Serial puts the spotlight on radio producers Julie Snyder and Sarah Koenig
It began with Serial’s theme song, the one that sort of starts out like “Chopsticks” and has become a common ringtone among the public radio-loving crowd. Then, the fuzzy voices, the old interview snippets. And finally, Serial podcast founders Julie Snyder and Sarah Koenig walked onto the Mondavi Center stage. It felt just right, like another episode of Serial, as the two public radio producers unspooled their narrative.
But first, applause. Huge applause. I haven’t seen Mondavi so packed nor a crowd so enthusiastic since the last time I saw Ira Glass here—on a Monday night, no less.
“This is really hard to believe, because look at us,” Snyder said, foreshadowing the rest of the evening’s self-deprecation and charm. “We’re public radio producers. … We’re not used to anyone paying attention to us.”
A little context: Serial began as a This American Life spinoff in 2014, a work of long-form journalism told week-by-week. Snyder and Koenig didn’t expect for it to become the hugely popular, obsessively followed thing that it is today—they hoped 300,000 people would listen to it at some point. They reached that goal less than a week after the first episode aired and soon started shattering records. Now, across two seasons, people have downloaded Serial more than 175 million times.
Over the next hour, Snyder and Koenig tried to answer a couple of questions: What happened? And why did Serial take off the way it did?
Snyder pointed to their decision to leave Koenig’s own thoughts in the reporting, to bring listeners into the process and embrace the humanity of it all. For that, they argue Serial feels more real, even with the thrilling storytelling, cliffhangers and theme song. Their goal is to reflect life as it is, full of complexities and ambiguities.
“Really truthful reporting can feel like art,” Snyder said.
Of course, the whole presentation was full of fun, behind-the-scenes notes: how Serial began in Koenig’s basement, and how they’d have to stop recording whenever one of Koenig’s kids needed to flush the toilet; how the person who pronounces MailChimp as “Mail Kimp” in the opening advertisement is actually a 14-year-old Norwegian girl, contrary to what a certain Huffington Post article claimed; how the hell the Serial Facebook account accidentally posted an “Adnan did it” comment, and how no one really noticed; and how Koenig and her murder-suspect source Adnan Syed kind of, sort of flirted—in a manipulative, mutually advantageous way.
But most of all, I was struck by Snyder and Koenig, how calm and collected they seemed on such a big stage; how funny and clever they were, even off-script; and how they were completely normal, anonymous journalists, suddenly thrown into pop culture and public scrutiny.
Snyder ended their talk with an optimistic prediction, that even at a such a frazzled time in the media industry, people still have patience—and the desire—for journalism.
And, of course, someone in the audience insisted on asking Koenig if she thinks Adnan Syed killed his girlfriend in 1999. Koenig, of course, politely dodged it.
“How bored are you of answering that question?” Snyder asked.
“I’m like a five,” Koenig said.
“I’m like a 10,” Snyder said.