'Criminal' Live Show: A 'look behind the curtain' of popular podcast

Co-creators Phoebe Judge and Lauren Spohrer of true-crime podcast coming to Mass MoCA to record new episode

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Nine months before "Serial" burst into the public consciousness, the "OG" of true crime podcasts, "Criminal" made its debut.

Back then, in January 2014, "Criminal" co-creators Phoebe Judge and Lauren Spohrer recorded the first episode in a tiny closet. About 50 people downloaded it.

By 2018, the number of monthly downloads had grown considerably, to about 4 million a month, Judge told Business North Carolina.

Six years later, "Criminal," still releases new episodes (each about 22 minutes in length) "twice a month, always on Fridays." However, recording in a closet is a thing of the past; the podcast is recorded in the studios of WUNC in Chapel Hill, N.C., and is part of the Radiotopia network.

Judge and Spohrer, now have a team of four they work with: senior producer Nadia Wilson, assistant producer Susannah Roberson, audio mixer Rob Byers and illustrator Julienne Alexander. The team produces a second podcast, "This is Love." It's fourth season kicks off this spring. There's also a traveling "Criminal" live show, which is coming to the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art at 8 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 22.

"We were very excited when Mass MoCA reached out to us about hosting a live show. We said we'd love to have one there," Judge, the show's host, said in a recent phone interview with The Eagle. "We were just thrilled when the invitation was offered to us."

Since its debut, "Criminal" has been described by its creators as being about "people who've done wrong, been wronged, or gotten caught somewhere in the middle."

"When we started, we had no idea how long it would last or how many listeners we would have. We never expected to have millions of listeners or a staff of people. That wasn't the goal. The goal was to create a project that we had complete creative control of, something new," Judge said.

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What Spohrer and Judge did know, was they wanted to create a show about crime in the broadest sense of the word, allowing them to tell stories about a variety of crimes and criminals.

"We always knew when we were creating the show that we were not really interested in saying someone's right or wrong. It's really about the human experience; we let people tell their stories and get out of the way," Judge said.

An example of that kind of storytelling, she said, is exemplified in Episode No. 121, "Off Leash," in which Toby Dorr, better known as the Dog Lady of Lansing Prison, tells listeners how someone who "never did anything wrong" and "never had a speeding ticket" went from being a prison volunteer to an inmate.

"This woman still is confused as to how this whole thing happened to her," Judge said. "When I heard her story, I thought: 'This is a position any one of us could be in.' The show has taught me, at least, all of us are kind of skirting this line; that it's simple to get pushed to one side."

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Production of a single episode takes weeks.

"The four of us work full time. At any time, any one of us is working on multiple episodes, reaching out to guests, lining up studios, writing drafts of scripts," she said.

Some episodes, like Toby's episode, are straight forward and "throw themselves together." Others, are more complicated, requiring the production team to pull together, evidence and statements and speak to prosecutors and victims.

"Most times, the first draft is 45 minutes long. We do four or five edits. We're very responsible in how we are asking people to spend that 22 minutes of their time with us. It takes a lot of work to hone down on those 22 minutes."

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The live shows, she said, are no different than listening to the podcast.

"If you were to close your eyes at a 'Criminal' live show, it would sound like you were listening to the podcast in your car," Judge said. "I'm narrating, we're mixing it live. If you were to open your eyes, you would see that I'm there on stage and Lauren Spohrer is there with me, mixing the whole show and also speaking. What you'd also see is that we've created all these new visuals.

"When we're recording the show, we're looking at primary documents, records and evidence that shape and inform the episode, but that we never get to share. During the live show, we get to show you the things we're looking at. And we also have a few surprises."

The live shows are a chance "to pull back the curtain on the show and the creators."

"It's always thrilling to see if we screw up on stage, if someone slips or falls — we never know what is going to happen during a live show," Judge said, noting they do not tailor the content of the live shows to the area of the venue. "It's like a production of a regular episode of the podcast. These are new stories that we haven't told before. We like to surprise people. Just like with the regular podcast, you never know what you're going to get when you listen to the newest episode. Some stories are funny; some stories are darker. You don't know what type of story is coming next."

Judge is no stranger to the area. Before embarking on a career in public radio and then podcasting, she graduated from Bennington College.

"I think it's one of the most pretty places in the country, the Berkshires and Southern Vermont. I grew up in Chicago and I remember arriving at college in Bennington [Vt.] in the fall and seeing those green hills and green mountains and thinking, I'm a long way from home," she said. "I love that part of the country. My whole family is from Massachusetts. I often find myself in Massachusetts a lot, not necessarily in the Berkshires, but last weekend I was in Northampton and Southampton.

"I remember going to Mass MoCA when I was there and I always think about the importance of the institution to that area. It's funny because when I talk to people in California and Phoenix, they know about Mass MoCA — the reputation of that place has grown far and wide."


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