A Q&A with Criminal's Phoebe Judge

Criminal's artwork is by illustrator  Julienne Alexander .

Criminal's artwork is by illustrator Julienne Alexander.

Award-winning journalist Phoebe Judge is the presenter of Criminal, a Radiotopia-backed podcast about an eclectic variety of crimes told through the eyes of the perpetrators, victims and those affected.

Probably like many, I discovered Criminal through hit crime podcast Serial (Criminal launched first), and began to binge on it for its warm-toned production, air-tight storytelling and the window it opened into off-beat worlds populated by everybody from female serial killers to end-of-life companions to leprosy patients.

This Q&A with Judge - extracted from our initial phone interview for a newspaper feature I wrote about the advancement of Australian podcasting - is the second in a small series of interviews I’m publishing on this blog about the culture, aesthetics, technology and economics of podcasting.

It details some of Judge's experiences making Criminal, which she does alongside co-creator Lauren Spohrer.

ME: How much time do you allocate to making an episode of Criminal?

JUDGE: It really depends on the episode. Some episodes are pretty simple in the sense that I just interview one person and it’s a rather straight-forward story and a very personal story and so it goes a lot faster.

Other episodes take a lot more time because we’re interviewing multiple people but we’re also doing a lot of fact-checking.

Because we’re a show that deals with crime, we need to get things right. So we spend an awful lot of time on the phone with county clerk officers, trying to get court records and such.

The simplest episode, from start to finish (takes)… about 25 hours, and that’s the simplest. The most complex episode takes much more time - way over 40 hours. 

But I still have a full-time job in public radio. We do this on the night and weekends. Lauren is full-time now but I would say anywhere from 25 to 70 hours on an episode is fair.

What are the major stages involved in the creation of each episode of Criminal?

We share the work rather evenly.

The first step is coming up with a story idea and that involves a lot of research and looking around and always having our eyes open. We’re constantly looking for interesting stuff.

Then we’ll check with the other person and say, ‘Do you think this might be a good idea?’ Then we’ll reach out to the person and do a pre-interview - Lauren usually does those. It’s usually around half an hour to 45 minutes. We just talk to the person and see if they’re a good fit, if they’re willing to do this and to get some background information. 

Then we’ll make a question line and that question line is kind of the guide map for what I’ll use when we conduct the interview. 

Most of the time we also have to find a studio for the guest to go into, so we’re doing all logistics. Then I most often will do the interview with the guest and it usually lasts about an hour per guest. We’ll then transcribe the interview, save a copy of it and one of us will take the lead on writing the episode – the first draft.

Well, I completely agree that anybody can do this, in terms of the equipment and what you need. For more than a year, we made Criminal in a closet....

Once that first draft is done, we have a long first edit, usually about three hours, and then after that first edit, the person who has taken the lead on the episode will go back, rewrite or fix/correct the script, then a second edit.

Then I’ll go into a studio and track my narration, and after that Lauren starts to put the whole piece together - we pick music – and then we often-times send the piece off to be mastered by an engineer. 

From that point, we’ll publish it. We’ll push it out on iTunes, promote it, write episode copy and push it out on the podcast.

Anybody with a smartphone can produce and publish a podcast - and there are success stories about people who have done so - but how intrinsic do you consider your radio background to be to the development of Criminal?

Well, I completely agree that anybody can do this, in terms of the equipment and what you need. For more than a year, we made Criminal in a closet with a microphone and a simple set up.

I think the benefit that we’ve had in the fact that all three of us who originally created Criminal have spent our lives in public radio, making and crafting stories, is that that also takes a skill. There’s a skill to making a good-sounding podcast and then there’s a skill to crafting a story.

And we’re lucky because we’ve had a lot of years of practice in that. But when we started Criminal, the reason the podcast appealed to us is that, even with all of that full-time experience in public radio, it didn’t mean that we were going to get Criminal on the radio. So what the podcast allowed for was us to take our skill and put something out that we could find an audience for.

The medium allowed us to get our foot in the door, just like anybody else sitting in their closet doing the obscure podcast…. It is a level playing field in terms of who can put a podcast out. 

How would you compare your podcast voice to your everyday voice?

Well, I hope it’s not that much different. I mean, I think the goal with our voice is that we sound natural and real, so I always try to sound as normal as possible, but I think certainly when you’re narrating or hosting something, our goal is to be calm, because this show has that type of quality to it. 

It’s not a loud show and it’s not a fast show, and it’s not a particularly funny show… but I hope my narrating quality sounds somewhat like my voice. 

