Phoebe Judge, The Art of Podcasting No. 18

Phoebe Judge is the host of Criminal, a show that examines people “who’ve done wrong, been wronged, or gotten caught somewhere in the middle.” The show debuted in January 2014 as an independent project. By the next January, it had joined the Radiotopia lineup and is now one of the most popular podcasts in the country. Recently The Timbre‘s Eric McQuade got a chance to talk with Judge about how she was able to grow her podcast from a closet recording to a top-ten download, the inevitable comparisons to Serial, her love of radio, and why she won’t be working as an MTV VJ any time soon. 

THE TIMBRE

Sorry to be catching you at the end of a work day.

PHOEBE JUDGE

That’s okay. I’m used to it.

THE TIMBRE

I was going to say: I listened to your interview on Podcast Digest and I was just like, “Well, I guess she works all the time.”

PHOEBE JUDGE

<Laughs> If it’s 8:45 in the morning, I’m sitting there and going, “Well, Phoebe. You’re blowing it. You’ve blown the day already. You wasted it already.” So, I have a hard time ever just sitting still.

THE TIMBRE

I wasn’t born this way, but I worry so much now and I have to work just so I’ll turn that part off in my brain.

PHOEBE JUDGE

Oh, my gosh. I’m the greatest worrier you’ve ever seen. I worry about everything. It’s why I quit smoking, because I thought to myself, ‘Phoebe, if you quit smoking, it just means that you’ll have one less thing to worry about.’ Right? That was my impetus.

‘Phoebe, those middle of the night cancer thoughts? You’re going to get to take one of those away now.’ You know? ‘You’re still going to worry, you’re the biggest hypochondriac. The myriad cancers you have. But one of those you’ll get to worry about a little less.’

THE TIMBRE

<Laughs> Exactly.

When you started Criminal, there wasn’t much true crime being done on podcasts, right? I loved the idea that you chose this because I’ve always been obsessed with long form nonfiction reads on true crime.

PHOEBE JUDGE

Me too. You know who does it really well?

THE TIMBRE

Who?

PHOEBE JUDGE

Texas Monthly.

THE TIMBRE

Yes. Absolutely. The movie Bernie was created because Richard Linklater read a true crime story in Texas Monthly.

PHOEBE JUDGE

Oh wow. That’s interesting.

THE TIMBRE

Texas Monthly has definitely killed it there. That’s a bad word to use. I should say they’ve done a good job with it.

PHOEBE JUDGE

<Laughs>

THE TIMBRE

There’s a built in mystery to true crime and I think that’s what makes it great. What makes it great for you? What made you decide to follow that format?

PHOEBE JUDGE

This is exactly how it went down: Lauren Spohrer and I were sitting on my back porch. We were talking about maybe a show I could host and Lauren said, “What about crime? Everybody loves crime. People who listen to public radio also love Law & Order, but there’s no show about crime.”

When she said that, I really do remember thinking, ‘That’s so smart. Lauren, that’s so smart. You’re absolutely right.’ And then thinking the next day, ‘We’re never going to run out of stories.’

THE TIMBRE

Right. Crime just keeps on happening.

PHOEBE JUDGE

I think it’s also been really great to have this subject that limits us in some way. If we just said, “We’re going to do a show. It’s going to be called ‘Podcast,'” I’m sure we could find interesting stories. But the fact that we’ve chosen this topic, in some ways it limits us, but it’s broad enough to say, “We’re going to talk to victims, we’re going to talk to perpetrators, we’re going to talk to people who maybe should be guilty or should maybe feel more guilty than they do.” It allows us enough of a focus, but it also feels like we have this whole world to find stories.

THE TIMBRE

It feels expansive in that way.

PHOEBE JUDGE

What’s funny is if Lauren had said, “Let’s do a podcast about music videos. Let’s do a podcast about new music videos–what’s going on in that world,” I would not have been the right person to host that show. That would have been a crazy idea. No one would listen to that show because it wouldn’t sound right.

THE TIMBRE

I guess being an MTV VJ would not have been your calling.

PHOEBE JUDGE

No! I don’t even know movie references.

THE TIMBRE

<Laughs>

PHOEBE JUDGE

I truly should have been born–I’m not going to be too specific with the number–between 1921 and 1933. I think it’d probably be the right birth year for me.

THE TIMBRE

That’d be perfect for you?

