The adage about not fixing what isn't broken certainly applies to the winning formula developed by the Durham-based true-crime producers who created the national podcast phenomenon Criminal.
Their newer effort, This Is Love, which has released six episodes since Valentine's Day, doesn't stray far from their signature anthropological approach. It's just that now, instead of cops and robbers, the focus is love. But it still features Phoebe Judge's soothing vocal timbre and the steadying hand of producer Lauren Spohrer. Producer Nadia Wilson is still on board, as is engineer Rob Byers and illustrator Julienne Alexander, who, alongside her signature artwork, details the trials of her parents' romance in the first episode.
As part of a live tour organized by PRX's Radiotopia podcast network, Judge and Spohrer will appear at the Carolina Theatre on May 8 to tell a story (about streakers!) previously unheard on Criminal. The evening also features storytellers from six other PRX podcasts, including Radio Diaries, The Bugle, and The Allusionist.
We recently spoke with Judge and Spohrer about their literary approach to podcasting, the virtues of small stories, and life on the road with a bunch of podcasters.
INDY: You two and your team are already some of the hardest-working producers in podcasting. What compelled you to branch out with a second podcast?
PHOEBE JUDGE: When we started Criminal four years ago, we were obviously interested in crime, but that's not all we're interested in. We're interested in a thousand other topics, and after just doing Criminal for four years, we thought it was time to stretch our wings a little bit and challenge ourselves, and hopefully make something that complements Criminal even though it's a topic that's totally different.
Criminal has been called "a broad reading of the true-crime genre." This Is Love certainly follows that description. Was it difficult to shift your storytelling to a new genre?
LAUREN SPOHRER: Phoebe and I have worked in public radio for a long time, so we don't come from any sort of investigative background. When we started the show, we were thinking that we wanted to make something that didn't already exist. We were thinking, what if we used a New Yorker long-read as a model? So we had sort of literary ambitions from the beginning with Criminal. But our background is not in crime. Our background is in telling good audio stories. To do the love stories was sort of a return to some skills that we haven't got to use in a while, which is to find people we find to be delightful. It was very exciting for us to do it with love because crime is obviously very broad, and I don't think it gets much broader than love.
These stories range from a romance novelist and her process to a widower living here in the Triangle. How do you find your stories?
PJ: For a long time, we've been thinking about the love show, and we were stalling because we couldn't find that perfect story. We were looking for these big, grand stories, and then we finally said, maybe we're trying to find something too big. We've never been good at finding big stories; we've always been good at finding small stories, personal stories. So when we got out of the mindset of finding something grand, we found the perfect batch of stories. Unlike with Criminal, we actually have relationships with some of the people in This Is Love. We looked around at people we have known and finally just said, wait a second, you would make the perfect episode. The thing that dictates what we choose is what we're curious about.
You completed the first six-episode season of This Is Love and have six more episodes slated for the fall. How's the response been?
PJ: Wonderful. The marker for a wonderful response is that we have people writing that these stories have touched them in some way. People have said these stories made them feel good. They've also said that they're crying a lot in public, which we don't hear as much for Criminal. But our hope was to make a show that would make people have some faith in humanity and surprise people and give them a break from everything else that is going on in the world, and I hope we've succeeded in that.
Radiotopia kicks off an East Coast tour in Atlanta on the seventh and then next night brings you to Durham. What can we expect?
PJ: It's great because you get to see a collection of podcasts all doing their own thing and performing live on stage. You're not just going to see Criminal. You get to see 99% Invisible and Benjamen Walker's Theory of Everything and The Kitchen Sisters Present. These are all shows we've admired for so long. It's fun to see these podcasts that you usually hear live and see what the people look like. For us, we don't get much audience engagement. I have no idea if someone is smiling or frowning or falling asleep, but now we get to look out into the audience and see the person's immediate reaction, and it's been great fun for us.
Last year, you toured with Radiotopia on the West Coast. How was that experience?
LS: It was so much fun! A lot of these shows are grouped together in the Bay Area and L.A. or in New York, so they get to see one another and go out for drinks and pitch in if someone has an editorial question. But we're own our own down here, so it was a lot of fun to get to spend time with [The Memory Place's] Nate DiMeo and The Kitchen Sisters and sit around and share meals.
How's life on the road? Are you on vacation or are you working?
LS: We're always working.
PJ: Criminal does not stop, whether we're on the road or not.
LS: We work with Nadia Wilson, so she will stay and hold down the fort while we're gone. But yeah, we'll keep looking for stories; we'll keep doing interviews while we're on the road.
PJ: In the past, we'd find a studio in the city we're in and go and track the next episode or do an interview if we have to. We're usually editing the script or thinking about the next episode, and so we're always on the phone with Nadia in North Carolina. The only thing we know for certain is that Criminal will come out twice a month on a Friday, and so we just plow ahead.
Do you have a preference between playing on the other side of the country or a couple blocks from your own house?
PJ: It's always nice to be doing it in your own backyard. The Triangle community has been incredibly kind to Criminal. When we did our first live show three years ago at Motorco, I was convinced that no one was going to show up. I was terrified. I didn't know what we were doing or why we thought we could do something like this. People showed up and they loved it and they were so kind and generous. We've always felt incredibly supported by Durham and the Triangle. It's where we live.