The true crime podcast Criminal and the human-interest podcast This Is Love are two of the most popular podcasts in existence right now, according to Apple’s charts. Phoebe Judge hosts and co-creates both of these independent, highly produced shows.
We talked to her about her radio background, how she creates new episodes, and how she preps her studio before a recording.
Location: Durham, NC Current gig: Host and co-creator of Criminal and This Is Love Current computer: MacBook Pro 15" Current mobile device: iPhone 8 (the new ones are too big) One word that best describes how you work: Calm
First of all, tell us a little about your background and how you got to where you are today.
I started interning at a public radio station on Cape Cod, which led me to the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies in Maine. Then I spent 2 ½ years as the Gulf Coast reporter for Mississippi Public Broadcasting. I left that job to go to India to report and produce a documentary about the health of the Ganges River.
After India, I started working as a producer and guest host for a national show called The Story with Dick Gordon, which was produced at WUNC in Chapel Hill, NC. When that show was cancelled in 2013, Lauren Spohrer, my co-creator, and I started talking about making something of our own. Last February we launched our second show, This is Love.
Take us through a recent workday.
I wake up around 6:30. By 7:30 I’ve checked email and Slack and Twitter. I have coffee and then I make a list. I like to make lists on paper of what I have to get done that day. I’m incredibly old-fashioned in so many ways. I am sure it makes me pretty hard to work with.
We have a shared Google calendar but I just copy everything from it onto my paper list. By 8:30 I am on the phone with Lauren talking about the day.
After that, if I’m lucky, I try to run or go to Pilates. Lauren, Nadia Wilson and I usually meet at the studio around 9:30. Likely we will have something to record in the morning: re-recording narration for upcoming episodes, ads or promo spots.
By 11:30 I am thinking about lunch (it is a big obsession of mine). I always propose really wonderful elaborate lunch ideas but we usually just get Chopt delivered by DoorDash. Chopt just took away the spicy Calabrian Caesar Salad and I don’t know what I’ll do now. 7 out of 10 times they forget my salad dressing anyway. We talk about story ideas while we eat.
After lunch, we do an interview or start an edit for the next episode of Criminal or This is Love. Sometimes we’re editing scripts between interviews. We’ve done four interviews in a day before. We prefer to work from home, and so hours spent together in the studio are usually very busy and productive.
Lauren and I usually have phone meetings interspersed throughout the afternoon. There’s the story-telling aspect of the work, but we’re also running a business. Around 4:30 we work on any loose ends that haven’t been tied up yet. By 5:30 we are all headed home.
I try to do something outside or around the house for a little while before I get back on Slack and email. We’re constantly sending short audio clips of episodes-in-progress to one another via Slack.
We take turns writing and mixing episodes. If I am writing an episode, then everything goes out the window. The evening is spent nervously pacing back and forth from my desk. Writing a sentence and then convincing myself it is terrible.
I start making dinner at 7. I love making dinner. I usually eat around 8. After dinner, I check back in with Lauren and Nadia to see what we have missed for the day. We are constantly on Slack. Probably too much. It always feels like there is something to deal with.
By 10:30 I am in bed reading. Right now I’m reading The Unredeemed Captive by John Demos.
Take us through your process for making an episode of Criminal.
Lauren, Nadia, or I will propose a story idea. If we all agree that it’s a good one, one of us will reach out to the potential storytellers and pre-interview them. We always do a pre-interview to make sure someone is not only willing to talk but also a good fit. We want to make sure people understand that our show is different in that we’re not collecting sound bites.
It’s going to be a long, personal conversation. I don’t do pre-interviews very often because if someone has already talked to me, they may think they don’t need to go into all the details because they’d be repeating themselves.
After the pre-interview, we reconvene and talk about whether we still like the story. Then we decide whether we should travel to interview the person face-to-face or do the interview in a studio. Once we’ve made those logistical decisions, we write a list of questions and prepare to record the interview.
We use Google Docs and write questions collaboratively, and then use the Google Docs chat to talk to each other during the interview. The best interviews go places we don’t expect at all.
We transcribe our interviews using Trint (which isn’t perfect and requires a human to go back through it, but it’s much faster than transcribing from scratch) and then one of us will take the lead on writing a first draft of a script. During our first edit, we play the clips of the guest (we edit audio in Pro Tools) and I read the narration.
