Phoebe Judge and Lauren Spohrer launched “Criminal” in 2014, with producer Eric Mennel. Judge and Spohrer had worked together on “The Story” with Dick Gordon, a public radio program that went off the air in 2013. Afterwards, Judge told Spohrer she wanted to host her own radio show. Spohrer joked that public radio listeners don’t like to admit it, but they love watching Law and Order, so maybe the two of them should start a crime show.
At the time, Judge says, there weren’t any big shows focused on crime. “Serial” didn’t exist yet. “There’s so much crime on the news all the time, and there’s so many different representations of crime,” Spohrer says. It seemed like a niche worth filling.
Most “Criminal” stories aren’t about blood and gore. The show often explores bizarre subcultures and moral gray zones. The most recent episode, “Hastings,” describes what happens after a student brings a gun to school. No shots are fired, but that didn’t prevent students from feeling deeply traumatized. In other words, “Criminal” is interested not only in crimes that are committed, but also in the crimes we imagine and fear. “Criminal” describes itself as “stories of people who’ve done wrong, been wronged, or gotten caught somewhere in the middle.”
In Episode 14, “The Fifth Suspect,” “Criminal” told the story of Tommy Wall, a man mistakenly accused of producing child pornography. Local police officers and journalists both played a role in tarnishing his reputation, when they distributed his name and picture on television. Wall first learned he was a suspect via text message; in the months that followed, he struggled to overcome the stigma that resulted from his arrest. Judge had done some reporting on the story for WUNC, and reached out to Wall, “never thinking he would say yes. He had just been released.” He did say yes, and Judge, Mennel, and Spohrer went to work putting it together.
Some of your tactics remind me of the mystery genre. Questions are a thing that detectives ask, too. And the way the ‘reveal’ works—some crucial piece of information doesn’t come out until the middle of the story. That sounds like the way you get a reader invested in a Sherlock Holmes novel. Do you think about genres around crime journalism as influences for the way that you work?
Spohrer: I’m a big fan of noir, crime fiction, and when we were first starting the show that was much more present on my mind. We think a lot about the order in which we reveal information. I think of it in terms of always wanting the listener to have something to do. If you tell me everything right away, if there’s not a question for me to be considering, if there’s nothing to be curious about—I’m probably going to go find something else to listen to or read. Also, I think it gives you a chance to get to know the person in question.
Judge: That’s why our edits, I think, are so long and contentious.
How long, and how contentious?
Spohrer: The latest episode, I think four or five edits. For hours.
Judge: It was completely done, and we tore it apart.
Spohrer: It just didn’t feel right.
Judge: We do that a lot. There are episodes that take us 80 hours. I mean, we’re also dealing in territory that can get you in trouble pretty quickly. Guilt and innocence, and court documents, and facts.
How did you split up the work for this episode?
Judge: Usually, one of us will take the lead on writing the first draft of a script. For that episode, Eric [Mennel] and I went to visit Tommy and did the interviews. I wrote the first draft of that script. Lauren didn’t come with us, and she kind of heard it fresh. We like to do that—keep one of us out of making it, so they can be a fresh set of ears. But then we had two or three really long edits, and as things often are, the first draft of the script looked nothing like what actually came out. I would say it’s pretty equal in terms of the creative process.
You reported “The Fifth Suspect” when the news element was mostly over. Do podcasts have a special ability, or a responsibility, to follow-up on stories that—to news reporters—seem closed?
Spohrer: I think we shy away from feeling like we have a mission. It’s much more of a relaxed curiosity. That’s the greatest luxury of getting to make your own show. It’s guided by our interests, and I think my interests are different than that of the local TV news, or Nancy Grace.
Judge: We get to focus on the human experience, rather than the facts of the event. There are a lot of stories that Criminal would love to do, but if we don’t have a personal story, we don’t do them. We don’t have a responsibility to report the most current daily news. We get to play this funny role between journalism and storytelling, entertainment. It’s lucky for us. It gives us opportunities for us to be able to reflect back on what has been done.
To hear “The Fifth Suspect” in full before reading this annotation, click on the play button above.
