There is no universe where I can give the producers of Criminal the acknowledgement they are due for their toil and their audio treasures. There is no universe that exists where you can listen to too much of this incredible show. I dare you to find a more entrancing voice out in the podsphere than that of Phoebe Judge. Readers of the Pod People, I ask you to give this incredible product of Radiotopia a listen this weekend. And as always, please e-mail any suggestions, questions, or general inquiries to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Episode 1: Animal Instincts
The inaugural episode of Criminal dives deep into the question of what damage animals can do to man. This is a labyrinthine story about a man—a lawyer—who built an elaborate theory about microscopic owl feathers. I care little for owls, and I have to say that murder mysteries are rarely my jam. But this episode grabbed me by the talons, because Phoebe Judge is a killer interviewer. An audio archaeologist, she digs and digs into the death of a woman. Theory after theory. Interview after interview. No hypothesis is ignored. And, what is perhaps so lovely about this episode is Judge’s obvious love for facts—a thing so many of us audio nerds treasure.
Line of note: “He says they found not one but three microscopic owl feathers.”
Episode 6: We Lost Them
It is 2017. Hate is on the rise. But this gem from the archives of 2014 is a journey into an episode of U.S. history that still haunts many Americans, especially citizens of a small suburb outside Kansas City. In “We Lost Them,” Phoebe Judge probes the aftermath of a shooting perpetrated by Frazier Glenn Miller Jr. She examines the emotional struggles, the psychological quagmires that families of the victims face. There’s beauty in the depth of Judge’s interviews and the delicate ways in which she asks follow-up questions.
Line of note: “Family members of murder victims are often captured on television. We are shown their grief, and we watch them try to respond when they are asked impossible questions.”
Episode 11: I’m About To Save Your Life
“Robert was so polite and so discreet that he unwittingly became the perfect target.” This is the first introduction we get to the victim of an incredible crime. It’s a zigzagged exploration of the human heart and the fragility of the soul. What does terror make us do? How does vulnerability make us do things? What is a scam? Phoebe traces the evolution of a bizarre scheme—a truly enraging series of events. Intertwined with archival footage and in-person interviews, this episode delves into the should’ve and could’ve moments that peppered a scheme that extended for years and years.
Line of note: “The victim in this case endured extraordinary psychological pressure from the defendant for twenty years.”
Episode 17: Final Exit
This is not what you’re expecting: Phoebe interviews a woman, who has no criminal record but whose every movement interests the FBI intensely. She is known as an “exit guide,” a person who sits with people in the throes of ending their own lives on their own terms. It’s an episode that gets into the nuances of human suffering, of loss, and of the limits of the body. To what extent is a peaceful death possible in the 21st century? How does it work in technical and biological terms? What does it feel like to stand at the bedside of people, who have chosen to end their lives? What laws govern euthanasia in America? Phoebe has so many questions. Tune in for the answers. Please. Please do it now.
Line of note: “She’s pretty sure the FBI has a rather keen interest every time she leaves town.”
Episode 25: The Portrait
1929. Perhaps you don’t think the year carries tremendous weight. That would be an unwise assumption, as Phoebe reveals the woe and agony that one North Carolinian family had to endure. Death. Family. Guns. This episode goes into brutal detail to try to understand what motivated a man to murder six of his children and his wife. This is a disturbing episode to be sure—not the sort of thing you’d want to listen to if what you seek is a sweet slumber. But it’s an exploration of what it takes to snap, and how crimes were investigated decades ago.
Line of note: “He carefully took each body and placed it in a funerary posture.”
Episode 39: Either/Or
So, I’ve listened to this episode at least five times over the past year, because it’s so bizarre. It’s about a controversial decision made by a South Carolinian judge, who gave the perpetrators of sexual assault a choice many residents would criticize for decades to come. Today, American lawyers face countless challenges in prosecuting cases involving sexual assault. This episode examines the aftermath of a particularly savage act, a rape that cannot be described in full. It traverses particularly tumultuous terrain and asks us, the listeners, to consider the ways that trials can surprise and perplex us. At the core of this episode is the following question: what is castration, and where does it belong in the U.S. sentencing system?
Line of note: “By all accounts, it should’ve been a straightforward ending to a very gruesome crime.”
Before we let you go, we’ve got a quick roundup of news from the podcast unvierse.
Sarah Geis wants to collect room tone from interviews with notable people (anyone have, say, the sound of sitting in a room with President Obama?), but also room tone that’s notable just for Paste readers. For instance: tone from an interview with your step-mother, who you’ve hated ever since she asked you to call her “mom” when you were in 2nd grade. She plans to keep up an archive of the room tones on her website, and also use many of them in an audio essay/interstitials for the podcast The Organist.
If you’re interested in contributing to this odd scheme, please email Sarah the following items at sarah dot geis at gmail dot com:
— Audio file(s) of your favorite room tones, if possible including you explaining to your interviewee what you’re about to do.
— Any notes you’d like to accompany it. These can be plainly descriptive (“This is tone of Melissa Etheridge that I recorded at Lilith Fair in 1999”) or more interpretive (think: tasting notes of a silence sommelier.)
— Any crediting language you’d like to use, in addition to your name (or, a note, if you’d prefer to be anonymous).
Raised on a strict diet of NPR and C-SPAN, Muira McCammon is a war crimes researcher by day and a podcast reviewer for Paste Magazine by night. She can be found on Twitter @muira_mccammon or walking about the woods of western Massachusetts. Her writing has previously appeared in Slate, Waypoint by VICE, Atlas Obscura, the Massachusetts Review, and other publications.