Left to right, three of the primary minds behind 'Serial': co-creator and host Sarah Koenig; Ira Glass, from whose 'This American Life' 'Serial' was spun off; and co-creator and producer Julie Snyder. PHOTO: MEREDITH HEUER.
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True Storyteller

UC Santa Cruz grad Julie Snyder talks about how the ‘Serial’ podcast gets made—and how it became a cultural phenomenon.

Left to right, three of the primary minds behind 'Serial': co-creator and host Sarah Koenig; IraGlass, from whose 'This American Life' 'Serial' was spun off; and co-creator and producer Julie Snyder. PHOTO: MEREDITH HEUER

When Julie Snyder got her first radio gig as News Director at KZSC, she had no idea that two decades later she’d end up co-creating the world’s most famous podcast.

In fact, her entry into the medium was far from earth-shattering, motivated by a vague notion of wanting to do journalism, and not having any clue how to go about doing it.

“I heard they had the broadcast class at the radio station, and I thought, ‘Well, I guess I could try that,’” she remembers.

But in the summer of 1994, after her third year at UCSC, she landed her first paying job, working as the morning anchor at KSCO. The next summer, after graduating with a degree in politics, she was KSCO’s afternoon anchor. Two years later, she was hired by WBEZ’s then-fledgling show This American Life, where she still works as senior producer.

But since 2014, Snyder is better known for creating and producing (and occasionally appearing on-air in) the podcast Serial with her This American Life co-producer Sarah Koenig. Serial put a different spin on TAL’s storytelling format by stretching a single story out across a whole season of hour-long episodes that dug into the narrative from a number of different angles.

Maybe it was just the right moment in American culture, with distrust of the criminal justice system hitting seemingly new highs. Maybe it was the compelling story and personality of Adnan Syed, who still claimed to be innocent for the 1999 murder of Hae Min Lee, his ex-girlfriend and fellow student at Baltimore’s Woodlawn High School, for which he was serving a life sentence after two trials. Maybe it was host Koenig’s incredibly personal delivery, in which she was so forthcoming with her doubts and frustrations about the case that she was accused of everything from flip-flopping to oversharing—but left no doubts about her transparency. Whatever the reason, Serial is the most popular podcast in history, reaching five million downloads faster than any before it, and eventually passing 100 million downloads.

In becoming the first “must-listen” podcast, Serial seemed to give the format its first cultural legitimacy, with fans binge-listening in the same way they were used to consuming TV shows and movies.

At the end of last year, Serial returned with season two, featuring an entirely new story about the case of Bowe Bergdahl, the U.S. soldier who was captured by the Taliban in Afghanistan, freed in a controversial prisoner swap five years later, in 2014, and now faces a court-martial on charges of desertion and “misbehavior before the enemy” that could result in a life sentence.

Snyder and Koenig will come to the Sunset Center in Carmel on Wednesday, March 9, for an event titled ‘Binge-Worthy Journalism: Backstage With the Creators of Serial’ in which they’ll discuss the workings of the podcast. Snyder spoke to GT from her office in New York the week after the show posted a series of updates about a new hearing granted to Syed—a hearing which many credit Serial for setting into motion.  

GT: Last week must have been intense, between putting out an episode of season 2 and also doing three mini-episodes with updates from Syed’s hearing.

JULIE SNYDER: Last week really took a lot out of us. It was crazy. We should not have done that, it was too nutty. I guess if you just decide to give up sleep—that was what we kind of felt like we did.

But I guess you probably felt like you had to do the updates, since so many people are following the case through you.

Sarah really wanted to. It’s hard, you know, you feel like, “Wait, for a year I was in this world.” And then you’re going to have, for three days—which turned out to be five days—people testifying and talking about the case. We kind of lived inside there for a long time. She definitely felt like she had to. I wasn’t clear on whether or not we had to do anything with it, but at least we had to go. And then we knew we would be having conversations at the end of every day anyway about what happened, so then it felt like “Well, I guess we could put that stuff out.” We kind of did the best we could while we’re in the middle of the second season.

Many people credit ‘Serial’ with the fact that Adnan Syed is getting a new hearing in the first place. What’s it like seeing the real-world effect the podcast has had?

It was heartening for me that the appeals court said, “OK, we should take another look,” because for me I did think that particularly Asia McClain’s testimony felt like it was at least something that should be considered. I can’t get inside the court of appeals’ heads to understand what they’re thinking or where they’re coming from, but a lot of people who were more familiar with the court said to us that with the extra scrutiny on the case, it means a lot to the court that this process be transparent and receptive and working. Good! In that way, it was good to see, and I was fascinated by the process of it and seeing what happened.

