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'Criminal' Co-Creators Phoebe Judge And Lauren Spohrer Talk Crime, Love And St. Louis

Phoebe Judge, at left, at Lauren Spohrer are the co-creators of "Criminal" and "This Is Love."
Justin Cook & Liz Clayman

Since its inception in 2014, "Criminal" has never been just another true crime podcast. Where some shows spin their speculative wheels or endlessly whip listeners back and forth between evidence of innocence or guilt, "Criminal" has a reputation for pointing its microphone at the deeply human moments and stories that lurk behind the headlines — and consistently premiering a fresh, tightly crafted story two Fridays each month.

And over the years, a handful of "Criminal" episodes have brought the podcast’s co-creators, Phoebe Judge and Lauren Spohrer, to the St. Louis region for interviews and research — putting them in conversation with everyone from convicted aircraft hijacker Martin McNally to local historians and journalists.

In 2015, for instance, Judge interviewed Ferguson protestor Ed Crawford, the subject of an iconic photo taken by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch’s Robert Cohen. A year later, the podcast team dug into the history of the Evening Whirl, a crime-focused newspaper that first began publishing in St. Louis in 1938. And in January of this year, Criminal brought new attention to a horrific massacre that occurred in southern Illinois nearly a century ago.

The podcasters were all set for yet another return to St. Louis for a live show at the Pageant on April 28, but then the coronavirus pandemic hit. The "Criminal" team has now rescheduled their spring tour for later this year, with the St. Louis event planned for Sept. 13.

On Thursday’s St. Louis on the Air, host Sarah Fenske talked with Judge and Spohrer about the evolution of the show. The conversation also touched on how the podcasters have gone about expanding their repertoire to include "This Is Love" and "Phoebe Reads A Mystery."

Spohrer noted that sheltering at home due to COVID-19 has put a damper on an aspect of the work that they typically enjoy so much: traveling to conduct in-person research and interviews. 

“We think that this is the longest that we’ve stayed in North Carolina where we live, maybe since we started making this show,” she said. “I think we really, really enjoy getting to sit down with people in person, and I think it makes the episodes stronger. And I think when people can really sit down across from Phoebe, and she can make a connection with them and they can sort of meet us and see what we’re about, it makes a big difference.”

When asked about the impetus for "This Is Love," which launched in 2018, Judge said that despite the strong contrast between that show’s title and "Criminal," there are “more similarities than differences” between the two.

“A couple years ago … we thought, ‘What’s next?’ I don’t think that Lauren and I are ever just gonna be happy to sit back on our heels and keep running the train that’s already going, which is 'Criminal,'” she explained. “We wanted to try our hands at something new but something as varied a topic as crime was.

“And we took this word ‘crime’ and kind of pushed it and changed it and made a show about the human experience. And so we thought, ‘Why not try a topic like love? … People have these preconceived notions of what love is and what it should be and what a love story is. Let’s do the same thing. Let’s confuse people, let’s open up this word.’ And so now, you know, it’s great fun. We’re doing our fourth season right now, and the whole season is about animals, which maybe is not what you’d expect when you hear you’re going to be listening to a love show.”

Listen to the full discussion:

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill, Lara Hamdan and Joshua Phelps. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

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Evie was a producer for "St. Louis on the Air" at St. Louis Public Radio.