Sarah Koenig, host of Serial, and Julie Snyder, executive producer, tell about why they were hooked by a story of a man imprisoned for murder and the unexpected level of attention they received for telling that story.
Serial was the first blockbuster podcast, it single-handedly brought the medium into the mainstream. At the time of this recording there have been over 90 million downloads of the show. In addition to being the most popular podcast ever made, it was also the first one to ever win a Peabody Award. The Peabody judges described the first season of Serial as a "soulful examination of reasonable doubt" and a "drilling account of how guilt, truth, and reality are decided."
We visited the This American Life studios in New York City to talk with Sarah and Julie the day after they received their Peabody.
- Interviewer: Matt Shedd
- Interviewee: Sarah Koenig
- Interviewee: Julie Snyder
MS: What was it about this story that mattered so much to you guys?
SK: I can tell you what captivated me about this story which is just ... when it was kind of first pitched to me, it was pitched by this woman named Rabia, who is a friend of Adnan's family and she's an advocate for Adnan, so like I was hearing the advocates version of this case, and it just seemed really like "Well that can't be true, you know. She's spinning it her way." Then I started looking into it and I was like, "Oh, it is a little confusing." Then how does a person get convicted of first degree murder on this evidence, like that was the part that was initially like, "Huh?" And then the more and more I looked into it, I was like wait, the cops and prosecutors are understanding something about this case that I don't understand, and that's what I wanted to try to [understand] ... what do they know that I don't know? That was kind of the initial thing — it was just sheer curiosity. And then, once I meat Adnan just on the phone and started talking to him, that's I think when it kind of kicked more into higher gear of just like, "Wait, how ... this guy seemed so likable and he seems so straightforward and he's funny." And so then I was like, "Well, you know, how do you sort this out? How do you make sense of a person in this way through just talking to them? How can you tell what someone's capable of? Can you tell?" So it was kind of like a two track thing of trying to sort out the case and also just kind of trying to sort out this person.
MS: So how did you get hooked, Julie?
JS: On this story? I think what really I thought was really intriguing ... I mean both .... you know as a producer and as an editor with Sarah, I'm attracted to any story that Sarah's attracted to, you know because it's very hard to sell somebody on doing a story if they're not into it and if they don't see it, and so the fact that I understood that Sarah had so many questions, that got me excited. But in particular what I thought was intriguing about it and gave a lot of possibilities was that there — especially over the last 15 years — there have been a lot of documentaries and long form narrative stories done about wrongful convictions and I think a lot of times in those stories, I've gotten a little bit used to the plot points of those stories that either there was obvious prosecutorial misconduct or a racially biased jury or a rouge cop, maybe, or something like that of where there's one part of the story or the case that feels like the thing you can point to. And what I liked about this, and as Sarah was just explaining of saying, "Well that can't be it," and then saying, "Huh, well this does look ... the evidence looks thin. What is it that the prosecution and the police saw in this? What is it that the jury saw in this that was so compelling and convincing?" And it seemed to me like a really good opportunity to take a case that nobody was really paying attention to, it wasn't like it was something that had sparked a ton of media interest even at the time when it happened other than sort of the local news. And we were able to sort of do an anatomy of an investigation and an anatomy of a trial and conviction, and break it down into it's pieces to see kind of how did the parts come to be a whole. And that, to me, seemed intriguing in a different way of approaching ...
SK: Right, like there was no obvious villain or something like that.
SK: Right, like there was no obvious villain or something like that.
SK: And so it was like something happened here that's not quite right and trying to find where that was was really interesting and important. It felt like on paper, all of this looks like it went the way it was supposed to go, you know it's like Julie was saying, you didn't have a coke-addicted public defense attorney falling asleep at the defense table or something like you hear about in these death penalty cases or whatever, where're you're like, "Oh, it's shocking, shocking!" There was nothing in this like that for us where it was just like "Wow, so this is the system working the way it's supposed to work, and yet, this doesn't look right." And so that, I think, kept us going with it.