There’s a moment in one of the hearing updates where Sarah says to co-producer Dana Chivvis something like, ‘Oh, remember when we thought this would be as easy as just finding Asia McClain, and the whole thing will be solved?’ Was it really like that at the beginning, where you thought this would be fairly simple?

Yes. It sounds so silly, I know. I know! But yeah, it kind of felt a little like, ‘well, every question has an answer, so you’ve just got to push a little harder and ask the right people, and you’ll get an answer.’ And we did! That’s the thing, we got a lot of answers. The problem is that then a lot of times the answers raised more questions, as well. So we kept on going deeper and deeper and deeper into it, you know? But you can’t just stop and say, “These things are unknowable,” because they’re not unknowable. That’s where it gets frustrating—you never know where to stop. For us, by the end, I couldn’t think of any more avenues to go down. I think we felt like we’d probably exhausted what we could do.

That’s interesting, because ‘Undisclosed’ started up right after that, and looked at the same case from a very analytical legal perspective. What was it like for the team at ‘Serial’ hearing the first few episodes of that, which broke some new information that built on what you had done?

CENTRAL CASTING Snyder and Koenig at work. The pair will discuss 'Serial' at the Sunset Center on March 9. PHOTO: ELISE BERGERSON.

CENTRAL CASTING Snyder and Koenig at work. The pair will discuss ‘Serial’ at the Sunset Center on March 9. PHOTO: ELISE BERGERSON.

Sarah has never heard Undisclosed, and I can’t say I’ve listened to every episode. I have heard some episodes of Undisclosed. [What they did] for what was introduced last week at the hearing about the cell tower testimony, that was pretty incredible. I was aware of the cover sheet—and that was one itch that was not scratched last week, the question of does it make a difference—but the fact that they had talked with the AT&T cell phone expert who had testified at Adnan’s trial, who said essentially, “I wasn’t aware of this disclaimer, and I now feel like I can’t stand behind my testimony because of it,” I felt like whoa. That was really big. But with Undisclosed, I think they have a different agenda than we do. There were a lot of other things that I thought were pretty much more in the speculative camp.

It definitely seemed like the ‘Undisclosed’ team were lawyers who had to learn to be journalists, which is funny since you guys are journalists who kind of had to learn to be lawyers a little bit.

Right.

But the biggest difference I think is that ‘Serial’ had such an emphasis on storytelling. Do you think its breakthrough into the mainstream came from that attention to crafting the story?

Yes, and we focus a lot on how to tell a story, and how to tell something that feels emotional, and has meaning, where people are more than just props. Where you’ve got three-dimensional characters. Empathy, trying to see things from everybody’s point of view, is something that we’re always going for. News stories, personal stories, everyday stories—a lot of times they’re complicated, and I think we can be a little knee-jerk sometimes in assuming things are more simple than they are. So yeah, we put a lot of thought into trying to get across in these stories the level of emotion and understanding that we’re seeing when we meet people, and when we talk to them.

Were you shocked at how many people seemed disappointed that you didn’t ‘solve’ the case in season one? Although, I admit I’m not sure what that would mean.

Right, it seems like it’s really complicated. Yeah, definitely. For me, I felt like when we went on the air and began broadcasting I knew that at the very least where our reporting had led us was that this crime did not happen the way the state is saying that it happened. So in that regard, at least, I knew I had a story that I wanted to tell, and Sarah had a story that she wanted to tell, saying, at the very least, here’s what did not happen.

As the podcast went on and a lot of listeners became convinced of Adnan’s innocence, it seemed like many started to take a rooting interest, to the point where people would express frustration whenever she raised the possibility that he did do it.

It seemed like it was important for her to say both what she knew and what she didn’t know. That’s ballsy, especially to talk about what you don’t know. There’s a role often that reporters and writers will take, as if they know everything. I really admired her for being honest about what she couldn’t figure out, and what she struggled with while trying to figure it out.

Did you have a lot of discussions about that transparency?

