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Phoebe Judge brings a voice of calm to ‘Criminal’

You open your podcast app, put your earbuds in, and momentarily savor the silence. You press play. 

“Hi, it’s Phoebe.

The hushed cadence of Phoebe Judge’s voice floods your head. Your surroundings have melted away. It’s just you and Judge, the host of “Criminal” and the owner of the most amazing vocal cords in podcasting. Get ready to be soothed as she tells you about true crime. The podcast is a blend of whodunits and horror with a dose of conspiracy. 

Recorded in Durham, the show tells “stories of people who’ve done wrong, been wronged, or gotten caught somewhere in the middle.” Her voice manages to be both velvety and exceptionally hydrated. Judge says the running joke in the office is that she constantly has three drinks surrounding her while she’s recording: “usually two half-empty cans of seltzer and a bottle of water.” 

The latest episode tells the story of Nellie Brown, a young woman who showed up at a boarding house in Manhattan in 1887 seeming to remember only her name. Discomforted by her “strangeness,” a police officer advised sending Brown to Blackwell’s Island, “an insane place, where you’ll never get out of.” Except, she was actually an undercover newspaper reporter on an assignment. 

This week, The New York Times recognized “Criminal” as one of the best podcasts of 2023 for its “range and humanism.” The podcast launched in January 2014 with new episodes released every Friday. It is now part of the Vox Media Podcast Network. 

Fortunately for the co-creators, Judge and Lauren Spohrer, there seems to be no shortage of nearly unbelievable crime stories. The program transitioned from a bi-monthly to weekly release schedule earlier this year. Episodes cover everything from tens of thousands of missing venus flytraps (episode 5) to a bog in England that held body parts (episode 227).

And if that’s not enough of Judge’s lulling voice for you, you can listen to “Phoebe Reads a Mystery,” a podcast where she simply reads a chapter a day of a mystery novel. Most recently, she finished “The Picture of Dorian Gray” by Oscar Wilde. 

Her voice is an instrument. It envelopes listeners like a warm embrace, the dulcet tone creating a cozy sanctuary. ASMR videos are nothing compared to what she delivers. Even her pronunciation of the website’s name is soothing: “thisiscriminal dot calm.” 

But Judge doesn’t think much about her voice— she has never taken a voice class. “I think sometimes people are surprised that my voice in real life is like my voice on the podcast,” she said in an interview on Friday. 

Even though it’s a program involving murder and mayhem, “the best compliment that I ever got about “Criminal” was when someone said “Criminal” is a quiet show. Because the shows are rather quiet and calm (pronounced collm, as if there’s enough space in her mouth to fit an orange), I’m not yelling and screaming and over-exerting myself. I keep everything just pretty in control of my voice.”

There are entire Reddit threads devoted to her timbre. 

“Am I the only one who loves Phoebe Judge’s intros?” posted Neat_Caterpillar. 

“Is Phoebe Judge a real person?” asked Toble_Roni, unconvinced that Judge’s voice isn’t actually that of Karen Kilgariff, a co-host of the true-crime comedy podcast “My Favorite Murder.”

And, “Where is Phoebe Judge’s accent from?” wondered Re3ck6le0ss, inviting a colorful debate on if Judge’s voice was influenced more by her growing up in Chicago or time spent in the northeast for college. She studied at Bennington College in Vermont before going to a graduate program at the Salt Institute in Portland, Maine for radio documentary. Many were sure she was Canadian. Nearly all agreed that she says “dot calm.”

“My accent is a mystery. I have no idea,” says Judge, “only to say that I grew up in Chicago, and I spent a lot of time on the East Coast… there’s nothing Canadian about me.”

But, her distinctive pronunciation doesn’t resonate with everyone. “I love “Criminal.” But the way she says DOT CALM drives me f—ing insane,” posted mycofirsttime, earning two “upvotes.”

For an expert voice on her mellifluous voice, we turned to Ethan Herschenfeld, a New York singer-actor who has helped podcast hosts hone how they speak.  “She’s getting into a sort of hushed tone in her delivery and getting quite close to the microphone, so that you have a feeling that the person who’s talking to you is letting you in on some kind of really cool secret,” he said, quieting his tone and, I imagine, inching closer to his telephone.“But at the same time… there’s a slight constriction in the throat that you hear that conveys a sense of urgency.”

Judge has a habit of emphasizing the final word in a sentence when she’s reading texts, he said. It’s reminiscent of music. More than music, it’s a melody that “gives you the sense that every sentence is rising to this crescendo of importance,” Herschenfeld said. 

You press play. Judge breathes into the microphone with the delicacy of an angel and the enunciation of tingling bells. It’s as if she has a bedtime story to tell you, and only you. It’s enough to soothe you to sleep. 

In fact, 26 people upvoted a comment saying Judge’s voice soothes them to sleep. 

“Phoebe’s voice is like warm fudge,” said typhoidmarry. 169 upvotes. 

“Warm fudge Phoebe Judge,” responded plusalittleextra. 125 upvotes. 

Sometimes, Judge wishes she could just smoke a cigarette like she did in college. “Don’t we all?” she said. At least “Criminal” listeners (and her lungs) can be grateful she quit.

Photo of Phoebe Judge by Lauren Spohrer