It’s a reserved tone that we try to put through with Criminal.

Whenever you walk into a room, you read the crowd. You don’t walk into a sombre meeting and start yelling and laughing. You understand the audience and the topic and you act accordingly, and I hope that, because Criminal is sometimes a very dark and sometimes a reflective show, the way that we’ve decided it will be presented is with reverence.

I hope my voice shows reverence, to not only the topic and subject, but also the guest.

What do you consider to be some of the most essential elements to making an aesthetically pleasing podcast?

Because I’ve spent so much time near a microphone, I’m very critical of the quality of the recordings. I’m a big fan of people who record their subjects very close and also high-quality narration and tracking.

If you’re going to host a podcast, you don’t have to have a real studio; you don’t have to have a fancy studio; you don’t even have to have a fancy microphone. But what you should do is find a towel in your house and put it over your head and read your script underneath at least a towel if you can’t get into a closet. 

Because I think that, when we are demanding this attention of our listeners – and we are saying, ‘Put me in your ears and listen to me.’ – there’s a responsibility on the podcasters end to make it the highest quality they can.

That doesn’t have to be really expensive and it doesn’t have to be very skilled but we can control our environment. We can put that microphone close to our mouth or the person we’re interviewing. And also we can make the sound in the room we’re recording in as good as possible.

I recorded for two-and-a-half years underneath a towel in my living room when I was a reporter, and no one would have known the difference.

What are some examples of the factors you take into consideration when you make editorial decisions about the podcast?

We’re a small team (me and Lauren), so we always kind of rely on each other to be the devil’s advocate. 

We always just want to surprise people, so for us, the editorial decisions come from, ‘Well, what was our last episode? Is this episode as dark as that episode? Is this episode about a victim? Is it about a perpetrator?’ 

We always want to change it up. So we think about all those different questions in thinking about what our next story will be. Have we talked to a woman recently? What types of racial diversity do we have on our program? What types of regional diversity? Are we doing all stories in New York? Have we done any stories in California? Have we done any small-town stories?

How has your experience making Criminal changed since joining Radiotopia?

It’s given us a peer group. It’s given us an organisational model.

We have full editorial control of our show. Lauren and I own Criminal. So what Radiotopia does is takes care of a lot of the stuff that we aren’t good at, so we can make the show.

They sell our sponsorship ads. They take care of marketing and promotion. So Radiotopia has allowed us to have champions in our corner. 

It’s not only financial support. It’s also having people who believe in the show. 

It’s made a great difference and we still feel really thankful they took a chance on us.

All Ears on Podcasting

Joel Zammit, founder of Melbourne-based podcast collective   Sanspants Radio  , in the control room recording comedy podcast   Shut Up a Second  .

Joel Zammit, founder of Melbourne-based podcast collective Sanspants Radio, in the control room recording comedy podcast Shut Up a Second.

The following Q&A is part of a pair of interviews I conducted with Joel Zammit, founder of Melbourne comedy podcasting collective Sanspants Radio, for a feature article I wrote about Australian podcasting in The Age’s Livewire lift out last week.

The interview with Joel is one of a series of podcasting-related Q&As I’m publishing on this blog in the next few weeks. The overall conversation will focus further on the culture, aesthetics, economics, production and technology of podcasting as Australian podcasters contemplate how to capitalise on what’s widely been dubbed a “podcasting renaissance”, in the wake of blockbuster podcast Serial.

ME: Was there a particular event or experience that was the inspiration for establishing Sanspants Radio?

JOEL: I was teaching a La Trobe University first-year subject about audio documentaries and there’s this really nice studio at the university that’s under-utilised, so I really wanted to bring back a radio/podcast network to La Trobe because they used to have a radio station before my time, and I wanted to start that up again.

At that stage, were you conceiving of it more as a podcast or a podcast collective?

I think more as a podcast, just to see what we can do out there. We’d tried to do a podcast about a year or so earlier but it fell by the wayside.

I did a media course and my passion was in audio entertainment. I was wanting to create a little space where people got used to using mic, behind the mic, as well as editing things together to see where it could take you.

There wasn’t really any sort of idea of what I wanted or where we wanted to go initially. Because I was teaching a lot about This American Life and Freakonomics, and using those as examples of what you can do now.

Yeah, the beauty about podcasting is that anybody can do it; we’re doing something that a lot of radio stations can’t do....
— Joel Zammit

There is a slew of podcasting stories out there referencing the breakthrough impact of Serial on podcasting. It's obviously a good news story but has the associated "podcasting renaissance" hype linked to Serial had any discernible flow-on benefit for Sanspants?

