When the Brooklyn Academy of Music booked Serial creators Sarah Koenig and Julie Snyder to talk about how they cooked up a podcasting sensation, they couldn’t have predicted how timely the visit would be — coming, as it did, on the heels of widespread speculation (and pushback) about the subject of the show’s second season. That subject did come up over the course of their 90-minute talk, but a good ways in — after Koenig and Snyder (and, later, producer Dana Chivvis) walked through the entire process of the show’s conception, execution, and reaction, via stories, byplay, clips, and inventive onscreen animation. Here’s what they had to say about that whole kerfuffle, and some of the more interesting revelations along the way.
Their initial idea for a podcast was quite different.
Koening and Snyder had talked with their This American Life producer Ira Glass for a good long while about a spinoff podcast, but they spent much of that time trying to convince him and their colleagues to go in a different direction. Their initial idea was a weekly version of the two “This Week” episodes of TAL, in which the stories of the week, large and small, got a TAL-like treatment. No one was all that receptive to the idea, but “we did not take the hint at all,” Koenig recalled, until Glass brought them in and gave it the go-ahead, shrugging, “‘If you guys really wanna do this ‘This Week’ thing, like, great, I am with you, I support you. But before we commit, do you have any other ideas?’ And we had this thing which was completely opposite from the ‘This Week’ idea, which was, what if we took one story, and we told it in chapters, slowly, week by week? And immediately when I said it, I was like, ‘They’re going to hate this idea.‘” Needless to say, they did not.
Their initial expectations were very low.
The beauty of doing Serial as a podcast was simple, Koenig said: “I was like, no pressure! Nobody listens to podcasts!'” Snyder ran down the numbers, which are sort of staggering: “We thought if we could get 300,000 listeners, that would be great, that’d be a great number we would have been very pleased with. And then what ended up happening was we did get 300,000. We got to 300,000 in the first five days. And then at six weeks we were at five million downloads on iTunes… and we checked yesterday, and we now have over a hundred million downloads.”
They decided to embrace the honesty of uncertainty.
Snyder and Koening struggled a bit, initially, with exactly how all-knowing Snyder’s narration should be. But ultimately, they arrived at the realization that, in sifting through the information, Koening was “interpreting this for us.” And moments where she told the audience exactly what she didn’t know, or think, were OK. “It puts you in a really vulnerable position to admit that kind of uncertainty,” Snyder said. “And Sarah got knocked for it at times — ‘Oh, she’s an idiot, she’s so naive, she’s in love with Adnan.’ But I think that’s such a ballsy thing to do: to admit you don’t know. To be honest in your reporting, and not pretend like you know everything.”
The investigating portion took some patience.
As part of the multimedia presentation, Koenig shared her most important research item: a tiny icon on her computer desktop, the case’s MPIA (Maryland Public Information Act) file. “Inside this little icon are all of the documents that the police decided they would release,” Koening explained. “And they give it to you in this giant PDF in no particular order. So we get this thing, and it’s massive — it’s more than 2000 unordered pages. It was like asking for a sweater and getting an angry ball of yarn.” The file — filled with everything from random phone book pages to unexplained charts to background reports on “psychic” tipsters — was daunting and seemingly insurmountable. But once they figured out “this giant stack of stuff,” its started telling them the story.
They struggled with the question of journalism vs. entertainment.
Work like that is, unquestionably, in the realm of investigative journalism — but one of the trickier elements of the entire Serial phenomenon was the degree to which they tried to balance the journalistic element (and the tragedy at the show’s center) with an interest in creating a well-paced, entertaining show that people would want to listen to. “I think the question kind of became, ‘Is this OK?'” Snyder said. “People starting asking, is this okay to do with a nonfiction story? Is it too entertaining? Is it journalism? Is it responsible? And to that, I would say yes!” (“I think it would be strange if you didn’t say yes,” Koenig interjected.) “Artistry in reporting — we want to encourage that,” Snyder continued. “As long as you’re sticking to the truth. But I think that really truthful reporting really can look like art.”
