You’ve likely heard them on the air before: Radio veterans and Durham residents Phoebe Judge and Lauren Spohrer are host and executive producer of “Criminal,” one of the most popular and critically acclaimed podcasts since the medium made its debut on iTunes in 2005. Now, Judge and Spohrer have taken their storytelling in a different direction, branching outside of the true crime genre with the launch of “This Is Love” last year.
“This Is Love,” currently in its second season, tells real-life love stories of the romantic, familial and platonic variety. Like “Criminal,” the podcast often features locals, as in Episode 4, “Eight Thousand Miles,” which tells the story of Bida Manda and Brewery Bhavana owner Vansana Nolintha and his younger sister, Vanvisa, and their path to the United States from their home country of Laos. Or Episode 1, “The Run,” which explores podcast illustrator Julienne Alexander’s parents’ love story following a chance meeting in Central Park.
We spoke with Judge about starting a podcast, storytelling and life on the road. Read an additional interview with Spohrer at raleighmag.com.
I read you began recording “Criminal” in a closet. Is that true?
When we started the show, we were working with [sound producer] Eric Mennel and all three of us had full-time jobs. I was on the air every day at WUNC, as well as Eric, and Lauren was an adjunct professor at Duke, and so we would have to record “Criminal” at night. We didn’t have a studio, so after work, we would go and record in Lauren’s closet, and we would use yoga mats to soundproof. We didn’t make any money on “Criminal” for a long time. We just did it because we believed in the show, and we really wanted to make this show, and we were happy to be able to do it, money or not.
How was the transition from radio to podcasting?
Lauren and I decided we wanted to make a show that we could completely control, that I could host, that she could executive produce, and we could control the content, the format, and have nobody telling us what we should do. So, there was great freedom when thinking about podcasting. We were going to take it seriously, as we always have, and hold it to the highest journalistic standards as we always did on public radio. But now, no one could tell us what we should be reporting on, and we could design something completely new.
How do you find stories for “Criminal”?
In the same way we found stories when we worked for public radio. There’s always going to be a first-person perspective and there’s always going to be something somewhat crime-related. If you listen to “Criminal,” you know that link is somewhat tenuous at times. We shy away from violent stories, and it is going to be something that surprises. We’re constantly reading old newspapers, reading magazines and doing internet searches. We’re taking ideas from listeners. We’re reading old books. We’ll often say, we’ll start in one place looking for an idea and two hours later, we’re going in a wholly different direction, and we don’t know how we’ve gotten there, but we’ve landed on the perfect story.
Your first episode of “Criminal,” “The Owl,” involved the death of Kathleen Peterson, who was married to the famous novelist Michael Peterson. The story was also the subject of the Netflix documentary “The Staircase.”
I still have never seen “The Staircase.” Why we wanted to do that episode is because I’m so interested in the lawyer, Larry Pollard, who has a theory about the owl [causing the fall that may have killed Kathleen Peterson]. I have always been interested in owl and animal attacks. Someone told me that people running in Raleigh and Chapel Hill in the winter, on trails, would feel this bump on their head, and it would be an owl!
Of the more than 106 episodes of “Criminal” that you’ve done, do any resonate more in your mind than others?
I’ve always loved Episode 23, “Triassic Park,” about petrified wood theft. I love the episode we did called “Palace of Justice,” which speaks to the last surviving Nuremburg prosecutor. I love Episode 3, “Call Your Mom,” about a mother-daughter coroner team in Wyoming. [Also], “No Place Like Home,” about a leper colony in Carville, Louisiana.
How has the success of “Criminal” affected your lifestyle? You travel quite a bit now doing live performances.
We’re traveling all the time, and I feel very lucky about that, and [now] we [have the freedom] to travel to do a story, if it is better for us to be in-person and do field reports. We also do live shows. I think that has really benefited the show, to meet the people who listen to the show. But in terms of everything else, we’re on the road so much it is always so nice to come home. At the end of the day, we still record the podcast at the studio at WUNC in Chapel Hill, just like we’ve done for years. It’s the same drive on 15-501 back home to Durham, just like it was when I was working as a producer for “The Story.”
Why start another podcast, “This Is Love”?
When Lauren and I had the idea for “Criminal,” we were interested in crime, but we’re also interested in a million other subjects as well. After four years, we were ready to spread our wings and try something new, and see if we could put this aesthetic and tone we had created with “Criminal” towards another subject, and “love” seemed like something that was going to provide us with such rich material. Just as we had explored the boundaries of that word “crime,” we’d be able to do the same with the word “love.” It was going to be a bunch more work, but we were happy to take on the challenge to make another show that people would listen to, and that people would get something from.
