"There is an ambiguity built into these stories and that's why we like them."

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Karolina Waclawiak in Conversation With the Creators of the Podcast Criminal 

Criminal is a new podcast about crime created by Phoebe Judge, Eric Mennel and Lauren Spohrer. Each month, the podcast delivers complicated and surprising stories from  "people who’ve done wrong, been wronged, or gotten caught somewhere in the middle.“ Less interested in the mainstream sensationalism of crime, Criminal inhabits the grey areas and will leave you wrestling with ethical and moral questions.

I chatted with the creators of Criminal over email about stories as far ranging as peculiar murders at the "hands” of animals, Venus flytrap crime rings, cold cases, and more.

—Karolina Waclawiak

I. FOR THE PEOPLE DRIVING HOME ALONE AT 1AM

THE BELIEVER: Let’s start at the beginning. When did an interest in crime begin for all of you?

LAUREN SPOHRER: About six years ago I binged on Raymond Chandler, and reading so many of his novels in quick succession really did something to me. I had been reading a lot of esoteric literary fiction that had no plot, and these novels felt like medicine. I worked my way through the big names of that era—Cornell Woolrich, Patricia Highsmith, Dashiell Hammett. My favorite is The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie. These novels are formal and mannered, and Phoebe has a pretty formal voice, and we were interested in bringing that elegant, somewhat old-fashioned mood to true stories.

PHOEBE JUDGE: I’ve always loved crime. I grew up in Chicago, and when I was a little girl I’d listen to the police scanner. Now you can get a police scanner app on your iPhone, so I still listen sometimes to see what’s going on there.

ERIC MENNEL: Honestly, it started about nine months ago, when Phoebe and Lauren asked “Do you want to do a show about crime?” I think I have a general interest in good stories and often crimes are great stories. Though I have always had an interest in the legal system, and I guess Criminal is really just the less academic version of that.

BLVR: And, how was the podcast conceived? You all have a background in public radio, what brought you all together to make this particular show?

PJ: We met working together for a public radio show called The Story. The show ended, and we started talking about making something of our own almost immediately. When you work for an existing show, you write and edit and think in terms of a specific broadcast clock. You think in terms of the mission of the show, and its host, and because of that you’re necessarily limited. We were excited to see what we could make from scratch.

EM: Plus, crime is a way to get at listeners we weren’t getting on public radio. I keep saying we should be making this show for the people who are driving home alone at 1am. I think that’s an audience we can corner.

BLVR: Without giving too much away, how do you search out your stories? For the most part, these aren’t headline news stories, yet even in their intimacy they feel important and necessary to tell.

EM: A lot of them come from conversations with friends or at parties. Either we’ve been pretty lucky to be associated with people affected by crime, or (the more likely alternative) crime happens to affect most people and we just pester them about it.

LS: This is a happy departure from “regular” public radio jobs, where you’re often repurposing existing stories from newspapers or other media.

BLVR: In each of these non-fiction pieces, there’s an interesting approach taken. For instance, in the first podcast “Animal Instincts” we go from a murder case with a potential suspect being an owl, to the history of animals being tried for murder and mayhem. How did you decide to pull together these pieces? Did you want to make a episode about animals and death or did you first hear about the murder case with an owl as a potential suspect?

PJ: I’d heard that owls sometimes attacked humans and pretty much went looking for a story about it. I wanted to know “how badly could an owl hurt a person? Could it result in death?” That’s how I found out about the Peterson case. I love that story because it seems so crazy and implausible that an owl could be the killer, but Larry Pollard presents some compelling evidence. His theory could provide “reasonable doubt” if we didn’t just dismiss it as outrageous.

EM: Logistically, when we were making that first episode, we thought that each episode going forward would have two stories: a big one and a smaller companion story. Like a smaller version of a radio show. So that’s how that one came about.

But I think we quickly realized: A) The podcast as a medium lends itself pretty well to one story at a time, and B) Producing two stories a month is twice as hard as producing one story a month, and the return on investment is almost never double.

II. WEIRDNESS DOESN’T EXIST IN A VOID—IT ASSOCIATES WITH MORE WEIRDNESS

BLVR: Truth is nebulous in “Criminal.” Unlike most crime stories—be it Dateline or an Ellroy novel, there is a culprit, the truth comes out, we can be put at ease that safety and balance is restored. Not so in Criminal, as the shows are left open-ended, and the listener is left uneasy. Was that a conscious choice?

