcasts You Need to Know– including us.

But CRIMINAL is not CNN— or an audio version of any of our favorite independent news sources or crime shows, it’s a beast of its own kind. And to successfully execute the show’s niche, CRIMINAL must attack social issues of the crime category at unique angles.

“In terms of important episodes, Episode 18 titled ‘695BGK,’ comes to mind. It’s about an unarmed black man who was shot by a white police officer in Texas. We’ve been hearing a lot about those types of stories lately, but the difference in this story is that Robbie Tolland survived.”

“So many times in these stories, the man dies, and so we’re not able to hear what happened from their side. But here, we could explore and tell the story from both sides: the police officer and what he told investigators, and Robbie Tolland, who stayed conscious throughout the whole event.”

Episode 18″695BGK” will go down as a well-formulated foundation to discuss the possible, tiny issue of excess police force in America, while episodes like #15 titled, “He’s Neutral,” or Episode 23 “Triassic Park”– an episode Judge is especially proud of– showcase a small portion of the broad, broad acts that fall under the CRIMINAL, true-crime umbrella.

And while live podcast shows may not replace music performances, comedy club visits or bar crawls on our list of weekend to-dos any time soon, they have shown themselves able and deserving to be added into the mix. With the emergence of podcast culture smack dab in its golden era, our best advice is to consume them all– especially CRIMINAL and the rest of the Radiotopia family– and allow them to help you further your understanding of the human experience– or just like, entertain you while you cook.

The CRIMINAL episode performed and taped live at the Regency Theatre on Tues, Nov. 3 will air via the CRIMINAL podcast in the coming weeks. Stay tuned to www.thisiscriminal.com for more info.

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