‘Serial’ producers discuss podcast journalism at Strathmore


Graphic by Charlotte Alden.

By Rebecca Hirsh

Sarah Koenig and Julie Snyder, producers of Serial, an investigative journalism podcast, led a forum at Strathmore May 11 to discuss the show’s success and the importance of thorough and accurate journalism.

The forum consisted of a discussion on the origins of the podcast and its impact, eventually opening up into a brief question and answer session.

During the talk, the pair explained how Serial brought podcasts to the forefront of investigative journalism. Podcasts previously used an informal tone, so by analyzing a murder case, Serial shocked some listeners and created controversy over the morality of serious podcasts, Snyder said.

“People aren’t used to responding to journalism in this way,” Koenig said. “We had to ask ourselves whether it was okay to make the nonfiction story this entertaining.”

The combination of the podcast’s easily comprehensible nature and the intense subjects it covers drew some students in, including senior Emma Liles.

“Podcasts are a great form of media and aren’t too casual,” Liles said. “Media forms are always evolving with technology, and podcasts are a great way to stay informed.”

Serial covers one nonfiction story per season, and much of the Strathmore discussion focused on the podcast’s first and most popular season, which followed a 1999 Baltimore murder case that resulted in the conviction of Adnan Syed. The conviction was vacated last year due in part to Serial’s exposure of the case’s flaws.

Koenig and Snyder also discussed how reporting during that case proved harder than it appeared. Many key sources refused interviews, and the producers needed to leave some details out to respect the victim’s family, Koenig said.

“For me, a good reporter knows what to put out into the world, but also what not to put into the world,” Koenig said.

Koenig and Snyder said they didn’t want the podcast to feel manufactured despite the show being fully scripted.

“We wanted everyone in the story to be as three-dimensional—as human—as possible, and that included me,” Koenig said. “I think it’s really ballsy to be honest about reporting and admit uncertainty.”

In the question and answer session, Koenig said that Serial benefits listeners by exposing people’s reluctance to change their thoughts and beliefs.

“I remain really flummoxed by the way we assign judgement and punishment in this country,” Koenig said. “It’s disgusting, this kind of unwillingness to examine the nuances and to question what people believe.”

It was this unorthodox examination of the criminal justice system that compelled senior Ellis London to listen, he said.

“I really dislike the criminal justice system in this country, so I was happy to listen to anything that challenged it,” London said.

Snyder also described another aspect of the podcast: Serial’s unusual format defied the notion that an audience would lose interest in a story if it was broken up weekly. If anything, Koenig and Snyder have found that the audience is more eager to learn about the investigation, Snyder said.

“We are told so often now that we don’t have any attention span, that everything has to be 140 characters or fewer,” Snyder said. “But we’ve learned that that’s not true. People have the patience to follow the story. And that has been really heartening.”