On the peripheral, maybe. Serial's success owes a lot to the fact that it was pitched on This American Life, which had spent so much time to accumulate a million downloads an episode.

Ira Glass (host of This American Life), I think, gave interviews where he came out and said, 'Serial is one of the first podcasts to hit a million downloads.' You know, it took This American Life four or five years to get to that point, or longer, whereas it took Serial a week, and that's very good and all but it has This American Life listeners to bounce off.

Sarah Koenig (centre), creator and host of Serial, with Ira Glass and the Serial team.

Sarah Koenig (centre), creator and host of Serial, with Ira Glass and the Serial team.

So the success of Serial, not to take anything away from it; well done for putting it (podcasting) more in the public eye, but I don't know, it just seems like, 'Yeah, but it was kind of like an offshoot of This American Life, which already had an audience inbuilt.' So, well done, but it's not as great as everyone said.

What's the background of Sanspants getting featured on iTunes?

We went from maybe 500 people listening to 10,000. We can guess and put some theories to how it happened. We used to have one feed for all our shows and then we eventually moved over to a different website, which enabled us to split the feed so we had different shows in different feeds and then we re-uploaded to iTunes.

From there,we pestered and bugged our family, friends, cohorts and friends on Facebook etc. to kind of go in download, subscribe, rate and review, and maybe that bumped us to the top of the queue or made a bit of a blip in iTunes' radar.

From there they sent an email to ask us to send some art work because they wanted to feature us. And then we were on the front page of iTunes a week later.

What are the quintessential elements of an aesthetically pleasing podcasting experience for you?

A lot of podcasts out there are very much just two people with a microphone in a basement or a lounge room.... and that is one of the first things that will turn me off listening. Same if not a lot of care has been taken in the editing process.

I’m the primary editor for everything we put out and there’s a lot of care that goes into making sure what we put out there is listenable. It can be as simple as cutting out a one-second pause and making it .5 seconds. Or getting rid of some of the ‘ums’ and ‘ahs’ and ‘likes’; all these mannerisms people have when they speak that don’t make for the best speech.

Yeah, the beauty about podcasting is that anybody can do it; we’re doing something that a lot of radio stations can’t do; we don’t have censorship and we can talk about anything we want to talk about, which is great, but that the same time, you can put a bit of care into what you’re doing.

So generally for me, it’s the sound itself but also what people are talking about and if it makes sense. I don’t want to have to hear a rambling story.

Some people really like it over-produced like Radiolab and Freakonomics, where they have a lot of production values, and that’s great but some people hate it.

One podcast I listen to a lot is called Lore, and also the Mythology podcast, and they’re very similar in what they do. They’ll have one person speaking and have soundscapes behind them to make it sound a bit more interesting and dynamic.

But then you have something like Rachel and Miles X-Plain the X-Men. Being a comic book fan, I’m like, ‘Oh great, this is fantastic. This is two people who love the comic book talking about the comic book and making lucid observations.’

When people see this as not just as a hobby but as a hobby they also put a bit of time, care and love into it, I think that can show through in the podcast.

What makes podcasts so conducive to binge listening for you?

You can kind of do it while you’re doing something else. Generally when I’m listening to podcasts, it’s while I’m doing the dishes, driving, walking and that kind of stuff.

It doesn’t require a lot of time and focus.

The particular podcasts that we produce aren’t as timely as other places. Because we’re not a news program and we’re not relying on what happened this week, so you can listen to one after the other. But I think bingeing on something that might be a news program is a lot harder to do.

To what extent do you think the “stickiness” of podcasts complicates things for dedicated music fans trying to navigate their way through a really crowded audio entertainment space? Are they complementary to or competitive with one another?

I know when there’s a good audio book out I tend to lose a few weeks in terms of podcasting. It’s interesting that you have a certain amount of audio real estate and something comes along and it takes up a lot of time.

With podcasting, we get these emails from people every now and again reflecting this idea that the podcasts help get them through a tough time. If you’re in that headspace where you might be a little bit alone or wanting to turn your brain off and let some other people chat, you can do that a lot more easily with people chatting than you can playing music in a way. Yeah, music is great and you can have those moments where you can just tune out but, at the same time, if you’re missing that human contact or connection and you want to listen to people have a chat about comic books or films or whatever, you can do that.

I think that might be why, for a certain group of people, podcasts are reigning supreme, particularly over music.