EM: We don’t have that as a conscious mission as a show, but we’ve ended up being drawn to that in each episode. Maybe it’s just that we keep choosing stories that all have that thing in common. There is an ambiguity built into these stories and that’s why we like them.

LS: This is a big part of what we talk about when we edit. We’ll ask “what are we saying with this story?” or “why are we telling this story?” and it turns out those questions are very hard to answer when you’re not willing to moralize or traffic in logic of good guys vs. bad guys. I think you’ve paid us a great compliment. All of my favorite things leave me uneasy.

BLVR: I think the ambiguity is incredible. Another episode features the dark underworld of a Venus flytrap crime ring in North Carolina. I was so caught off guard with this episode because you don’t know who to trust —who’s the victim and who’s the perpetrator—and it’s such a fascinating turn. The story goes places I couldn’t conceive of, and yet, it’s so simple—you’re following the breadcrumbs. Do you plot out and research the stories beforehand, or are you, for all intents and purposes, playing the role of detective and following the trail of clues? Really, I want to know if you’re as surprised by where these stories lead as I, the listener, am?

EM: With this one I was absolutely as surprised as you were. I did a lot of interviewing over the phone before actually recording anything, because I knew the idea of Venus flytrap poaching was interesting, I just didn’t know what the actual story was—Who were the characters? What was the arc? Then, when I learned that one of the victims may in fact have been perpetuating the crime themselves, it was just sort of a “bingo!” moment. The nice thing about these kinds of stories is that once one weird thing happens, more are bound to happen. Weirdness doesn’t exist in a void—it associates with more weirdness.

BLVR: I think the great strength of these stories is, as you mentioned Lauren, the lack of moralizing. There’s no lens we’re being forced to look through at these stories through. They’re presented as is.
There’s an episode that features a woman who had been counterfeiting money with her boyfriend. Phoebe, there’s a moment when you ask the woman in the story if she saw herself as a criminal and I really wasn’t sure how she was going to respond. The episode stuck with me because I really started thinking about whether or not I would/could do something like that. There’s a level of empathy achieved in each of the more personal stories that makes the listener able to relate to the person on another level. It’s a 180 from how crime and crime stories are presented these days—especially toward the perpetrator.

Phoebe: I am most attracted to stories where I can put myself in the shoes of the person telling the story, and I like the ambiguity of what defines someone as a “criminal.” The more ambiguous, the more interesting.

Lauren: The counterfeit episode is my favorite for exactly this reason. Some part of me absolutely wants to be her in that nightclub “dropping bills.” Radio lends itself so well to this kind of voyeurism. When there’s nothing to look at, it’s really easy to imagine yourself as the person telling the story. When I listen to other podcasts like Strangers or Love & Radio, I can go into a sort of voyeur-trance.

III. A LONG SHADOW

BLVR: There is an opportunity to shed light on long-dormant cases such as the one you highlight in Episode 8: Can’t Rock This Boat. What’s your hope in bringing stories like this to an audience who might not know about these regional stories?

LS: I wanted to do this story because I grew up in Jacksonville, and I can’t believe how few people in town know what happened to Johnnie Mae Chappell. I didn’t know about her until my dad started working on the case. Initially, I had imagined this episode being more about the city and the ways in which it can’t or won’t admit it has a serious racism problem. Every person I interviewed brought up Jordan Davis, the African American teenager who was shot by a white man who thought his music was too loud.

But we changed our focus along the way, and decided it was more compelling to tell all of the little machinations of the murder and the investigation. The detective in the story, Lee Cody, is now eighty-five years old, and he’s still hysterically angry. He hopes very much to tell his story to a Federal Grand Jury before he dies, and he’s still collecting affidavits. It’s fascinating that one little .22-caliber bullet has cast such a long shadow for fifty years.

ES: I think we’re still trying to balance what the “mission” of the show is. We’re not crime fighters. We’re not advocates. But I think a lot of people in the media would say you feel some responsibility to tell “important stories.” I don’t think we want to be boxed in by that sentiment, and certainly not all of our stories are “important.” But I hope we’re always looking for ways to do good work while also doing “important work” when the opportunity presents itself.

BLVR: What’s next for the show?

EM: iTunes domination. Maybe a live show someday. Everyone is doing that and it seems fun.

PJ: Maybe try to find a little funding.

LS: Tote bags. Just what everyone needs.

Karolina Waclawiak is the essays editor for the Believer and the author of How To Get Into the Twin Palms (Two Dollar Radio, 2012).