You can summarize this story in two sentences. It doesn’t have a really strong plot, in the sense of a narrative twist. So how do you take a story that is relatively straightforward, and still give it enough momentum that you’re hooked?
Spohrer: I think that this one actually does have a lot of momentum. If you approach it from the point of view of what the police knew, and when they knew it—it sort of unfolds, and these layers come off the onion. And then you remember that there’s a human being at the center of it who was radically impacted by misinformation. Judge: What made it dramatic was the immediacy of what was going on in his life right then. So he was seeing the ramifications of this play out. He was just re-entering his life again. So I think that really helped us—reporting a story as it really was still going on.
You say in the introduction to this episode that “It’s a horrible story.” Why did you choose to use such strong language before the story begins?
Judge: In this story, we had a clear case of misjustice being done to a man. That was clear. There was no skirting around the facts. He was wrongly accused, and so we felt confident in saying, this story is a hard, horrible story. It also kind of nodded to the fact that, to the listener, there’s a reason why you should find compassion for this character. We’re saying, hold on, slow down, and pay attention to this guy’s story.
During the story, Tommy calls the police to try and sort out the accusations against him. He offers to go straight to the police station, but he’s told to wait until the next morning. In the meantime, for some reason, the police share his full name with local news. This just seemed like such a strange decision. I know the police declined to comment, but did you gain any insight into what the police were thinking?
Judge: Of course, that’s odd and strange, and from what I understand, he has other people saying that to him too. He’s getting some legal advice. But I don’t know what the police were thinking. Spohrer: I remember going back and forth to the news station also, trying to get them to respond. They basically wouldn’t talk to us about what happened. They did add some updates on their website, but they didn’t take anything down. So you can still Google and find things for him. It just seems terrible.
Do you usually have difficulty getting the police to comment?
Spohrer: I do feel like we consistently have difficulty getting police officers to agree to interviews. But I don’t want to imply that that’s because they’ve done something wrong. I think that’s maybe just part of their protocol.
In this case, the accusations are just so stigmatizing.
Judge: Yeah. I think we were really aware that there are few things as vilified as being called a pedophile. Or someone involved in child pornography. I mean, these are the most taboo of taboo words to have put with your name. And that’s one of the things that really drew us to this case. What happens when that happens to your name? The word is so bad, and so horrible, that even if you are innocent, what does it do your name? What does it do to your life?
In the episode, when you recaptured past events, you channeled them through specific moments. For example [in the clip immediately above], Tommy’s former mother-in-law describes where she was sitting when she first saw Tommy on TV. And Tommy says that he was sitting at his kitchen table when a text message tipped him off. Is it always important to root those moments in a particular time and place?
Judge: Absolutely. As much detail as we can give, the better. I also think that was important because we were trying to highlight the fact that these were two people just sitting in their houses. They were in the place that’s supposed to be safe and calm and quiet, watching the world go by them on the news, when the world gets into their life. Spohrer: There’s so much crime on the news all the time, and there’s so many different representations of crime. I think we’re always trying to talk about one specific person, and their specific experience. Why not help the listener get a grip on who he is, and some of the specific details of his life? We try to think in terms of how to make it feel more specific, and more personal, and more vivid somehow.
Tommy’s former mother-in-law is the first voice in the story. She’s very supportive of Tommy. Why? Was it difficult to get her to speak to you?
Judge: She was a little reluctant when I first reached out to her, but I think that’s only because I said, ‘It’s a podcast,’ and she said, “What is a podcast?” But while she may have been somewhat reluctant to talk to me, she really loved Tommy. She was just so outraged by what had happened that she felt, even if she was reluctant to talk to me, that she needed to. She said, “I would rather not use my name.” And we respected that, because we thought her voice was so important to have in the story. Spohrer: She sort of provides the thesis, which is like, how do you ever live that down? When your name is associated with something like that, how do you move forward? She sort of articulates it really beautifully right at the top.
You tend to leave your questions in the story—even when they’re quite factual questions, like what were the charges against you [see clip immediately above]. Why?
