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‘Serial’s’ Koenig says her podcast succeeds because it’s real

Sarah Koenig's "Serial" podcast reached 5 million downloads six weeks after its October 2014 launch.

By BERT GAMBINI

Published April 12, 2016

“Artistry is okay in reporting as long as you’re sticking to the truth. Truthful reporting can look like art.”
Sarah Koenig, host
"Serial" podcast

Sarah Koenig confirmed her lecture last night at UB months before Bernie Sanders decided to hold a campaign rally at the university on the same night the host of the acclaimed podcast “Serial” planned to speak on campus.

How many guests would the Democratic presidential hopeful syphon from Koenig’s talk?

Not many, it turned out, though Koenig herself playfully considered skipping her own lecture.

“Bernie Sanders is here. That’s so cool,” she said walking out to a nearly full house on the Center for the Art’s Mainstage. “Should I go to that?”

Koenig’s audience is clearly loyal and her podcast, co-created with Julie Snyder, reached 5 million downloads six weeks after its October 2014 launch date, the fastest such download total ever from Apple’s iTunes.

With more than 200 million downloads to date, Koenig explained how “Serial’s” unprecedented success derives from its authenticity, the quality of its journalism and the unmistakable influence of Ira Glass, creator and host of public radio’s This American Life (TAL).

“I don’t think it can be overstated the effect Ira Glass has had on radio reporting and audio storying telling in this country,” said Koenig, who along with Snyder remains part of TAL’s staff.

If all of American literature is said to descend from Mark Twain’s “Huckleberry Finn,” then a similar argument might just as easily apply to Ira Glass as the font of contemporary radio production.

Glass started TAL 20 years ago. Koenig said he hired all the writers and producers; he trained them all, and in the process helped foster an entire generation of talent who went on to create new shows tinged with Glass’ production spirit, from “Planet Money” to Alix Spiegel’s “Invisiblia.”

“We’ve taken away thousands of lessons from Ira,” said Koenig.

“Serial” in fact is a TAL spinoff, a second attempt to develop a program based on Glass’ trendsetting model.

Koenig’s first proposal was to work with stories that happened the week prior to each broadcast. The desire was to combine elements of a newsmagazine with TAL’s brand of storytelling.

The TAL staff was unmoved.

“I will support you,” said Glass. “But do you have any other ideas?”

“Serial” is the inversion of that proposed news show, according to Koenig. Rather than writing about the events of the week, “Serial” comes back to the same story weekly.

“A good idea is allowed to be easy,” she said.

Season one of “Serial” reinvestigated the case of Adnan Syed, who was convicted of first-degree murder for the 1999 killing of Hae Min Lee, a high school senior and Syed’s classmate and former girlfriend. Syed, who is currently serving a life sentence, has vehemently denied his guilt or having any knowledge of who might otherwise be responsible.

The podcast is not an audio version of television murder investigations, though it ironically uses elements of television drama, from it cliffhangers to its scene-setting, “Previously on…” previews.

“Part of what happened with ‘Serial’ was a listener reaction similar to what television viewers experience,” said Koenig. “They were enjoying ‘Serial’ in the same way they enjoyed entertainment programs, but this was journalism. It was real. People are not used to responding to journalism in quite that way.”

That’s because “Serial” brings artistry to journalism, according to Koenig.

“Artistry is okay in reporting as long as you’re sticking to the truth,” she said. “Truthful reporting can look like art.”

The main lesson for Koenig is that journalists should always be looking for the details and moments in their stories that reflect the reality of life, resisting temptations to write away from ambiguity and contradiction.

“Reporting stories that way creates intimacy, but more importantly for me is that it creates empathy,” she said. “It’s what moves a story from being interesting to feeling meaningful.”

Much of “Serial’s” content involved conversations with the show’s principle subject, Adnan Syed. Talking with one person, repeatedly, for long periods of time (42 hours in this case) is a challenging demand for a reporter, Koenig said.

“It’s psychological and emotional; journalists don’t like to talk about that because it’s messy and uncomfortable,” she said. “But it might be another reason why ‘Serial’ felt different than other stories because rather than hiding that messiness under a clean narrative,that discomfort became part of the story.”

“Serial” contradicts media critics’ claims that character limits and capsule reporting are consequences of consumers’ short attention spans.

“We do have patience for journalism that takes time,” she said. “That’s incredibly heartening.

Two hundred million listeners apparently agree.