PHOEBE JUDGE

I spend a lot of time sitting with people who make these references, and I am just trying to think, ‘I think I know what that movie is. I think I know what song they’re talking about.’ The biggest criticism of me is I’ll have a dinner party or something, and people will be like, “Phoebe, do we need to hear the Blossom Dearie Pandora station again? Do we need to hear more Tony Bennett?”

THE TIMBRE

That’s hilarious.

So, I want to talk about your podcast. I thought the recent episode you did, “695BGK,” about the black man who was shot by a police officer, was just incredible.

There are so many important crime stories that don’t make the national media and I think in other worlds that’s not the case. There’s no shortage of celebrity gossip stories. There’s no shortage of what Apple is doing. When it comes to this, there are a lot of important stories that we don’t know. For every story about Ferguson, there’s a story like this one that didn’t go viral.

Is that something you think about? Is it important that you’re able to bring these stories to light?

PHOEBE JUDGE

That’s not our mission. Our mission is not to shed light. I think I feel okay saying that. We’re just so little. It’s just the two of us.

I think for us we try to find the stories that have a twist or have an odd thing. And because of that, maybe you’ll remember. The reason we did the Robbie Tolan story is that we needed to figure out, “Why is this story forgotten? Why did this story not get the type of attention that the Ferguson story did?” Or so many of these cases. Because Robbie Tolan didn’t die.

THE TIMBRE

Right.

PHOEBE JUDGE

That’s it. He’s alive. He didn’t die. That means that we can have a first-hand account of one of these police shootings. It also means that the story isn’t as dramatic to cover in the mainstream media, right? So that’s what we’re looking for. I think that we’re looking for that twist that will have a memorable story and make a listener want to remember.

THE TIMBRE

I think your instincts are right.

PHOEBE JUDGE

We are pretty judicious about which stories we think that we can tell in a compelling and complete way.

I think, for us, we just try to find stories that we think the listener will be able to connect with in some way. They’ll think it’s funny. They’ll think it’s tragic. They’ll be able to put themselves in the position of the subject of the story.

THE TIMBRE

But often those stories do end up shedding light on a real issue.

PHOEBE JUDGE

It gets too overwhelming to think we could shine the light…There’s too many of them. The thought of that. I just think, ‘Oh, my gosh.’ It makes me think, ‘Are we doing enough?’

THE TIMBRE

Is there any temptation to take one story and blow it out? Make it multiple episodes? Is there any temptation to tackle a story that’s happening currently?

PHOEBE JUDGE

You know, I’ve never heard of a podcast that’s done that before.

THE TIMBRE

<Laughs> Yeah, what a great idea.

PHOEBE JUDGE

Just kidding.

THE TIMBRE

It was a loaded question. I will say, every Google search tells you, “Criminal is the podcast to listen to now that Serial is over.”

PHOEBE JUDGE

Yeah. “The podcast you should have been listening to before Serial.” <Laughs>

THE TIMBRE

Right. Exactly.

PHOEBE JUDGE

We get so many Serial questions. I listened to Serial. I am an incredible fan of Sarah Koenig’s work, and I can’t imagine the amount of work they put into that. I admire that. I admire how much work they put into that so much.

THE TIMBRE

It was pretty astonishing.

PHOEBE JUDGE

But our shows are very different. Their first season was about a crime. Criminal is about crime. The whole format is very different. Our episodes are short and then they’re over. There are a lot of things we probably could expand on and either make the episodes longer, but we choose not to. I think that we maybe have different goals. I don’t know what they are, but I think they might be different. I appreciate what Serial did and I don’t know if Criminal needs to do that. I think that they’ve done a good job. I’ve never left a Criminal story thinking to myself, ‘We should have made that longer.’ You know? I haven’t thought that.

Our show started last year with the idea that we’d have one episode. One topic. One episode. One story. They’d probably be around twenty minutes. That’s what we started with and we’re probably going to continue pretty much like that. If there’s any real change in the format of the show, it won’t be so much the length of the episode. It might be the frequency in which they come out.

THE TIMBRE

I like what you said there. The show is exactly what it’s trying to be and it also was around before Serial, which are two important distinctions.

You brought up the frequency. Is there any pushback from fans or Radiotopia? “Hey, Phoebe. We love the show. It’s great. Can we get two a month?”

PHOEBE JUDGE

Oh, yeah. The greatest thing that we can hear, for me, is when people write to us and say, “Can you put this out more frequently and why aren’t your episodes longer?” We’ll disappoint you for years. That’s fine by us.