MS: Well that's one of things that was surprising to me about the massive popularity of Serial was that it's so complicated since there's no simple villain, and you're talking about cell phone records and alibis and butt dials and all these things that ... and there's so many factors you have to keep track of to follow this case. Were you surprised that it had such a wide appeal?
SK and JS: Yes.
SK: I remember saying to Julie very early on, I think before we started airing even, where I was like, "Is this one of those things where like you research your family tree and you get super into it and you're like 'Oh my god, my great uncle's sister, she had an affair ...' and you're telling people and they're like, 'I don't care about your family. I know it's super interesting to you, but nobody else cares.'" I had a little bit of that. I was like, "Have I gone so far down this thing that it's just interesting to me?" But, I don't know ...
JS: I think the thing that I was able reassure Sarah is that it was still interesting to me, and so with that, I felt some confidence going in of saying, "Look, I've been interested for a year and I'm one step removed." You know, obviously Sarah's the reporter so I'm getting it all through her, and so I felt like if I've been interested, we should be able to make this work, you know? But definitely, the fact that so much of it was very technical and very information heavy and we couldn't just do it in a way of saying, "Come over here and sit down because I want to show you four different police statements, a testimony, a call log and a map of cell tower locations." But that's where we knew the story lived inside of there, so it was intimidating for how are we going to basically get everyone to the point of where they are as crazy and sort of detailed obsessed about this as we are, but you have to know all of that and sort of be in this world in order to kind of understand the conversation that we want to have.
MS: Well, I certainly think it's a credit to you as storytellers. What do you think — and you mentioned this a little bit in you speech last night — what do you think that says about the audience?
SK: I mean I was so heartened and so ... I don't know I was just so happy that they got into it, you know, that they paid attention to that level of detail, I mean sometimes a little too much where I was like, "Guys, move on." But it was really like, "Oh, we can do this. We can do this."
JS: And people liked it.
SK: And people like getting that involved. I mean if you can make people care about the big questions, they will stay with you for the little details, and I feel like that was ... we didn't know that was going to be a thing. Yeah I don't know, it just made me happy, I just hope it will encourage others to make that same kind of risk, take that same kind of risk, like it's going to be okay if you're into it and you tell it in a way that's compelling, people will stay with you, they will stay with you, they will. And cause I think ... I got so many things from other reporters like, "How did you pitch that? Like if I pitched that at my paper or I pitched that to my editor, where I'm like 'I don't know how it's going to end. I don't know if he did or not. But can I just look? They would look at me like I'm crazy." And I just hope maybe now those same people if they went back to their editors could be like, "Those people at Serial did it. Look we can do it, trust me." I don't know, I just feel like sometimes when the people who are making it, if they have fire for it, that we should trust that that it's going to take us somewhere.
MS: And for you, well for both of you, did a lot of that fire come from the relationship that you had with Adnan. Was that a moment, when you started talking to him, that you thought there's something special here?
SK: I mean yeah, but not in a like "He's one in a million." You know, it was more just like, "Oh, he's a good talker. He's a good character." I mean it's a weird word to use in journalism a little bit, but that is how we talk about it. That he's someone who can talk about how he feels and how he thinks, and that's not obvious, like a lot of people can't do that well, and Adnan can really do that well, so it was like, "Oh yeah, now we know this can be a spine for this thing that's going to carry us through because I really like talking to Adnan." And you do, talking to anyone over the course of a year, you create a relationship of some kind, so you know, yeah we knew that was going to be a strong element. But I don't know that like ...
JS: I'm not sure if that was just the fire ...
SK: I don't think that was the fire of it, it just helped a lot to have somebody who we had access to and who could talk really well about his own experience.
MS: Well, what would you describe the fire as, Julie?
JS: It just, I think it was exactly the same thing I'm saying we began with is that we were breaking down sort of the anatomy of a case and the anatomy of a trial and so the fire was the fact that there were so many different aspects of the story to report and to tell and to uncover. I mean one whole part of it that is a really fun part and interesting, I guess, you know, is there's a whole episode that Sarah does that's just about essentially the investigation of the man who initially came upon and discovered Hae Min Lee's body and his whole background and why the police were suspicious of him and there were elements to it that just had interesting narrative moments that felt ... Also I think the thing that Sarah is really great at is, it's very real. She's not mimicking another form, she's not trying to make it seem like so much crime reporting like you normally see of where you do have a villain or if this person is shady then obviously they're the ones who did it, and if this person's angelic, then obviously ... you know, I think that you were going in ... Sarah went in with telling a story where we recognized reality, and in that way, it was always emotional and compelling and just real. I think that's the fire.
