“Criminal is a podcast about crime. Stories of people who’ve done wrong, been wronged or gotten caught somewhere in the middle.” Phoebe Judge, lover of public radio and former Chicagoan is one of a kind - just like her famous podcast, Criminal.
After a steep increase in podcast subscription from the publicity explosion of Serial, a true crime narrative podcast, Criminal took hold as one of the premiere crime podcasts in the country. What started in January 2014 with only 50 listeners, turned into a show that now receives over two million downloads each month. A new release about every three weeks keeps listeners on their toes, especially with the upcoming, and highly anticipated, release of the 20th episode. Judge visited Northwestern through WNUR News to talk about the work behind Criminal and what really makes a good podcast - which might be helpful for some rising students in Medill.
In early May, the Medill School of Journalism announced that the curriculum for sophomore standing students was about to undergo some major changes. Journalism 301, previously known as the “storefront newsroom” course, is getting a makeover. Now known as “Journalism in Practice,” there will be five options to fulfill this course, including one focusing solely on the production and creation of podcasts. Titled “‘Serial’ in the Golden Age of Podcasting”, students will be given the opportunity to use their imaginations to create great audio stories from their fieldwork done in Chicago.
The ‘Golden Age of Podcasting’ is right. Executing a successful podcast from scratch is a huge win in the world of journalism, and the time commitment to uncover these in-depth crime stories is astounding - especially when paired with another day job.
“We’ve been able to do what no one had been able to do….work with nothing,” said Judge. “It’s difficult, but you just do it. All you need is a good editor, a good idea and you need a job.”
The balancing act of audio reporting and the real world can be difficult, but the stories you seek out can be eye-opening and, honestly, life changing. With Criminal’s focus on the different twists and turns of the crime world, Judge happened upon some odd stories, characters and outcomes. In episode one, Judge discovered a case of an alleged murder of a man’s wife by fireplace poker - until some evidence was re-examined after a slightly screwball lawyer was convinced the woman was attacked by an owl. Judge didn’t care who was right and who was wrong, but it was the story, and the twist, that really captured her attention as well as the listeners.
To get a good story, there needs to be emotion - which Judge knows all too well. Covering crimes in the way that she does, the characters may come with an abundance of emotional trauma or even a long history of severe crimes. All it takes is kindness and consideration. You have to be bold enough to ask the initial questions that no one had been bold enough to ask before. Judge isn’t afraid. Judge doesn’t judge. Judge tells stories.
Don’t talk to the professor or the politician, talk to the normal everyday people who are affected by something important. There was a time when Judge was happy just to have one stranger listening to her stories. Now, podcasts are one of the digital age’s greatest triumphs. So for all you podcast junkies, Medill soon-to-be sophomores and crime aficionados, Criminal can teach you a thing or two about well-written and reported audio journalism.