If you’re a podcast fiend, chances are you’ve heard the name Phoebe Judge. She and co-creator Lauren Spohrer launched their podcast “Criminal” in 2014, and it’s since become one of the more popular out there, recently reaching five million downloads per month. Each episode tells a true crime story, but to call them simply “entertainment” would be a misnomer. Rather, “Criminal” feels like what would happen if you asked an anthropologist, a journalist and a radio producer to investigate a crime. There’s no agenda (like other true-crime series) – just exposition.
And if “Criminal” wasn’t enough, in 2018, Judge and her team began airing a new show, “This is Love,” which investigates more uplifting stories of true love, how people find it and what they do with it thereafter. Her tales chronicling the “human experience,” as she describes them, have drawn millions in — they’ve even earned her a cameo in a 2019 Super Bowl commercial for Amazon. So when she reached out to The Student in advance of her live episode of “Criminal” at MASS MoCA on Feb. 22, I certainly wasn’t going to pass up the opportunity to talk to her.
From the start, Judge offered all the essential information without any of the fluff in between. As someone who interviews for a living, she certainly wasn’t going to indulge any of my half-baked questions. She’s efficient, and that’s only fair; her to-do list includes producing weekly 30-minute episodes of an award-winning podcast for millions of listeners while the highlight of mine is currently “write article.” Judge and I talked about a number of things, but largely, I tried to get her to teach me the secrets to podcasting success. Some of the best advice she had to give concerned the art of interviewing, so following are a few of her thoughts on the subject.
Weinstein: Okay, so here I am interviewing a professional interviewer. Given that, I wanted to know, what is your approach to interviewing? And, more specifically, what can you tell me about how I can be a better interviewer in the future?
Judge: Well I think the only thing you need to do to be a good interviewer is to be serious … there’s no real skill other than that. I’ve found that if people believe that you’re genuinely interested in the answer they’re about to give, they’ll tell you anything. And you can ask them. I’ve spent a lot of time asking people about the worst days of their lives. I’ve spent time asking murderers about what they were thinking when they shot someone or stabbed them. I’ve never had anyone say to me, “Phoebe, how dare you ask that?” Or “that’s not appropriate.” And I think the only reason is because someone can tell that I’m actually just genuinely curious at their response, and I have no judgment that comes along with that … I think as an interviewer, I try to just be genuinely curious about everyone I talk to and about everything they have to say. I think it’s also really important to not be afraid to be dumb … Sometimes it’s just nice to be a regular person and say, “I don’t know what you’re talking about.” Or, “would you explain that to me.” It’s really doing a service to your audience. It’s letting them see that you’re a real person, and it’s also letting them in on more explanation about what the person’s talking about.
W: And have you ever been the nervous one — the one who thinks, “I’m doing this because I have to?” Was that a mentality you had to grow out of?
J: Yes. I was very terrified about asking people on the street to answer a question. When I first got to Mississippi — I was just starting out as a reporter — and one of the things I had to do was go up to strangers in front of the Walmart and ask them how they were preparing for the hurricane. And I was paralyzed in my car. I couldn’t imagine walking up to a stranger and asking them. I was just scared that they would say, “why are you bothering me?” Or just get mad at me. I was so shy. I couldn’t do it. And I kept thinking, am I going to have to make up voices and just record myself? But I got over it. It took me a while to realize that most of the time, people aren’t going to get mad if you ask them a question. You should just do it — and be polite, and be nice, and be direct … and then get out of their way.
W: And have you ever had a bad reaction? Have you had interviews gone wrong?
J: I’ve had interviews where I knew very early on that it wasn’t going to work. The way you know that is … it’s when you try to force someone into talking who’s not ready to talk. And that’s never going to work because you can tell that they’re not going to tell you the complete story … So I’ve been very early on in an interview and thought to myself, “oh no, this person wasn’t ready to talk yet.”
W: And what’s the protocol there? Is it just kind of bail and run? Or stick it out?
J: Oh, well then you just start talking about sports.
W: Ah okay. Good notes for the future. So you mentioned walking around the streets in Mississippi; I feel the context in which I’m talking to people is really important to the way I talk to people. Is that something you experience? For example, talking to somebody on the street in Mississippi versus somebody in the studio in North Carolina?
J: No […] well I don’t know what this says about me, but I’m pretty consistent. I mean, of course you need to understand your audience … But I think to ask anyone any question with a calm, quiet gentleness is how we should go about everything. So I think whether it’s asking about a hurricane supply or … the death of the daughter, I think you just have a quiet curiosity.
W: I feel like that “quiet curiosity,” as you put it, might cause conversations to go somewhat long. Am I wrong?
J: Well, I don’t like conversations to go long because I can tell when someone’s getting tired. And I’m asking a lot of somebody to sit down and talk to me about sometimes very hard experiences … I don’t really … like to talk to people for long, long periods of time — to relive things and retell things. I think you try to have a direct, concise conversation, always allowing for things to go off track. But an hour or an hour-and-a-half is usually my max.
W: But an episode of “Criminal” or “This is Love” is about half an hour, right? How do you decide from these hour to hour-and-a-half long conversations what’s going into the episode? When you have to whittle down these interviews so much, do you ever find yourself wincing at what you have to cut? Just sort of longing for these bits that you couldn’t put in?
J: Oh yeah, I mean there’s always special little bits of tape, and people take ownership over them … I think that’s why it’s so important to have editors, because sometimes you get attached to things that are really unnecessary.
W: And of course, I have to ask, do you have a favorite podcast?
J: Oh I like so many of them! It’s hard to ask a podcaster what their favorite podcast is. It depends on the day. Can I answer it that way?
W: How about today?
J: Today? You know what I listened to today — and it’s not even a podcast — I listened to “Fresh Air.” Because as an interviewer I think it’s always good to listen to interviewers who are much better than you.
Hence my listening to “Criminal.”