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Following the Evidence

Lauren Chooljian’s investigative podcast The 13th Step exposes wrongdoing in the recovery industry.

Lauren Chooljian wears headphones while sitting at a desk in a radio studio. There is a microphone at her right labeled “NHPR.”
Lauren ChooljianImage: John Tully/The New York Times

By Clare Milliken
Spring 2024

In March 2020 reporter Lauren Chooljian followed up on a tip that Granite Recovery Centers (GRC), New Hampshire’s largest addiction recovery system, wasn’t taking COVID seriously. “I started sniffing around,” Chooljian ’11 MS says, “developing sources by talking with employees. And when there was a COVID outbreak in December, those people knew to call me.”

Almost immediately after Chooljian published her story on the outbreak, GRC clients and employees began reaching out to her, alleging that Eric Spofford, GRC CEO and founder, had been sexually harassing and assaulting clients and colleagues — and paying people to keep quiet.

“I remember talking to three people back-to-back-to-back, and all their stories lined up,” Chooljian says.

She eventually heard from more than 50 sources, leading to a three-year investigation of GRC and Spofford. That investigation is detailed in The 13th Step, a podcast from New Hampshire Public Radio (NHPR). (“Thirteenth stepping” is a term in Alcoholics Anonymous circles that refers to predatory behavior by a person in longer-term recovery toward a newly sober person.)

Reported and produced by Chooljian, The 13th Step delves into the allegations against Spofford and includes testimony from victims and others involved with GRC. Released in June 2023, the six-episode podcast — ranked among the year’s best by The New Yorker, Vogue, The Atlantic and Vulture — goes beyond Spofford to explore why sexual misconduct is pervasive in recovery settings. The 13th Step also covers the toll that the investigative project took on Chooljian, her colleagues and her sources.

In 2022, a little more than a year before release of The 13th Step, NHPR published the first story about Spofford’s alleged abuse. (The story eventually earned Chooljian an Edward R. Murrow Award for investigative reporting.) But within a month of that story’s publication, her parents had a rock thrown through their basement window and obscenities were spray painted on their house. The NHPR news director and the residents of Chooljian’s previous home faced similar attacks. Weeks later, the same thing happened at Chooljian’s home, with the words “Just the beginning!” scrawled in red spray paint underneath her shattered window. (Four people have been charged in connection with the vandalism; one was Spofford’s close friend. The federal government has not determined that Spofford was involved.)

The podcast also covers the lawsuit that Spofford filed in response to Chooljian’s reporting. A New Hampshire Superior Court judge even ordered Chooljian to hand over 3,000 pages of notes and interviews to determine whether, as Spofford alleged, Chooljian had acted with actual malice in reporting the story. 

Chooljian keeps the judge’s December 2023 ruling on her desktop, with the following section highlighted:

“The court concludes that the documents produced contain no evidence that any of the New Hampshire Public Radio defendants acted with actual malice. On the contrary, Spofford’s assertion of actual malice has no merit as compared to the depth, detail and accuracy of Chooljian's investigation as reviewed by the court.” 

“I believed in the work,” Chooljian says. “I knew it was rock solid. … But I would be lying if I said it wasn't awful to have people question your integrity.” 

Since the release of The 13th Step, the New Hampshire legislature has taken up a bill to boost oversight of the recovery industry in the state.

Chooljian’s curiosity and willingness to “sniff around” were arguably key to The 13th Step and have been instrumental throughout her career. Originally a history major at Saint Anselm College in Manchester, N.H., Chooljian first became interested in journalism when her school hosted one of the 2007 presidential primary debates, which political correspondent Candy Crowley covered for CNN.

“Crowley told us she was a math major and found her way into journalism because it was really exciting and she was really curious,” says Chooljian. “That resonated with me.”

Chooljian interned at CBS, a local TV station and an AM radio station and soon realized she needed the hard journalism skills that only graduate school could offer.

At the Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications, Chooljian joined WNUR, the student radio station, and learned from local journalists who visited her classes. “At Medill I really figured myself out career-wise,” she says.

After graduating, Chooljian ended up at WBEZ (Chicago’s NPR affiliate) for “the best political reporting job ever,” she says. “I loved that it was so fast paced. I was surrounded by some of the most incredible City Hall reporters ever. They had institutional knowledge, and I was so thrilled to be able to learn from them.”

After six years at WBEZ, Chooljian returned to her home state to work for NHPR in 2017. She helped edit the critically acclaimed NHPR true-crime podcast Bear Brook, hosted by Jason Moon, before launching a new podcast for the station, Stranglehold, exploring New Hampshire’s role as the first state to host its primary election.

In summer 2020 Chooljian and Moon negotiated with NHPR to form the three-person Document team to create long-form narrative podcasts. The 13th Step was one of Document’s first projects. 

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