Serial Storytellers

Forty million people listened to one podcast last year. Meet the journalists who made it.

Originally published in the San Diego Jewish Journal February 2016 issue

By Natalie Jacobs

The creators of the record-shattering podcast Serial will be the first to tell you that the kind of storytelling they’re doing on their episodic audio program is not new. Reporter/host Sarah Koenig and executive producer Julie Snyder did not invent the idea to tell one narrative non-fiction story across a series of episodes but they have updated the form with such expertise and devotion that you would be forgiven for forgetting that anything of its kind existed before.

The duo had been producers on another groundbreaking audio program, the public radio show This American Life, for years – Koenig for 10 and Snyder for 18 – when they began working with that show’s creator Ira Glass on podcast ideas for This American Life to get behind.

By some estimates, podcasting can trace its roots back to the 1980s but it really took hold in the early 2000s, most officially when Apple released a podcast section into iTunes in 2005. Today, it seems everyone from comedians, writers and actors to long-distance best friends, techies-who-can-explain-it-all and motivational speakers have podcasts. It’s a form of non-fiction, journalistic storytelling that takes liberties and relies heavily on the charisma of its host.

Podcasts have earned a reputation as hip ways to reach young, mobile audiences that have come to expect on-demand entertainment, with edgy, thoughtful stories. The medium is gaining tremendous popularity. By 2014, the number of people who had ever listened to a podcast reached 30 percent, up steadily from 11 percent in 2006, according to Edison Research. That report found 39 million people had listened to a podcast in the last month.

Since Serial was something of a This American Life spinoff, its first episode was broadcast in that show’s spot on National Public Radio affiliates across the country. Then it caught fire. After four episodes in October, 2014, the podcast had reached one million downloads per episode on iTunes alone.

In an interview with another podcast, called Longform, Ira Glass mentions that it took This American Life – which topped the podcast charts since there were podcast charts – four years to reach that same number of listeners.

By the end of November, 2014, Serial was up to 5 million. Since podcasts can be downloaded from multiple sources, not just iTunes, it is estimated that season one of Serial had 40 million downloads by the end of 2014.

Like with anything that gets so popular so fast, it’s hard to explain exactly why, except to say that season one was riveting. Koenig, Snyder and producer Dana Chivvis investigated – as journalists, not detectives – the curious case of Adnan Syed, a Muslim boy (now a man) from Baltimore who is serving time for the murder of his ex-girlfriend Hae Min Lee. Each of the 12 episodes follows Koenig and her tiny team as they unpack thousands of pages of documents and case files, conduct hours of interviews with people associated with the case (including Adnan Syed himself, from prison), actually re-trace Syed’s steps on the day of the murder, and wonder aloud about the difficulty of determining the truth. That last part – Koenig’s honesty about her struggle to parse out truth and innocence versus lies and guilt – is perhaps one reason why Serial season one was so hard to stop thinking about.

“I don’t think it [has] ever been hard for me to admit confusion or [that] I don’t have a crisp,
clean understanding of this thing and I’m not sure I can figure it out,” Koenig says in a phone interview between sips of soup and her next interview for season two, currently in progress. “I don’t think that’s necessarily so hard to admit because I’m literally living in a continual fog of confusion, basically.”

But she was initially uncomfortable with how often she had to explain that confusion in season one.

“That’s something that my partners, like Julie [Snyder] and Ira [Glass] and Dana [Chivvis], that’s something that they kind of made clear to me. Like, we need you to tell us what to think, otherwise we don’t care.”

Even if what we, the audience, are told to think is honest uncertainty.

“It’s not just a schtick you do,” she says. “If it serves the story and is useful, then sure. But yeah, it took me a while to get there.”

Listeners are literally sifting through the facts of the case with Koenig, or at least she makes us feel that way, when she carefully and explicitly outlines what we know, who we’re curious about, who we’d really like to talk to, why we’re back at the Best Buy parking lot, and what really doesn’t make sense. It would be like if Detective Stabler from Law and Order SVU came into your living room and started talking to you about his case, saying that it’s weird there’s these 20 minutes that are unaccounted for, or sharing interview tape of the convivial conversation between him and the suspected perpetrator. He’d stop just short of asking if you think the guy’s guilty.