MS: And you've said, Sarah, in your interview with Terry Gross, you said your goal was not to exonerate. How do you feel now, how do you both feel now that the state of Maryland is taking another look at this case. I mean that wasn't the goal, it doesn't seem like, but I mean how does that make you feel.
SK: I'm glad about it. I'm glad about it not so much on behalf of Adnan. I'm truly glad about it because of I think it's better for the process. I think it's like — this sounds really corny — but like I think it's better for justice that testimony ... that the court take another look at just this slide — I mean I think it's a little technical and complicated what the court is doing at the moment, but all they've said so far is circuit court, which is the trial level court, look at this Asia McClain testimony, she's the witness who was never spoken to at the time, potential alibi witness, and they're just saying, "Get her statements on the record so we can ... " And I think like any time there's more fact finding, you know like that's good for the process. Anytime it's more transparent. Anytime things get opened up a little bit is good, because I do think, you know at least that piece of it ... you know, I think that the jury never got a chance to know about Asia McClain. And beyond that, the fact that his lawyer never contacted her, to me, like that remains an error in the case. It just does. And I know people will argue different, and the court has already ruled in that to say, "No, it's strategic. Like that's not an error, that's strategic, she made a pointed decision not to do that." I disagree with that, I guess. So, yeah, I'm glad it's getting a little more light, I just do. But I don't think ... I'm not ... I have no idea if this will change anything for Adnan ultimately, and so that's not where my interest in it actually, totally lies. It's more, like I just think if this process can have a little more light in it, then that's always a good thing.
MS: Well and speaking of light, you guys started this without having an ending. What was it like getting this, you know, probably totally unanticipated level of scrutiny and attention in the middle of trying to sort this really complicated story out. I mean, what was it like in these offices as you were trying to do that?
SK: I wasn't here. I was in my basement in Pennsylvania. So Julie can answer that better.
JS: It was a little nutty. I mean ... Sarah had done the bulk of the reporting before we began broadcasting, so I would say at least — if I put a percentage on it — 95 percent was done before we began broadcasting.
SK: Actually, I would say a bit less.
SK: I would say like 75 percent.
JS: What? No.
SK: No? There were some big people we didn't talk to yet, weren't there? Or no? Had we ... I'm forgetting now.
JS: No, not really.
SK: Oh really, we'd done most of it?
SK: We still had a lot of talking to Adnan to do, though. A lot of the conversations happened during ...
JS: Yeah but stuff where we were kind of going back to things.
SK: Anyways, it doesn't matter. Sorry, I would say she has a better memory than I do.
JS: There was a ... not knowing where we were going to end up when we began broadcasting is true. On the other hand, we had a plan, and like we had episodes mapped out. We knew, at that point, I definitely knew that the story that was presented at trial was simply not possible to happen. I knew that through Sarah's reporting and the other interviews and just looking back at the evidence that they were using to corroborate testimony of saying that this actually isn't true. So in that regard, going into it, I knew we had that story, it was just what's the ending, you know. You don't know what's going to ... we had already had enough of an experience of understanding that one piece of information does not necessarily answer a question. A lot of times one piece of information just opened the door to a lot more questions. So in that regard I didn't know exactly where we were going. Anything was always possible. Although I would have to say that anybody who's doing a story that is in a series, that's always going to be your case. Anything could happen that you should be able to respond to and change direction. And then but both all of the attention and then the scrutiny, it was surprising and stressful. It was really stressful, and in some ways, I think, it was good for us and good for the story in that we're very, very careful reporters anyway, we have a very rigorous fact checking process, but with all of the attention knowing we really, we've got to make sure everything is tight. So in that way it was good for the story. I think emotionally it probably wasn't so great.
