In case you missed it, on Saturday night we were graced by the presence of podcasting’s finest. Sarah Koenig and Julie Snyder took to the Paramount stage to talk about all things “Serial”. And, like other devoted fans, I attended, full of questions about Adnan’s conviction, the cell phone evidence, and how they managed to transform already widely publicized stories into binge-worthy investigative journalism. After all, since their release in 2014, they’ve gained an impressive 264 million downloads.
If you haven’t listened to an episode of “Serial” before, it’s likely you’ve at least heard of it. For two seasons, Koenig and Snyder have investigated the cases of Adnan Syed, a young man from Baltimore, Maryland who is currently serving a life sentence for the murder of Hae Min Lee, and Bowe Bergdahl, the former American prisoner of war in Afghanistan. As a brainchild of “This American Life”, we still get that thoughtfully produced narrative non-fiction that makes us laugh, and maybe even cry, but in this case we get more, lots more, of one story over the course of an entire season.
It’s fascinated me for years, and I’m not just talking about the court cases. Koenig and Snyder’s journalistic style and storytelling ability, along with Serial’s pop culture status are unique in so many ways, and have since paved the way for new voices in podcasting and media. So, thankfully they answered some of the questions we, their devoted listeners, had all been wondering about: How did they do it? What did they intend when they set out? Where do they hope to go in the future?
It’s attractive to think of really good storytelling as some sort of magic. Thinking about the soggy back-end fact-checking that went into each episode and the pressure to actually get people to listen, is a whole lot less sexy. Admittedly, I was oblivious to a lot of the techniques that Koenig and Snyder used to orchestrate their following. It might seem commonplace now, but at the time, the “previously on” slot which plays at the beginning of every episode wasn’t heard outside of television, and definitely wasn’t used for journalism. Rather, it was a stylistic choice they made because, at the end of the day, they had to sell their show, and so they took the liberty to play with the format of their show in this way. Snyder said that when “Serial” first started, people weren’t used to consuming journalism in this way, but “artistry is okay in reporting so long as you’re sticking to the truth”. Their artistic freedom extended to the casual and conversational tone they took in reporting, not trying to run away from ambiguity, but rather embracing transparency, and showing their voices and findings the way they actually were. And so with their deliberately casual tone it would be very easy to assume that their reporting was streamlined and simple, but Koenig and Snyder made it clear that the meat of Serial was based in traditional landmark reporting and fact-checking.
Ira Glass is a legend within the radio and podcasting worlds. And in terms of “Serial” he played the role of a mentor to Koenig and Snyder all the way from the infamous MailChip add to the final episode. Guided by Glass, they aimed to tell stories that show life the way that is really is and not limit their voice even in the light of what traditional media might be doing. They set out to embrace contradiction and reflect reality, because being real has the power to breed intimacy, empathy, and move things from being interesting to actually being meaningful.
Koenig got a well-deserved round of applause when she said, “being a good journalist is not always about choosing what to put out into this world, it’s sometimes more about choosing what not to put out into this world.” She made a relevant point, not just in terms of our current political and journalistic environment, but also in terms of the plethora of almost non-sensical investigative evidence she was given and how she carefully weeded through it to craft it into a narrative that reflected the truth of the story she was slowly uncovering. She made it clear that they were aware that, in terms of the first season, the prosecution’s story was full of holes and the cell phone records prove that it couldn’t happen, but this was clearly something that guided the story that they did tell, making sure not to allude to knowing more information than they really did. Their art lived in not hiding that messiness under a clean narrative, but rather embracing the discomfort as a vital part of the story. And, I would say that they successfully got their audience to embrace the messiness too, and maybe even begin to like it. “Serial” made millions of people personally invested in the reality of people intrenched in the tangles of the criminal justice system. It turned people into advocates of stories they didn’t know they cared about and made them empathize with people they’ve never met. It’s curious to think about what our world might look like if every story could get the “Serial” treatment.