Arts & Culture

Koenig sheds light on creation of ‘Serial’

Radio host challenges traditional format with murder mystery, attracts 6.5 million listeners

By
Senior Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Originally booked for List 120, a lecture by Sarah Koenig was moved last minute to a larger venue after event planners saw that 553 people had RSVP’d yes to the event on their Facebook page.

“What happened? How did this happen?” asked Sarah Koenig, a journalist and a producer of “This American Life,” to a nearly full audience Monday evening in Salomon 101. She was referring to the rise in popularity of the podcast “Serial,” for which she is the executive producer and host.

“We thought if we could get an audience of 300,000, we could get a second season,” Koenig said. Within five days of their October 2014 premiere, they had reached their goal. “We now have an average of 6.5 million listeners per episode.”

To put that into context, an average episode of  “This American Life” has 2 million listeners, she added.

“Serial” tells the true story of Adnan Syed, a Baltimore teenager who was charged with the murder of his ex-girlfriend in 1999. Over the course of 12 episodes, Koenig delves into the facts behind Syed’s case, including those not used during his trial.

“The case of Adnan Syed is not an extraordinary case. … Why did ‘Serial’ come to feel like something new?” Koenig questioned.

She suggested that “Serial” approached its branding of the podcast differently.

Originally, “I wanted it to be like a really good book on tape,” Koenig said. “My colleagues, Ira Glass ’82 and Julia Snyder, told me, ‘Never say that out loud again.’”

Rather, Glass and Snyder had the idea to brand the show like high-end television, she said. Snyder introduced a theme song, called each new show an “episode,” and included a “previously on” roll at the beginning of each episode, just as in a television show.

“The part of their brain that lit up when people were listening to good television like ‘House of Cards’ or ‘Breaking Bad’ lit up when they were watching ‘Serial’ … but this was real — it was journalism,” Koenig said.

“This podcast made radio into something where we say, ‘Let’s discuss this,’” said Niki Sanders ’17. “She revitalized it as a medium. Podcasts have always been a way to get news, but the way that she made hers turned the podcast into a way to explore real issues. It’s more of a dialogue.”

“Sarah’s work explores this intersection between journalism and storytelling and advocacy,” said Alex Braunstein, communications and outreach manager for the Swearer Center for Public Service. The Swearer Center co-sponsored the event in conjunction with the Sarah Doyle Women’s Center as part of a series of events celebrating Women’s History Month.

“Her work raises interesting questions. … Who do you create pieces for and who do you do it with? She’d been incredibly groundbreaking in the ways she’s done storytelling and the impact her storytelling has,” Braunstein said.

“Everything that went inside ‘Serial’ was very traditional, unglamorous, sloggy reporting,” Koenig said. “Even though the tone of ‘Serial’ is very conversational, it was the most uptight double and triple checking I’d ever done.”

What also made “Serial” unique was the psychological and emotional impact of the reporting on both the producers and the audiences, Koenig said.

“That’s something that reporters don’t like to talk about because it’s uncomfortable. It’s a little messy. Instead of hiding that messiness under a clean narrative, at times that messiness became a part of the narrative,” she said.

Throughout the course of Koenig’s interviews with Syed, the two formed a very close relationship, skirting the boundaries of objective journalism, she said. “My relationship with Adnan is complicated. … It is not purely professional, but it is not a friendship. We’re trying to be straightforward, but it has mistrust written all over it. It changes all the time — it’s still changing.”

Koenig’s talk was structured somewhat like an episode of “Serial,” punctuated with sound bites from recordings of phone conversations with Syed, many of which had never been featured on the show.

“In 42 hours of phone calls, a lot of what we talk about is not about the crime. We just talk,” Koenig said. “One time he told me that he would try to call someone and misdial, and a total stranger would pick up … and they’d start chatting,” she recalled.

“As uncomfortable as it is to admit, there was even some flirting,” Koenig said.

The two procrastinated, holding off the awkward conversations which they would inevitably have to face, she added.

Koenig recalled one conversation between the two of them, in which Syed had answered all of her questions but had then grown quiet. He then confessed to her that she was the first person he had ever talked to about his trial and the details behind his relationship with his ex-girlfriend, she said.

“It feels fake to pretend the thing was all business,” Koenig said. “We were trying to make a story that didn’t feel fake in any ways, that laid bare the complexities of journalism.”

After the lecture, Sage Fanucchi-Funes ’17, a coordinator of the event, initiated a question-and-answer session with Koenig, which focused on her early career in journalism.

“The feeling I had when I started — that I’m faking it, and I’m a fraud, and someone’s going to find me out — everyone’s having that feeling,” Koenig said.

“I really appreciated her advice about how it’s okay to be confused, especially as a person who’s still currently trying to figure it out,” said Ruby Stenhouse ’17. She added that the talk put a face to the voice which she’d been listening to for weeks.

Though the question-and-answer session was later opened to the audience, Stenhouse said she still felt Koenig had left a lot unanswered. “I wanted to know if she’s still in touch with Adnan Syed and what she thinks about the case now,” Stenhouse said.

The question-and-answer session could not have ended without an audience member asking about the Saturday Night Live parody of “Serial” which aired in December.

“It’s totally … surreal to see yourself parodied. It’s weird and flattering and also, you know, horrifying in a way,” Koenig said, adding that “this case will never be a joke to me.”

A previous version of this article misquoted Sarah Koenig as saying, ““Everything that went inside ‘Serial’ was very traditional, unglamorous, sloppy recording.” In fact, she said “reporting,” not “recording.” The Herald regrets the error.

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  • anonymous

    I believe she said “sloggy” reporting, not “sloppy”. Her reporting was painstaking.

  • Sarah Koenig

    Yes! I said SLOGGY! Not sloppy. Opposite of sloppy! -Sarah Koenig