Spohrer: Why write an expository paragraph that needs transitions, just for the sake of getting the information out there, when we could just have Phoebe in conversation? I think there’s nothing worse than a long expository paragraph that feels like it’s being read in a radio piece. Judge: It’s often times the most clear. Sometimes it’s shorter. But I also find a lot of nuance in the way people answer things. The pause that they take. I think you hear emotion in everything. That’s at the core of “Criminal,” and in a lot of ways, what I like so much about radio. The conversation. Questions allow you to be human.
You mentioned that your edits can run 80 hours. What was this one like?
Judge: The biggest rewrites come from the first [version] to the second. That’s when we’re really looking at structure. With this story, I think the third and fourth versions were language – making sure that it sounded natural. But also, we were really aware of the subject matter in this story. That we were talking about child pornography, pedophilia, so we reached out a number of organizations. Spohrer: We did. We had the National Children’s Advocacy Center – we were like, this is what our story’s about, we certainly don’t want to say something that inadvertently would be harmful. They were really great. They actually looked over our script. Judge: And not to change content – but rather, just because we want to make sure that we’re using the appropriate terminology.
That’s pretty unusual. What happens if, for example, they want you to change the way you portray someone?
Judge: Oh, well, we don’t ask them that! The people that we would reach out to in no way are shaping the content of the story. In this instance, are we saying, “Victims of child sexual abuse,” or, “Victims of sexual abuse?” We’re dealing with the wording, and in no way the content. Spohrer: They have made suggestions for the content, and we have discussed it and decided, oh they have a point—or, we’re good with it how it is. We’re just doing it as an extra layer. We did it with an episode about a transgender woman who was wrongly incarcerated with men. And that was so helpful. There were two small instances in which our language was not ideally sensitive, and so we fixed it right away. Through our own ignorance, I don’t want to use a language construction that would be harmful to someone, if we can alter that language construction without changing the meaning of the sentence. We haven’t done it very often, but when we have, I’ve been glad.
What is something that came up during this story that changed your understanding of storytelling, or of this story?
Judge: I would say that cell phone ringing [see clip immediately above]. And seeing how excited and proud he was to show me that people were texting him. I guess I thought, going into it, “This guy’s going to get victory and justice.” And then to see how ruined he had been, through no fault of his own. There we were, in his house, and I was sitting next to him on this couch. And just watching his face. You just saw, this guy is in it so deep. This whole experience is still so raw and new and horrible for him. In this way of, like, maybe it’s going to be okay. And that’s how we end the story. We don’t know. We don’t have these big conclusions. Maybe it’s going to be okay. We never want to wrap anything up with a bow.
Judge: Lauren and I both feel very strongly about this—that to try to manufacture a conclusion because it makes things have a better endpoint is not something that we’re comfortable with. When it’s appropriate, of course it’s wonderful to have: And then, they all lived happily ever after. But sometimes that doesn’t work. We’ve thought about that before. Do we pass on this story because, what’s the ending? And I think we both decided that if the story is important enough to tell, then no, we don’t pass on it. We just do the best we can.
But nonfiction storytellers do have to organize reality so that their audience can understand it. Are you saying that because crime stories are inherently messy, they shouldn’t be presented as if they’re neat?
Spohrer: I don’t know if that’s a question of crime stories—to me that’s more a question of us feeling uncomfortable about organizing reality, and feeling nervous about that. These are some of the most serious questions—like, life in prison, or someone being killed, or someone being injured or traumatized. So I think bending over backwards and really manipulating reality to manufacture some sort of ending—that’s not something that we feel comfortable with. Judge: It’s easier for people to sometimes digest things when they have an endpoint. You know, we’ve come all this way, and here’s why we’ve come all this way. It’s the payoff for listening. And I think we say, there’s a payoff for listening—even if we can’t give you a grand summation. The payoff for listening is that you now care. We want to make someone invested in a story. That investment can be disgust or revulsion, or compassion or empathy. That’s our job, I think. Our job isn’t always to give someone an easy conclusion.
What has happened with Wall’s life since the story came out?
Spohrer: I think he’s doing okay. He’s in a band, and he’s involved with his church, and he’s got some work.