Durham, Darkness and Love: A Q&A with podcaster Lauren Spohrer
Lauren Spohrer is the producer and co-founder of the podcasts Criminal and This is Love.
How did you first meet [podcast host] Phoebe Judge?
I was working on “The Story” with Dick Gordon [for WUNC] and had just moved to North Carolina. She came in to an an editorial meeting. I remember she was wearing, like, a jean jacket and the sleeves were worn out and frayed, and she had these bracelets on, she had really long hair, and and she was pitching stories that were so good. I remember stopping and thinking, “who is this, what is she wearing, where did she come from?” We didn’t immediately become friends. Phoebe’s really quite shy and neither of us are into chit-chat. They moved us into the same cubicle for a while, and we became good friends. She would guest host on the show and I would produce. We both realized we both had good ideas and were hard workers and got along really well. When you meet someone who has the same work ethic as you, you start thinking of the possibilities.
What does your role as a producer entail?
You look for stories and cull through stories to make sure you find the right one. You make sure the host has everything they need during interviews. A producer is like a shadow host. While the host is concentrating on the conversation, the producer is listening very carefully, and if someone answers [a question that could lead to something more], you [tell the host] to try it again, to get a more complete answer. The producer also will write the story, and then work with the host to make sure everyone likes it and it feels natural, that it feels compelling. Producers handle cutting and mixing the audio, and creating the thing that will be uploaded to the world. It’s comparable to the showrunner in television, when someone has the vision and then has to do all the legwork to make it happen.
You have a master’s degree in fiction writing and have taught fiction. How does that inform the storytelling aspects in your podcast?
Obviously, the stories for the podcast are true stories which are rigorously fact checked. When you go to graduate school for creative writing, your whole life is just reading, and trying to write it, and you think really intensively about beginning, middle and end. You study very closely how authors keep you turning the page. What sort of questions do I have when reading a novel? What am I most excited about? What do I lean forward to learn more about?
How did you and Judge choose the subject of love when you branched out for your second podcast?
A lot of the Criminal stories are quite sweet, and have a lot of joy and humor, but Criminal stories can be dark, and that is not all we’re interested in. We started to have little inklings that we wanted to tell stories that were explicitly warm. We started wondering, what if we started a little side project that told really loving stories which show how people can be quite wonderful to each other sometimes?
Can you talk about some of the local stories you’ve featured on This Is Love?
The first episode “The Run” is about a family [based in Durham], about Julienne Alexander, who makes all of our illustrations and our logos. We’ve know her for a long time and her family is interesting in that her mother passed away when she was very young. Her father [David] is this really charming, really fun, one-of-a-kind guy. He raised Julie and her sister, Jody, by himself. And they had a life that was full of adventure and every time I would hear little snippets of Jody’s and Julie’s upbringing, I wanted to know more. I also find it very intriguing that his wife had passed away when the girls were so young, and he has never fallen in love again. To me, it is moving and fascinating to think that he poured himself into raising these girls, both of which are these fantastically interesting, idiosyncratic people, and then he also felt like he had found his one true love, and she passed away, and his life is complete without someone in that same way.
We also talked to [brother and sister] Vansana and Vanvisa Nolintha, who own a pretty big-deal restaurant here in Raleigh called Bida Manda, and he had this interesting story of one of those immigrant kids who comes to the U.S. when they’re young. He felt very alienated in Greensboro, and then his younger sister came, and we were intrigued by the way she had to navigate [being in a new country]. The fascinating part was that they horribly missed their parents, and their parents horribly missed them, but everyone put on a good face because no one wanted anyone else to worry. We found that really relatable to think about how we all sometimes hide from our friends when we think they’re not doing well because we don’t want to burden them. Those invisible, emotional sacrifices we make in an effort to protect the people that we love.
What can we look forward to in 2019 from Criminal and This is Love?
We’re planning more love stories. We’re also looking to tell longer stories, where we tell one story over the course of a few episodes. We’re noticing how few crime podcasts do international stories, so we’re looking into ways to do a few international stories for Criminal. We’re also a planning a big tour of live shows, which we’ve been doing for a few years. We’re going to try to up our game to create a live night of storytelling.
How long have you lived in Durham and what do you like about Durham most?
I’ve been here for six years. I love all the museums, all of the old buildings, the Durham Bulls, walking in the woods in the evening, the quarry, all the swimming holes. I like the culture. I’ve lived in New York, and moving back, I wasn’t sure what to expect. Durham has great food, fun bars, it’s a creative place full of people doing interesting things and people who are taking all kinds of risks creatively, thinking of projects and going for it.