When Sarah Koenig and Julie Snyder, co-creators of the hit podcast “Serial,” embarked on their project, they had modest expectations. At the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) this past Friday night, they revealed to a packed house that originally they had hoped to attract 300,000 listeners.
“Nobody listens to podcasts,” Koenig recalled thinking at the outset of the series, which launched in the fall of 2014. It traced the progression of a legal case in 12 episodes and quickly became the world’s most popular podcast and the first to win a Peabody Award. With more than 100 million downloads, “Serial” demonstrated that a new form of journalism, uniquely modeled after television, had the potential to sustain a vast audience on a global level.
A spin-off of Ira Glass’ popular program “This American Life,” “Serial” re-opened an investigation into the 1999 strangling death of Hae Min Lee, a high school senior in Baltimore County, Maryland. Her body was discovered in a city park one month after her disappearance, and her 17-year-old ex-boyfriend, Adnan Syed, was arrested, convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment. Syed, now in his mid-30s, still maintains his innocence.
Koenig, who learned about the case from a family friend of Syed’s, investigated it for about a year before the first episode of “Serial” was broadcast; in fact, she continued her investigation throughout the duration of the podcast. As they gained additional information, she and Snyder integrated those discoveries into upcoming episodes. “This was on purpose,” explained Snyder, who served as Koenig’s editor; “we wanted the show to feel alive…this was a difficult story because it really lived in the details.”
Indeed, the podcast felt alive, and so it is no surprise that a slew of eager fans filled BAM’s Howard Gilman Opera House to hear the co-creators unpack how their “experiment” became a worldwide media phenomenon. Snyder credits much of the show’s success to the fact that Koenig wasn’t afraid to remain open and vulnerable in her reporting; Koenig freely admitted when she didn’t know the answers, even if that meant that she could not provide millions of listeners with a conclusive ending to the story.
Still, Koenig’s honest reporting style did not always garner entirely positive feedback. “She’s in love with Adnan,” Snyder said, mocking some of Koenig’s critics, who questioned the professionalism of the reporter-subject relationship in this particular story.
Koenig and Snyder were similarly frank and unassuming with their audience on Friday. Although they are accustomed to following a script, the two seemed at ease as they took the stage; with self-deprecating humor, they drew a steady stream of laughter from the crowd. They addressed several podcasts that were created about “Serial” itself and laughed about being satirized, most famously in a “Saturday Night Live” parody.
Koenig quipped that she longed for the days when no one listened to her, especially as she now proceeds with her investigations for the second and third seasons of “Serial” with the media already trailing her every move. She and Snyder were cautious not to reveal the subjects of the upcoming seasons, which are still in the planning stages. While they insisted that they are not intentionally leaving their fans hanging by disclosing so little about the forthcoming stories, Koenig and Snyder did acknowledge that they deliberately built suspense during the course of the first season, often ending episodes with cliffhangers.
“TV was much more the model for ‘Serial,'” Snyder explained. “I wanted to borrow some tricks from TV,” she said, pointing to the series’ “opening credits” music and “previously on…” snippets that prefaced each episode, mimicking the more visual medium.
“I think part of what happened [is that] when people listen[ed], the part of the brain that was lighting up for TV shows they liked — like ‘House of Cards’ or ‘Breaking Bad’ — was triggered in the same way,” Snyder speculated.
She acknowledged criticism of assimilating entertainment into journalism and reporting, but said she sees the potential for “artistry” in its execution. “Truthful reporting can look like art…we want to encourage that. [We are] looking for details in stories that reflect life the way that it really is…stories told this way, with artistry, [can create] empathy.”