SK: Oh it was horrible.
JS: Yeah it was sort of ...
SK: [laughs] It was so stressful.
JS: We're both kind of thin skinned, and now I've talked to other people and everyone says ... I'm not sure if anyone who says, "Oh, I'm thick skinned. I don't care." But I just think ... yeah it was stressful and confusing and we're pretty normal people, so we're not used to having so much attention put on all of it, so at certain point, you kind of just had to put the blinders back on and just like we gotta get through this, gotta get through this, gotta get through this.
SK: I think there too was a narrative that some people wanted — and I know this just because I got asked about it so many times kind of during, but also mostly after — of like oh all of the sort of online attention and outside attention then shaped the story so that you had this thing going and then the world responded and then you responded to the world responding, and I just wanted to be like, "No. That's not how it worked."
JS: We didn't do that.
SK: People really want that to be the case, that somehow this is this new paradigm where like you crowdsource and we were like "No." Just for the record, no, that's not responsible reporting. I mean it can be, but in this case, we weren't getting information from the outside world in that way that. Or like, "Oh, they're clamoring for an episode about such and such. We better go make that now cause that's what the people want," or something. That's not at all how we were working. We really were just keeping our heads down and following our own thing. So I think too, I think people think, "Oh it must have been so helpful to you guys cause it like guided you where to go." No, actually, that's not how it works. No.
MS: I knew both of your names because I've worked in public radio before I started working for The Peabody Awards, but what was it like, and particularly for you Sarah, to be shot into the limelight the way that you were and still are and being a recognizable face, even though we mainly hear your voice? I mean, you've been parodied on [Saturday Night Live] and Colbert Report...
SK: Luckily I don't think I am a recognizable face. Maybe in a small slice of the world, like you know, I just took the subway and nobody was looking at me twice. You know, I'm just some lady on the subway. So, it hasn't really ... I don't know, I mean I get a lot more email, you know, I get a lot more, "Can you come?" ... but it's not ... I don't know ... it's weird, it's a little weird. It'll calm down. This will go. I understand that this is a moment and this moment will pass.
MS: Right, right.
SK: Yeah, it's a little weird.
MS: So I get your newsletters and I just saw season two and three have been announced. Season two for the fall?
MS: And then season three, hopefully next spring.
SK: Oh I'm so glad you added the word hopefully. Was hopefully in the newsletter?
MS: No it's something like that.
JS: I'd say that email newsletter maybe made it seem a little more solid and official.
SK: I keep saying the fall with like quotation marks around fall, however you define fall.
JS: I agree, I agree, fall to me ...
SK: That could be December ...
JS: I think fall is anything before Christmas. Is my ... we don't have ... so yeah announcing seasons two and three, the goal is two in the fall and three in the spring. And we haven't announced what they are or the topics or anything like that. It's just more ... I did want to ... we've been asked about it and stuff like that and we are doing both of them simultaneously. At a certain point, you know, obviously, three is going to have to take a pause while we get two out the door. But right now we're kind of doing both simultaneously.
MS: And you've said that they're not going to be true crime, is that right? Or have you not said that?
JS: We initially said that we're not doing crime. That was when ... because we were really nervous ... so Serial, the idea of Serial, is just serialized story telling, but with the topic of the case of season one, honestly our concern was that people thought we were going to be doing a show about serial killers, and so we kind of were like, "Oh no, no, don't worry about it, don't worry about it. It's not crime." But then, I realized we kept on saying it and then we talked to, but the thing is we don't even know what we're doing for seasons two and three, so we should probably stop saying we know what it won't be since we actually don't even know what we're doing. So anyway, that is about as much as I will say about it now, is we kind of won't say what it isn't and we won't say what it is. We're not ready, we're not ready to talk about it yet.
SK: I've just been saying they're very different kinds of stories. It's just a different thing. We're doing a different thing.
MS: Because season one was so popular, are you feeling this pressure to try and replicate that popularity?
