In the modern media, crime is seldom examined outside of the context of the law. When criminal activity is presented solely in legal terms, we lose track of the subtle shades of motive and consequence that make it compelling. Though cases end with a verdict of guilty or not guilty, the causes and effects of crime play out long before the deed and after the rap of the judge's gavel.
CRIMINAL, a provocative new podcast by three local broadcasters, wades into this neglected territory. It was created last fall by Lauren Spohrer, a WUNC producer who teaches essay writing at Duke University; Phoebe Judge, who anchors WUNC's broadcast of Here & Now; and Eric Mennel, a producer at All Things Considered. Their collective public radio credits also include The Story and This American Life, which is the most prominent influence on the narrative-driven interviews at the heart of the podcast.
Despite its pedigree, Criminal is its own show. Even before the trio left Dick Gordon's nationally syndicated The Story, where they were all producers when it ended last year, Judge had conceived of doing something more experimental.
"We wanted to take the best of what we knew after doing public radio and put it into something new," she says, gathered with her cohort at Surf Club. "We wanted to find a balance between something artistic and a product you can hear on the radio."
The program is recorded in Spohrer or Mennel's bedroom closets in Durham. (Closets work best, Spohrer says, because smaller rooms make it easier to control sound quality.) The 15-to-20-minute episodes are distributed for free online, averaging 13,000 downloads each.
While some segments are conceived, researched, recorded and edited in a week, others take months of effort. Because Judge, Mennel and Spohrer all work full time, this is an extracurricular activity. As the website states, "Criminal is what we do when we go home at night."
In addition to interviews, the producers use an array of devices, from field recordings and archival news clips to music, to illuminate the causes and consequences of crime for victims and perpetrators alike. But the show's strength is its focus on the latter. The media often embraces the perspectives of victims, but if telling stories can illuminate humanity at its limits, then the criminal's view is just as important.
There is no typical episode. In one, a ring of thieves turn their avaricious attention to Venus flytraps, stealing the carnivorous plants en masse from nurseries across North Carolina. In another, a successful NYU alumna and her boyfriend start inkjet-printing money in a Brooklyn basement. And in a particularly memorable segment, a local man believes that a woman's murderer was not, as the law concluded, her husband, but an enraged great horned owl.
Bizarre as these crimes seem, none are inexplicable. Legal verdicts comfort us because they make illegality legible and place us on the privileged side of the criminal divide. Criminal denies us the capacity to judge from a safe distance, which makes it highly visceral, or even, at times, uncomfortable—not because it's difficult to empathize with the subjects, but because it's not very difficult at all.
Beyond efficiency and ease of distribution, podcasting allows the producers to approach their subjects with creative freedom. As Mennel explains, "When you're writing a story for Morning Edition, you have to write it in such a way that someone could theoretically jump in two-thirds of the way through and pick it up." Because the audiences of podcasts don't tune in midway through a segment, the structures can be more artistic.
And, Spohrer adds, "you're not bound by length and you don't have to censor your language."
The idea to focus on crime was Spohrer's, which she credits to her interest in crime shows on television. "There's some sense that crime is lowbrow, but if you think about crime in a literary sense, I think it's actually quite highbrow and fascinating," she says. "I was excited about the idea of bringing these [storytelling] values to long-form stories about crime."
Even in its infancy, the podcast has started to catch on at radio stations nationwide, appearing on WFAE of Charlotte, WBEZ of Chicago and WUNC, which aired a one-hour special featuring three episodes of Criminal. And through a grant provided by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation for the Arts, Public Radio Exchange recently awarded the program $2,250 to create a segment on whether PMS can be so debilitating for some women that it relieves them of criminal liability. (Short answer: maybe.) The story, currently in progress, is slated for completion by the end of August.
Judge, Mennel and Spohrer all concede that they would like Criminal to be profitable and to reach a national audience. But even if the show never gets syndicated, they have no plans to give it up. "Five years down the road, Criminal might not sound anything like it does now, because we've become so much better," Mennel says. "The show might sound entirely different, but will still be entirely ours."
Crime is a profoundly human activity, and it's unnerving to observe that there are few in this world who, under the right circumstances, would not step outside the law. But Criminal makes that condition clear, deepening our understanding of why crime exists and why we should care.
"It's a perfect topic," Spohrer says. "We're never going to run out of stories."
Criminal can be downloaded for free each month at thisiscriminal.com, iTunes or Soundcloud. Listen to the most recent episode below.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Illegal radio."