When “Serial” was launched in 2014, its producers weren’t sure if there would be an audience for their look into a contested murder case.
“We would have been happy with 300,000 listeners,” said Julie Snyder, the show’s producer. After six weeks, “Serial” had over five million downloads. As of last week: 243 million.
Snyder and host Sarah Koenig were on campus this week as guests of the annual Fogelson Forum hosted by the John V. Roach Honors College. They discussed discovering how melding podcasts with narrative journalism captured the interest of others.
Season one considered the murder conviction of Adnan Syed. The second season dealt with the case of Bowe Bergdahl, who was held captive by the Taliban after deserting his post in Afghanistan.
They said people compared “Serial” to cable shows like “Mad Men” and “Breaking Bad.” But they noted that while these shows are fiction, in “Serial,” the crime was real and journalists were reporting it.
The women said that audiences were not accustomed to responding to journalism in the same way they would respond to television shows.
One drawback was that people started speculating about who murdered Hae Min Lee if Syed isn’t guilty, they said.
Snyder said they began to fear that the “privacy and respect for the people in the stories were violated.”
“I felt like I got into their world more than I expected to,” said Koenig.
Despite the surprising outcomes, Koenig said, “This is a worthwhile thing to do. We invented something.”
“This does sound different from anything that’s happened before. It feels like there are more attempts at long-form investigative journalism,” said Koenig.
A Beginning in Radio
The pair, who worked as radio producers on “This American Life,” were trying to jump-start a new show and decided to create one story with serial installments.
Snyder said this “allowed [them] to explore context and tangents.” They started “Serial” in the basement of Koenig’s house, having to pause recording each time someone flushed a toilet upstairs.
A year before the production of the podcasts, Koenig began researching and reporting.
“I was captivated by this story,” said Koenig. She was looking into the re-investigation of a 1999 Baltimore case in which a young woman disappeared from school. Her body was later discovered buried in a city park. Adnan Syed is currently serving a life sentence for this murder and continues to say he is innocent.
The first lines of the first episode demonstrate the premise of the series: “For the last year, I’ve spent every working day trying to figure out where a high school kid was for an hour after school one day in 1999…”
Snyder said the idea of a series published over time instead of in one long installment was good because they “wanted the show to feel like it’s alive.”
Snyder said that they were drawn to dense stories that live in the details and this can “create a storytelling problem.”
“We need listeners to understand the significance of the details,” she said. “We wanted to bring people up to knowing as much about the case as we did so we could begin to talk about the larger issues.”
Snyder said a key element in Koenig’s reporting was communicating that she didn’t always know what was factual.
“It puts you in a really vulnerable position to admit uncertainty,” said Koenig. “Spending a lot of time talking with one person is psychological and emotional. The confusion and discomfort on my part were important to the story.”
The women said they were in the position of introducing the whole story to the listeners because not many people knew about this crime.
“We wanted everyone in the story to be as human and three-dimensional as possible,” said Koenig.
This goal couldn’t have been accomplished without long hours of work.
Koenig has 42 hours of taped phone calls between her and Syed. This time was boiled down to 10 hours of published podcast about him.
Nearing the end of reporting, the women said they realized it was obvious they couldn’t solve the crime. One realization they conveyed to the audience is that there is a lack of self-reflection in the criminal justice system.
“I find it shocking,” said Snyder. “The crime could not have happened the way the state said it did.”
Today, Koenig receives letters from prisoners who ask her to look at their cases. There are two of these letters on Koenig’s desk now, waiting for her return.