SK: I mean yes and no. Of course you feel it, you know, and you're probably like "We can't wait." And it's exciting and you want people to be happy. That said, I think we're both fully prepared to have our audience plummet and that's fine. That's actually fine, really fine. Honestly, and this again sounds a little cliche or whatever, but it's like, as long as we love the story and we feel like it's worth putting out in the world, that's kind of the ... and we feel we're being challenged by it and we're sort of solving editorial problems in a fun and interesting way and we find out stuff that we're excited about, that's all you can hope for. You can't ... if you worry about the other thing, you're just, you're done, you know what I mean. Then it stops being fun immediately. To me anyway. It's just, that's just stress, like that's not fun. And we had a huge success, that's fine. I'm done now, I don't need that again. I got it. Like it was great, and now, we can get back to work.
MS: And it sounds like a lot of that success wasn't that fun, emotionally at least.
SK: Not for my personality actually.
MS: What was it like? Can you ...
SK: And I'm surprised by that because I thought I would like soak it up, like I got it, you know. I thought like oh that will be great, you know, just in a fantasy way before any of this ever happened. No, I just, I don't know, maybe everyone feels like this, but just like anything negative that was written, that's all the stuff that I remember, really. And most of the reaction to this show, it's fair to say, was like overwhelmingly positive, but the thing that bunks around in my head was the stuff that was ... I just can't help it, that's just like apparently how I operate.
JS: I said to a friend yesterday, I said, "Oh you look so cute," and she said, "I have to admit to you anytime somebody says I look cute, I think they're saying you look fat."
[SK and JS laugh]
MS: So does that apply to this show too? Anytime someone tells you they like the show, you think ...
SK: Your show is so cute. Oh my god does it look fat in that logo? No, no, no and I genuinely, last night at the Peabody Awards, and especially at the party afterward, so many people came up to us and just said the nicest things in the world, you know. Like no, I'm taking that at face value, and it was really lovely to hear those things, and especially about young people listening and it's getting taught in schools, and like I just love all of that. That makes me feel very, very good. So it's not like I can't take in good news, it's just when I go to bed at night, that's not what I'm remembering.
MS: So what was the most surprising part of that popularity for you?
JS: The podcasts about the podcast were pretty surprising to me. I didn't see that one coming at all. I didn't know that was going to happen.
MS: Did you listen to the podcasts about the podcast?
SK: No, no I didn't. I listened to part of one of them and it made me feel bad so I didn't listen to anymore.
JS: We were in production when the podcasts about the podcast were coming out.
SK: We had no time. You had to come into an office everyday, but I wasn't even getting dressed. I was just like in my bed. I mean, it was really a grind. We had no time for anything.
JS: But it was surprising.
SK: It was surprising, yeah. Yeah that was surprising. And I was also surprised, and I remained surprised that people still are talking about it. I just thought like it will be a blip, you know the way our media works and sort of like it's the thing. But it seems like people are still talking about it.
JS: Yeah it's nice with the podcast that it has this ... you know it'll live there, it's not as fleeting as radio, where you move on. Next week's a new show.
MS: What are you up to now, 80 million downloads?
JS: Is that true?
SK: Well, I checked with Elise [Bergerson] last week and it was 87 million.
[everyone makes baffled sound]
SK: I know right.
MS: That's amazing.
SK: It's weird. I don't even know what that number means. I mean that's across the whole series. So per episode, what's the math of that?
JS: I don't know, divide it by 12.
SK: [mumbles math] I don't know. I can't do the math right now.
JS: Somebody who isn't in radio ... will know the answer.
SK: Actually Ira [Glass] is good at math.
JS: Do you want me to get up and ask him?
MS: Walk down the hall and ask him.
JS: If he walks by, I'll knock on [the window] and ask him, "Hey, what's 87 divided ... " Though I've seen the bar graph break down of downloads per episode and it works actually that the first episode has the most, as you would imagine. But then it's funny because you see it kind of go down and then it spikes back up for the twelfth episode, which I love because that means there are people who went from the first and skipped right to the last one and that made me really happy to see all of the people who just went right to the last page.
SK: So much for our whole "they'll stay with you for the details."
JS: Yeah there were definitely people who didn't with the details. But they must have been so confused on the final episode.