This afternoon, Sarah Koenig spoke in Salomon about her career in radio and journalism, and on the power of storytelling. The lecture was presented by the Sarah Doyle Women’s Center, as one of the final events celebrating Women’s History Month. Koenig, a journalist and radio producer, has worked at The East Hampton Star, ABC News, The New York Times, and This American Life. Perhaps most notably, she hosted and produced Serial, a spin-off to This American Life. Serial debuted in October 2014 at No. 1 on the iTunes charts, and was the fastest podcast to reach 5 million downloads.
Serial, a 12-part weekly non-fiction podcast re-investigated the murder of Hae Min Lee, a teenage girl who disappeared in Baltimore, Maryland, on January 13, 1999, and whose body was found a month later in Leakin Park. Lee’s ex-boyfriend, Adnan Syed, was arrested and convicted of her murder. The podcast closely reexamined the details of Lee’s disappearance and Syed’s subsequent trial through interviews with many of the relevant persons to the crime, including Syed, and painstaking review of relevant phone records and court documents.
Although Koenig originally expected a modest 300,000 listeners, Serial erupted into a cultural sensation. It gained an ardent fan base, prompting a popular subreddit of listeners debating possible theories, as well as a December Saturday Night Live parody of the podcast, starring Cecily Strong and Amy Adams. To date, Serial has amassed 6.5 million listeners, a number completely unprecedented in audio storytelling and podcast industries.
In her talk, Koenig postulated what caused Serial’s smash success. After stating outright that Syed’s case wasn’t extraordinary, Koenig went on to explain how the mechanics of the podcast format made it so addicting. During the conception, producers Ira Glass (Brown ’82) and Julie Snyder aimed to have Serial emulate “Great TV.” Snyder brought to the table the idea of a theme song, weekly cliffhangers, and even the idea of calling each podcast episode an ‘episode.’
While Koenig imagines that listeners of Serial may relish in the “escapist entertainment” as much as they would with say a show like House of Cards, Serial stands seperately from television productions. Koenig expressed that Serial‘s aim was to try to portray all involved persons, including the host herself, as three-dimensionally as possible. In this way, they hoped to distinguish the podcast from other forms of crime journalism, like those on television, which can perhaps make people seem more fictional than they really are.
Listening to Koenig talk about her experience with Syed, it was clear her humanizing portrayal of him was neither a reach nor product of creative editing. Koenig shared excerpts from the 42 hours of taped interviews between her and Syed. She pointed out their mutual laughter. She played a clip of what she thought was decidedly flirting. She explained that her relationship with Syed was complex and changing — something she can’t find a name for — not purely professional, but not qualifying as friendship either.
They could not really be friends, Koenig explained, because everything was “too calculated.” Syed was constantly manipulating Koenig to believe his innocence; she was constantly manipulating him to provide more information, and simply to keep him calling her back. Ultimately, there is still an air of doubt in their relationship. Koenig quipped that in their most recent call, Syed was seemingly manic after eating a dozen Krispy Kreme donuts. Koenig was left to wonder, “Is this the real Adnan Syed, or is it just the donuts?”
In the second part of the event, Koenig answered audience questions, regarding her start in journalism and radio, the ethical considerations of the medium, and the question of what makes a good story.
Responding to a question asking about her introduction to journalism, Koenig admitted that she didn’t write for her school paper and that journalism wasn’t her childhood dream – instead, she started writing for a weekly local paper a couple years out of school, coming to like the challenge of it. Koenig reflected that a feeling she often had was, “I have no idea what I am doing – I am faking it and am a fraud and someone will find me out.” She assured the audience it’s a perfectly fine thing to be “bad at your job until you get good at it,” a reminder she wish she had known starting out.
Koenig also discussed her new experiences of becoming the subject of stories rather than the teller, explaining that now “people want to interview me.” Numerous articles have been published on Serial‘s exploding popularity, some of which criticized the way the podcast was formatted, how it handled issues of race and privacy, or dealt with bias. Other articles have defended Koenig, co-producer Julie Snyder, and the podcast’s approach to telling the story. Koenig said this coverage about herself in some cases left her “furious, disappointed, or just confused.” In response to a question Koenig must field quite often, how she feels about the SNL parody of the podcast, she explained that it’s “weird and surreal to see yourself parodied in any way,” and that while she found it both “flattering and horrifying,” she ultimately was concerned how it might detract from the severity of Syed’s case and Hae Min Lee’s disappearance and murder.
While this talk provided new insights into the production process of Serial, Koenig regrettably did not respond to the podcast’s criticisms on portrayals of race or ethical concerns. Additionally, she did not bring up much of her experience and insight regarding the title of the talk, “Women in Radio.” She did, however, offer advice for industry-hopefuls as to what makes a story meaningful. Simply put, it has to pass the ‘dinner party test.’ “Is this a story you’re dying to tell other people, and if you do, are people responding?” Koenig suggested that much of an audience’s response will reflect the teller’s own passion and excitement for a story: “If you have the fire for it, you’re going to make people interested in it.”