The devil is in the details.
Snyder’s example of truth came in a strange form: her explanation of the MailChimp ad that opened each episode, and more specifically, the “MailKimp” mispronunciation. That ad was a specific instance of Glass’ influence; Snyder recalled cutting together a similar opening for This American Life, trumpeting distributor PRI, which Glass recut to include stumbles and mispronunciations of its own. The lesson? “We should always be looking for the details and the moments in stories that reflect life the way that it is — and not to mimic other stories because we think that’s what it’s supposed to sound like. Not to reduce people to caricatures, not to run away from ambiguity and contradiction. Instead, it’s like we’re trying to reflect the world like it is, in all its funny and bizarre and sometimes upsetting ways. And I think stories told this way, with artistry, it creates intimacy — and it also creates empathy. It’s what takes stories from being interesting to actually being meaningful.”
The Reddit threads “filled us with anxiety.”
The phenomenon of Serial got its due as well, from the parodies to the podcasts about their podcast to the dedicated websites. And at the center of it all was Reddit, with its very active Serial discussion boards and threads that parsed, per Koenig, “every single goddamn thing.” To some degree, this was “thrilling — it’s what you want as a reporter, you want debate, you want discussion. Or it’s what you think you want. Because for us, Reddit and other online discussions of the case just filled us with anxiety, because the rules of Reddit, which are more or less if you think it, post it — those are not our rules. We are reporters, first of all, so we have to source everything we say, we have to be able to answer for it, and I think that being a good reporter — and being a responsible reporter, moreover — isn’t just about putting information into the world. It’s also about not putting information out into the world.” That information often included full names, photos, and other private information that sometimes made their way onto such discussions — reminding Serial‘s creators that they may have started the discussion, but they couldn’t necessarily control the discussion.
They are, indeed, not ready to talk about next season.
They got another reminder of that this week, when Maxim reported (and many, many other outlets picked up) that Season 2 of the show would focus on the mysterious circumstances surrounding the disappearance of soldier Bowe Bergdahl. Unsurprisingly, Snyder would neither confirm nor deny that report. “We’re not ready to talk about it yet,” she said. “It’s not just a phrase that we put out to the media; it’s true. Because we’re working on Season 2, we’re also working on Season 3 at the same time, we’re also working on a new podcast that we’re going to launch next year… So there’s a lot of stuff going on right now. We’re not trying to be coy or cute about it — we’re actually trying to figure out what we’ve got, and what we’re doing with it, and trying to figure the whole thing out.” To the question of whether they’re feeling the inevitable pressure of expectation going into Season 2, Snyder was succinct: “Yes. We feel a ton of pressure. But it’s not a pressure to live up to all of this from the first season. We’re really not planning on having the same response we had to Season 1, frankly. And we’re really, totally OK with that. For us it’s more like, it’s pressure to do right by the stories we’ve chosen and make them into something we’re proud of.”
To that end: it’s much harder to be an anonymous reporter now.
Asked by an audience member if it’s harder now to report, with everyone watching, Koenig didn’t mince words. “It’s annoying!” she joked. “I really miss the days when people didn’t give a crap what we were doing. I wasn’t worried that sources were gonna turn around and call somebody. But it has upsides too, a lot of doors are open to us that weren’t open before… but it’d be nice to just be a troll in my basement again.”
The main takeaway of the experience has been…
“We’re not morons.” Snyder’s not just talking about herself and Koenig when she describes the most positive way of looking at the reception to Serial; she’s talking about all of us, and the common wisdom about what kind of entertainment will captivate us. “I feel like we so often get told that we have short attention spans, that everything’s gotta be a bit, and 140 characters. And it’s not true! You guys all just listened to a ten-hour radio documentary! People do have patience for journalism that takes its time. And so now we’re taking our time to find our way into the next seasons — hopefully not too much time, we’re really excited, and we’re really looking forward to you guys joining us when we get there.”