THE TIMBRE

<Laughs> Right. Those are good complaints to have.

PHOEBE JUDGE

Of course if we put things out more frequently, we could have potentially more sponsors. We could make more revenue, which means we could pay ourselves more. Of course there are these great benefits of coming out more frequently than we do. But the reality is that Lauren, Eric Mennel, and I started this podcast in a closet with no money and full-time jobs. We did this for a year at night and on the weekends.

At the beginning, we put a lot of time in. Our edits are long and horrible and tough and frustrating. Every part of the episodes I think of coming together probably took longer than they should. There’s a lot of debating because we’ve always been this democracy. So, in the beginning, once a month was really what we could do knowing that one, we had no money, and we had no time, because we all had jobs. So when we did put something out, we wanted the thing we put out to be really great.

THE TIMBRE

Right. Take the time you need to make sure it’s polished.

PHOEBE JUDGE

We took Criminal really seriously from the beginning. We always took Criminal so seriously. In February 2014, we were sitting and we were thinking about how our second episode had come out and 52 people had downloaded it. Which felt amazing, crazy, and wonderful to me to think 52 people were downloading it.

THE TIMBRE

52? That’s incredible.

PHOEBE JUDGE

At the time, we said, “If we could have anything for the show, what would we have?” Someone said, “Radiotopia would call us up and say, ‘Do you want to be part of this?'” And so, when that happened in October–when they first called us and said, “You know we’re going to do this Kickstarter and we’d like to bring you on”–it felt so wonderful because we had been in the closet recording for a year and we had just paid for the stuff ourselves and we had just been slowly growing our audience.

So, when they came along and said, “We want you to be part of this and we’re going to help you,” it was an incredible honor, of course, to be included with shows we admired like 99% Invisible, like Strangers, like Love + Radio. Right? “But also we’re going to give you a little bit of money,” which seemed so crazy to us.

THE TIMBRE

Getting picked up by Radiotopia: Did it feel like a strange world where you were suddenly so desirable? You’d been on the radio in the past and you probably knew six or seven years ago the value of a podcaster was not something that was in demand. Now you’re in a position where you put out this product with your two partners, you make it, and all of the sudden Radiotopia’s courting you.

PHOEBE JUDGE

I think that courting us makes it sound like we were more desirable. I feel they didn’t court us. They were like, “We’ll take a chance on you, Criminal.” And we were humbly saying, “Thank you so much.” I don’t feel like at that point we were being courted. I feel like we were being given an opportunity.

THE TIMBRE

But to go from recording in your closet to an elite network in under a year.

PHOEBE JUDGE

Right. We had done something and we’d found someone to listen to it and someone was giving us a little bit of money to make it now.

I think to myself, ‘There were 51 people that listened to our first episode.’ To think today that we have more than a million people that listen to us a month. It’s not like it’s lost on me that we built this thing in a closet. For whatever reason. Maybe it’s hard work. Maybe it’s Lauren’s smart idea. The podcast world is changing, right? But to me it also feels like a little business that works if you work hard at it.

THE TIMBRE

Did it shock you to see where the podcast movement had gone in a matter of just a few years?

PHOEBE JUDGE

It’s still shocking to me to see where the podcast movement is going this afternoon.

THE TIMBRE

As someone who has one foot in public radio and one foot in podcasting, what do you make of all this movement? Yesterday, it was public radio. Now there’s public radio and podcasting. Does it feel a little bit like the wild west?

PHOEBE JUDGE

I think it’s the right term. I think I’ve used that term before. It does feel like the wild west. Absolutely.

Who would have thought that public radio people would be picked up and sought after and making money? It’s like we don’t know what to do with ourselves. We’re not born for this. We’re not created for this. I think that’s what I feel about it.

For me, I love the radio. I love the radio. When we started Criminal, I still believed, “Fine, it can be a podcast, but we should also be trying to get on the radio. We have to get on the radio.”

And they were like, “Phoebe, no. We don’t have to try to get on the radio. We can have a podcast and they’re absolutely, 100% right.”

THE TIMBRE

Suddenly all this talent is flocking to podcasts from public radio. It feels like new jobs keep opening up.

PHOEBE JUDGE

But I still love radio.

We were trying to make money for Criminal last spring and we thought one of the ways that we’d grow the audience and make a little money is if we sold these hour-long specials to public radio stations. So, we created three episodes and we put them into an NPR-clock format. We sent them out and wrote letters to all the program directors we could think of and some stations picked them up.

