Sarah Koenig and Julie Snyder, host and producer respectively of the podcast series Serial, spoke on March 3 in front of a packed audience in Campbell Hall at the University of California, Santa Barbara. The event was sponsored by UCSB Arts & Lectures. The two creators of the podcast spoke about its origins as well as its unprecedented success.
The first season of Serial launched in Oct. 2014 and became the fastest podcast ever to reach 5 million downloads, according to Apple iTunes store. It tells the story of Adnan Syed, a high school student who was sentenced to life in prison for the murder of his ex-girlfriend in 1999. The second season, which began in December 2015, focuses on the story of Bowe Bergdahl, a former prisoner-of-war who was arrested for desertion after his return from the Middle East.
Both Koenig and Snyder originally worked with Ira Glass on the weekly public radio show This American Life on NPR. Koenig recalled being on the phone with Glass when she asked him, “What if we did a serialized documentary, so you would come back to the same story week after week?”
The suggestion was met with Glass’s approval. Snyder reflected on the birth of the idea, saying, “A good idea, if it’s good, can be easy because it’s obvious. It sort of speaks for itself.”
Koenig then spoke about writing the first episode of Serial. Snyder emailed Koenig after reading it, telling Koenig “You’re not a private investigator. You’re not even a crime reporter. But for the last six months you’ve spent every day trying to figure out where a high school kid was for an hour after school one day in 1999. It feels almost ridiculous. Undignified.”
Koenig said she then used the email as inspiration for what became the opening of the first episode.
Snyder said what made Serial unique was Koenig’s ability to be truthful about her uncertainty. The two then played a clip from season one which featured Koenig expressing how much she still did not know about the details of the case. “It is a very ballsy thing to do,” Snyder said, “to be honest in your reporting and not pretend like you know everything.”
Koenig said one of her biggest problems in reporting was not being able to talk to some of the people who were involved in Adnan Syed’s case. Instead, the two resorted to digging through evidence that was available for public access.
“It became the backbone of the entire series, more so than the trial transcript,” Koenig said. “The truth is that the meat of Serial — like everything that goes inside of it — is really just very traditional, unglamorous, sloggy reporting.”
The success of Serial led to widespread discussion and speculation regarding the case presented in the first season. A once-local story of a murder case suddenly received a national spotlight, 15 years after the fact.
“These were real people with real lives,” Koenig said of the many characters described in the first season of Serial. “We promised many sources that we would not use their real names or their last names. But of course, on the internet, there’s no accountability for any of that — no consequences.”
Some of the internet discussion regarding the first season led to the leaking of relevant personal information that Koenig and Snyder had omitted from the podcast. “It got so big that people just kind of lost track,” Snyder said. “We had no idea this was going to happen … it felt like we were losing control of our story.”
Koenig went into the details of her interactions with Adnan Syed, who is currently serving a life-sentence in a prison in Maryland. Speaking of her relationship with Syed, Koenig said, “It changes all the time. Some months back Adnan called me and he had just eaten an entire box of Krispy Kreme donuts. He sounded crazy, and I had this lurking thought — am I seeing the real Adnan? Is he about to reveal himself through the Krispy Kreme?”
After rousing laughter from the audience, Koenig finished her thought. “I think it really was just the Krispy Kreme, because it ended in about an hour and he was back to normal.”
Koenig and Snyder will record the final episodes of Serial season two in the coming weeks.