The podcast form itself creates an incredibly personal connection between the host and the listener, but the way Koenig continuously breaks that third wall (or maybe in audio stories it would be considered the second wall) in season one adds another layer of direct personalization that makes audiences feel required to pay attention. This is a conversation and you wouldn’t want to be rude.

“I’ve always thought that radio is an incredibly intimate medium because it is one voice that feels like they’re talking directly to the listener,” Julie Snyder says. “I think it’s even heightened with podcasts, because of the delivery method. A lot of people are listening in headphones. … You’re choosing it as opposed to it’s the default … It’s more intimate, it’s more direct. I think the listeners feel like we’re thinking of them as we’re making it. And we are.”

By the end of season one, when nothing really was solved but nuggets of doubt were firmly implanted, listeners hoped for a re-trial or some tangible change to come in Syed’s case after all of this work was done to expose its cracks. In November, 2015, a Baltimore City Circuit judge agreed to grant Adnan Syed a hearing with the opportunity to present new evidence. Is that what Koenig and Snyder were after?

“What you’re working on, you want to make sure that the story that you’re doing feels like there’s a justifiable reason for it to live in the world,” Snyder says. “For any story, you feel a pressure as to why it should exist. Especially for these stories, we’re really going to invest a lot of time into them. Both our time, but also the listener’s time. We’re asking a lot, so I think in that way it is a little different where you say, does this have a point? Is there a point that you want to be making?”

And they have to live in this world for a long time too, Snyder says. Unlike their This American Life stories, Snyder says they worked on Serial season one for about seven months.

On the day I spoke with them, in separate phone calls, episode four of season two was released. Snyder says she got home at 11 the night before.

“We finished last night for this morning’s episode.”

“I’m spazzing out,” Koenig says when I ask if things feel easier for season two. “We’re crazy behind, for reasons that are not interesting. … It doesn’t have to be this way. It’s just bad planning on my part.”

Aside from the show still having the same name and the same host, things are very different in season two. This season’s Serial explores the much-talked about though scarcely understood case of Bowe Bergdahl, the American soldier who left his base in Afghanistan and was held captive by the Taliban for five years. The U.S. government eventually traded five detainees from Guantanamo Bay in exchange for his release, in May of 2014. Up until Serial season two episode one, it was unclear to the public why Bergdahl left his base in the first place. He hadn’t been heard publicly until this podcast. The episodes have been longer by almost two times, and the subject matter is literally foreign to a lot of people, including Koenig.

“Any story you do in this scope is going to be really challenging,” she says, “which is good, that’s what I want, that keeps it very interesting. But this one, the learning curve for me is huge. I didn’t know anything about the military, I didn’t know about the war in Afghanistan, I don’t know anything about the historical problems between Afghanistan and Pakistan. So it’s really just a big learning curve for me, which is great, I’m so interested in everything I’m learning, it just, you know, takes time.”

Snyder estimates they have about 70 hours of interviews so far for season two, not including the one Koenig conducted as soon as she got off the phone with me, and all the others since then. In mid-January, Serial announced season two episode one was downloaded more than 3.3 million times, with about the same number of downloads per episode so far.

In thinking back on the beginnings of Serial, Koenig tells me, “I was hoping to do an under-the-radar experiment. That’s why we did it as a podcast because we were like well, if it sucks no one will really be the wiser. I’m very cautious that way. I’m very like, nobody look at me, nobody look until I’m ready.”

Ready or not, Serial season two releases new episodes bi-weekly. They won’t say how many episodes will make up season two, but in mid-January they announced it will be extended beyond what they originally “mapped out.” Sarah Koenig and Julie Snyder will be in San Diego on Wednesday, March 2 to give audiences a backstage view on the making of Serial, at the Balboa Theatre. San Diego is the first stop on a California tour for the duo. Snyder says they’ll talk about how Serial came to be, and how their intentions “were not exactly what ended up happening.”

Tickets for “Backstage with the Creators of SERIAL” start at $30 and can be purchased at sandiegotheatres.org.

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