Before co-creating and hosting Serial, Sarah Koenig never really listened to podcasts. She’d especially never listened to a true story broken into twelve compelling episodes. Because before Serial, Koenig explained to a crowd at Butler University, that kind of thing just didn’t exist.
At the second event in WFYI’s 2019 Listen Up series, held at Clowes Memorial Hall on Monday night, Koenig discussed the challenges and thrills of designing a new storytelling form. Five years ago, Koenig and a team from This American Life produced the first season of Serial, which focused on the case of a Baltimore high school student charged with murdering his former girlfriend in 1999. The podcast’s debut season followed just one true story across several episodes, popularizing this narrative form.
Koenig, along with co-creators Julie Snyder and Ira Glass, didn’t see all that popularity coming. They started Serial as an experiment, recording in Koenig’s basement. There was no pressure, Koenig said: nobody listened to podcasts.
Or at least that’s what they thought.
They aimed to reach 300,000 listeners, and just five days after launching the show, they did. After six weeks, Serial had more than 5 million downloads on iTunes. Now, they’ve released three award-winning seasons.
“Before Serial,” Koenig said, “I was not used to anyone paying attention to me or the work I did.”
She had spent much of her career as a newspaper reporter, writing for both local and national outlets before joining This American Life as a producer in 2004. The radio show is driven by experimentation, she says, which gave her the freedom to explore nontraditional stories and formats.
With Serial, there was no formula. They just wanted to create something that felt alive.
“The goal was to make it sound effortless, like all of our storytelling choices were inevitable,” Koenig said. “Of course, none of it was inevitable.”
At the event, Koenig touched on several complications that journalists often face. How close should she get to a source? Could she earn trust while skirting friendship? Did there need to be a difference between journalism and entertainment?
When it came to her relationship with Adnan Syed, the season-one focus who was convicted of murder but maintains his innocence, Koenig said it would feel fake to pretend their conversations were all business. She wasn’t his friend, but she needed to understand his experience. She couldn’t just tell the story she thought was supposed to be told. She needed to tell the truth.
“We should not reduce people to caricatures,” she explained. “Instead, we should be looking for the details and the stories that reflect life as it really is.”
And as long as you stick to the facts, she believes, it’s okay for journalism to entertain. It’s okay for the truth to look like art, but it takes a responsible storyteller to make that work.
On the internet, not everyone is a professional reporter. Discussing some of the drawbacks to Serial’s popularity, Koening said some online communities started to do their own digging. They exposed damaging information and speculation about real people.
“It was really the first time for any of us that we felt like we were losing control over our story,” Koenig said.
After contacting Reddit to set some ground rules, the team managed to rein things in. They’ve gone on to release two more seasons of Serial, and they’re open to pitches for a fourth. Despite the tension of protecting sources while staying transparent, of entertaining listeners while sticking to the facts, Koenig keeps telling difficult stories.
“Reporters really don’t advocate for change. We’re not supposed to,” she said. “But of course what we really want is for someone to do something—to fix what’s broken.”