One of them was WBEZ in Chicago. They have these Saturday-Sunday doc slots, you know. My mother still lives in Chicago. My mother can go on her computer any time she wants to listen to my podcast. She could sit down right now and listen to Criminal on repeat over and over. But the thought that my mother could sit in her house and turn her radio on and hear Criminal was so important for me.

THE TIMBRE

Ah. I love that.

PHOEBE JUDGE

We had a kind of “Criminal‘s on the radio” party with friends here in Durham who’d supported us. We were all here and we were having this big barbecue and I sat off to the side for part of the party on the phone with my sister–who’s there with my mother–hearing them listen to Criminal over the radio in Chicago.

It still feels special to me. It still feels important to me. I don’t know what it is. There’s something about it. I don’t know. There’s something about radio still for me that’s special and important.

I think that podcasts are happening and I think podcasts are proving their value and worth. I’m amazed by the amount of fantastic content that’s out there that I get to listen to because I’m now a podcast listener. And I still always want to be a radio listener, too.

THE TIMBRE

Sometimes I think the distinction is more pronounced than it needs to be. It’s all audio.

PHOEBE JUDGE

Do you want to know the most frustrating conversation in the world? Trying to have a conversation with your father, who spent his life in public radio, about how anyone’s going to find you as a podcast.

THE TIMBRE

<Laughs>

PHOEBE JUDGE

He was like, “Phoebe, I don’t understand. How are they going find it? How are they going to know that it’s there? How are you going to get anyone to listen to it?” And me just constantly trying to say, “Dad, please.”

It’s the most frustrating conversation in the world trying to explain to your father how podcasts work. I think he’s come around, but there were a lot of long conversations about that.

THE TIMBRE

I remember explaining cell phones to my grandfather. My parents got a family plan and they had an extra cell phone and they gave it to him. He refused to use it.

I said to him, “You have a cordless phone in your house. This is just a cordless phone except you can go anywhere with it.”

It was not getting past that brick wall. He was not letting it in.

PHOEBE JUDGE

<Laughs>

THE TIMBRE

But here you are, with a million downloads.

PHOEBE JUDGE

That’s the whole world. We have a million downloads. It could just be like my father not getting the podcast player right and like downloading it 100,000 times.

THE TIMBRE

<Laughs>

Do you feel like in your day job your boss is at work thinking, ‘Oh, man. She’s going to head out any day now’? And do you feel a pull to do that? To do Criminal full time?

PHOEBE JUDGE

Yes. <Laughs>

THE TIMBRE

Yeah?

PHOEBE JUDGE

That’s the honest answer. Criminal‘s fun. My job, what I do on the radio, is fun, too. The conversations that Lauren and I had this afternoon, just the range of insane topics we covered this afternoon, which went from vicious murders, to book forgery, to trying to find a tape syncer in Holbrook, Arizona, to petrified wood, to magician lawyers. Literally, all of those topics were covered in like fifteen minutes.

THE TIMBRE

That’s awesome.

PHOEBE JUDGE

That’s fun that we get to do that. So, sure.

Also, because we built Criminal at night in the closet, the episode comes out and we think, “Oh, no. Well, they’re all gone.”

THE TIMBRE

<Laughs>

PHOEBE JUDGE

“Well, it was good run.”

THE TIMBRE

The last idea you’ll ever have?

PHOEBE JUDGE

We always come out on Fridays. Every third Friday. So on Thursday night we each have these little jobs. I have this little task and Lauren has this little task.

Lauren publishes which is actually pushing the podcast out. We’ll do it on Thursday night. We schedule it to go live around 4 am. Without a doubt, Lauren will either not sleep that night or will be up at 4:05 panicked. Sweating, waking up terrified that we’ve done something wrong. So, we still feel that way. It’s still just us here thinking to ourselves, ‘Oh, my gosh. They hate it. There they go. They hate the episode.’

That hasn’t changed at all and I can’t really see that changing. One, because I think we’re just too neurotic, but also I think we’re just here and we’re doing it and making it. When people find it, we’re just so happy.

 

~

Author Description

Eric McQuade is co-founder of The Timbre and a former-programmer-turned-writer. He has lived in D.C., Texas, North Carolina, Minnesota, New Jersey, Colorado, Argentina, Cayman Islands, and the length of the Appalachian Trail. Right now he hangs his hat in Memphis, TN.

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