'Serial' host Sarah Koenig speaks about her 'pop culture' podcast

The executive producer and host of the popular podcast series was the final speaker in this year's University Lecture Series.

One story, told week by week.

The familiar introduction — eerie chords, snippets of conversations, soundbites pulled from an incomplete puzzle — rang throughout Hendricks Chapel on Tuesday evening.

That classic opening bit is the beginning to a podcast that more than 80 million people have downloaded. Serial, hosted by This American Life contributor Sarah Koenig, consistently graces the iTunes popularity charts and was the subject of this semester’s final University Lecture series event.

A Talk with Sarah Koenig

Sarah Koenig, the host and executive producer for the hit podcast Serial, talks about the success and the future of the podcast. Produced by Kate Capodanno and Jackie Prager. Interview by Kathryn Robinson

Koenig walked out from behind a screen after the intro segment ended and began her discussion of Serial — how it came to be, how she’s reacted to its explosive popularity and how fascinating journalism can actually be. 

“The stories that I’m drawn to tend to be pretty dense — the stories live in the details,” Koenig said. “So we needed to find a way not to bore the hell out of listeners while we convey the significance of those details.”

Serial has two seasons, the first of which Koenig most heavily discussed. In season one, she delves into a murder mystery: A high school senior’s body is found in a Baltimore park a month after she goes missing, and her then-17-year-old ex-boyfriend is convicted of the crime, despite a lack of evidence. Koenig reopens the case by interviewing key players, tracking down clues and painstakingly sorting through details within every minute of the day the girl went missing.

The result is an addictive, binge-worthy podcast that begs the question: Did he do it?

Adnan Syed is still incarcerated in Maryland for the crime. In reporting and retelling the details of that case, Koenig said there was a lot she didn’t know.

“It puts you in a vulnerable position to admit uncertainty publicly in your stories,” she said. “Sometimes I felt like I was being knocked for honesty. And I don’t think I’m incompetent.”

The podcast, which rivals an audio-only dramatic television show, proves that journalism can be presented in a novel and completely captivating form, Koenig said. 

“(People) weren’t used to interacting with journalism this way. This wasn’t entertainment — this was real,” she said. “I think that telling stories this way — with artistry — creates empathy. Artistry is OK in reporting as long as you’re sticking to the truth.”

Serial’s popularity spiked almost instantly. Websites like Twitter, Facebook and especially Reddit reacted by creating discussion boards filled with thousands of comments, thoughts and theories behind the story. SNL released a spoof, and there are even seven or eight podcasts on iTunes dedicated to discussing the Serial podcast, Koenig added.

“People debated and parsed every godd— thing,” she said. “Suddenly, it occurred to us — this is pop culture, and it’s happening right in front of us. We were normal people caught in the crosshairs of pop culture.”

At one point, in an effort to censor definitive (and annoying) Facebook comments placing blame on different players in the case, the Serial team implemented a filter to block certain key phrases from being posted as comments.

Rich Orris, who’s in charge of web development on the show, decided to test it out by commenting on a post: “Adnan did it.”

The filter didn’t work. Within an hour, the Internet erupted in response to the official Serial account’s damning statement. The comment was deleted within seconds, but the damage was already done.

“Honest — we just did not see this coming. We had no idea this was going to happen,” Koenig said. “We felt like we were losing control of our own material.”

Koenig said responses as visceral as the ones on Reddit kept them asking themselves if they were doing the right thing. They protected people’s names and identities on the show, but the internet’s reaction was to find out more about the characters — their full names, their photos, their addresses.

“I think that being a good reporter is not just what information you put out into the world, but what information you don’t put out into the world,” Koenig said. “We were always asking, ‘Is this fair?’”

Magazine journalism and information management and technology sophomore Anna Leach said she most resonated with Koenig’s down-to-earth attitude. When journalists get too deep in a story, they can lose that connection with their audience, she said.

“Journalists sometimes have a tendency to tell stories one way, but I really think she tries to give a lot of depth to it,” Leach said. “Her self-awareness and her thoughtfulness of relationships with sources and her audience — she equally acknowledges those in real life and in her script.”

For Erin Duran, associate director of the LGBT Resource Center, seeing Koenig in the flesh rekindled his appreciation for Serial.

“I think, in many ways, she is what I expected her to be — kind of independent, kind of outspoken. I expected her to be forward about what she thought,” Duran said. “She’s what I want to believe journalists are.”

As many people know — and spoiler alert for those of you who haven’t listened to season one yet — Koenig never solves the mystery behind Syed’s case. While it sparked controversy over the ruling and elicited a hearing, nothing ultimately changed. 

Her conclusion looks at the bigger issues at play: a lack of clarity in the state’s case, and that nagging question about Syed’s story.

“How can you tell what someone is capable of? It was what I spent a year and a half trying to figure out,” Koenig said. “We should always be looking for the details, the moments and the stories that reflect life the way it really is.”

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