After that we all sit around and discuss the script and talk about how to make it better. Scripts are also written in Google Docs for easy collaborating. Whoever wrote the first draft of the script will go back and make changes. We then have a second edit.
Sometimes a third after that. Sometimes more. Each edit comes with its own round of fact checking.
When the script is in a good place, I will record the narration. Someone takes a lead on putting the episode together in Pro Tools (choosing music, establishing the pace of the story). We share a rough mix internally and revise. When we’re happy with it, we send it to Rob Byers who balances the voices, cleans up any audio blemishes, and enhances the music to give it that Criminal sound.
In the meantime we are working with Julienne Alexander, who has been making illustrations for Criminal since we started. Our episodes come out on Fridays so we all listen one final time to the finished episode and then we schedule it to be published at 4 a.m. on Friday mornings. We publish on PRX’s publishing platform, and our feeds are hosted by Feedburner.
Do you end up publishing every episode that you start work on?
No, we decided early on that it is better to kill a story early in the process. If the story isn’t there, then even the best writing in the world won’t make it work. The beauty of being your own boss is that you don’t have to work on things you don’t want to work on.
What apps, gadgets, or tools can’t you live without?
I use a black moleskin notebook everyday to keep lists and take notes. It is a little bigger than a book and a little smaller than a sheet of paper. I am also pretty obsessed with my Garmin watch. I use it to look at my heart rate and track my runs. Mostly it just reminds me when to move (which I have yet to listen to.) I also use Bose wireless headphones almost every day.
What’s your workspace setup like?
I mainly work in two places. I have a home office where I do most of my work. And then I also work at the studio, where I set up my computer right behind my microphone and sit there and work. Even if I am not recording anything. Something about it is comforting to me.
How do you keep track of what you have to do?
I mainly use a list in my notebook that I update every morning with what have to get done. We also use a shared Google Calendar. And we have a big whiteboard in the studio where we keep a running list of all our story ideas and a big calendar with episode due dates and when things will go live.
Take us through an interesting, unusual, or finicky process you have in place at work.
I am really obsessed with how the studio looks right before I track an episode. I have to make sure that the table is clear and that all the chairs are pushed in exactly in the right place.
I also have to make sure that my chair height is exactly right and that the arm position is always the same. I go around like a wild person just before we start making sure everything looks exactly perfect.
Who are the people who help you get things done, and how do you rely on them?
The shows are made by three of us.
Lauren Spohrer and I created both shows and we own Criminal Productions jointly. I don’t think the shows would continue if she weren’t a part of them. I just don’t think it works.
Nadia Wilson is our senior producer. When we hired her three years ago it was like a godsend. I don’t think Lauren and I ever imagined how perfect a fit she would be to the team.
What’s your favourite shortcut or hack?
I feel like I am the picture of “anti-hack.” I don’t know any cool shortcuts. I just recently learned how to take a screenshot on my computer.
How do you recharge or take a break?
I love to go for long walks. Sometimes I will take a 16km walk just for the fun of it. I never like to retrace my steps, so I usually have to find someone to pick me up 16km down the road somewhere. I also love to cook.
What’s your favourite side project?
I am currently making beer. One of our sponsors gave us a free beer making kit and I have become obsessed with it. I am pretty afraid to drink it because I am scared of contamination, but it has been a lot of fun.
What are you currently reading, or what do you recommend?
I am currently reading a lot of books about Down East Maine, which are mainly boring and just about topography. I have also been reading a lot of Elizabeth Strout lately. And I am just about to finish Nathaniel Philbrick’s Mayflower which came out years ago and I forgot about but I am very happy I found.
Also Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad. (I feel like as in most things in my life, I am about a year behind.) And books about the New York City escort business in the 70s.
Who else would you like to see answer these questions?
Roman Mars, Roxanne Gay, Gail Collins.
Roxane Gay has published five books in the last seven years, all acclaimed, all incisively addressing social issues that define our society, such as feminism, race, body image, racial and sexual violence, and the immigrant experience. Three - her essay collection Bad Feminist, her short story collection Difficult Women, and her memoir Hunger - were US national bestsellers.
What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?
Don’t be afraid, it won’t do much good anyway.
What’s a problem you’re still trying to solve?