Yeah, a lot of times where it would come up is that so much of that story—as is apparent even in those updates—lives in the details. It’s pretty deep in the weeds. And so we would start trying to say, “Well there’s this, but then on the other hand, there’s that. And then there’s this, and then there’s that.” It was hard, we would be in edits and say, “I feel like you’re just giving me a bunch of facts. I don’t know how I’m supposed to be piecing it together. I don’t understand what it means.” I think that’s where we came to learn that we needed Sarah to tell us what she thinks. Even if we didn’t agree. It was like, “The only way for me to understand what I think about this is to understand what you think about this. Then I can disagree with you, but I need you to kind of put it in context. That was a little uncomfortable for her at first, even though she comes from This American Life, and we’re pretty used to narrative nonfiction in a traditional way. But that much was not completely comfortable for her. But I think she saw that that was the only way she could get people to interact with the story on the level that she needed them to. All of us, we want to be having this conversation with the listener, but we need them to be as inside of it as we are.

Were there a lot of things you didn’t agree on? Did you argue about theories?  

We would, because we would sometimes have these far-fetched ideas, like “What if …?” And it would just be like, “You’re crazy.” There weren’t knock-down, drag-out fights. But there were definitely certain people who had theories that were a little bit more their pet theory. There were times when we all could be kind of skeptical of each other, but you could a few weeks later kind of come around and be like “I get what you’re saying.”

How did you come to co-create ‘Serial’ in the first place, and why a podcast?

I was at This American Life for 18 years, and Sarah came on a little bit after me, so I think we’ve worked together for about 12 years. And we’d been talking, and it seemed like at that point podcasts were a possibility. To start a new radio show is a lot of work. It’s a lot of logistical work; you have to make a real commitment to doing it, because you’re asking the entire public radio system to sign on. So I think neither of us felt like we were in a position—and I don’t think Ira [Glass] did either—to do that. We were being pretty experimental, kind of like “We have this idea and we just kind of want to try it out.” At that point, it seemed like podcasting was becoming more of an option—we could be experimental, we could do it for a little while, it could just be a season, they could be however long we wanted. It just seemed a lot more conducive to taking a chance.

Was choosing Bowe Bergdahl’s story for the second season a deliberate attempt to do something radically different from Syed’s story and avoid being pigeonholed?

Not deliberate, because we always knew from the beginning we were going to do something really different. For the first half of season one, people would say “So, you guys are a true crime podcast?” And that was a thing we definitely did have to constantly be pushing back against, because we knew from the very beginning we did not want to be a true crime podcast. There was no way that was our genre. But then a lot of times people would say, “Well, so is the next story going to be a story about a crime, or a murder case or something?” And at first I would always be like, “No, no, no, no, no,” and then after a while I realized “Honestly, I probably shouldn’t say no, because I really have no idea what we’re going to do next, because we have not gotten a chance at all to think about this.” But we were pretty positive no. There are whole TV networks that are devoted to stories like that, you know? We knew we were not interested in going down that path.

In a larger cultural context, I’m curious what you think of the fact that ‘Serial’ has been credited with kicking off this wave of documentaries and podcasts devoted to examining the failures of the justice system. ‘Undisclosed’ and other podcasts continued to follow Syed’s story. ‘The Jinx’ was sort of the flip side of ‘Serial’’s individual-possibly-wrongly-accused storyline. ‘Making a Murderer’ was very much like the documentary version of ‘Serial,’ another multi-part story examining the weaknesses in the state’s conviction of a man serving time for murder. Do you agree that ‘Serial’ started something?

In that regard, I think we definitely did not start anything. I think just on the facts alone we didn’t start anything, because those projects—well, Undisclosed is different, but The Jinx and Making a Murderer were all well into production for much longer than we were around. I know we all kind of get put together, but there’s nothing new about crime stories. And there’s nothing new even about serialized storytelling. But where I do understand it, what I think has changed, is the idea of slowing down a story, and telling it using all the tools of journalism—rigorous reporting, fact-checking, and all the kind of boring, sloggy stuff that goes into regular journalism—but then telling the stories in an emotional way, where people are three-dimensional characters and have contradictions and ambiguities. The Jinx and Making a Murderer, a lot of times you’re not exactly sure if somebody’s a good guy or a bad guy, you’re not sure what you’re supposed to think of somebody. I think there is a way that people are becoming a lot more comfortable in storytelling, and being honest about that. And I think that might be the thing that we’re all sharing in the way we’re reporting stories. That might be the thing we have in common.


‘Binge-Worthy Journalism: Backstage With the Creators of Serial’ will feature Julie Snyder and Sarah Koenig discussing their process and personal stories about creating the podcast at the Sunset Center in Carmel at 8 p.m. on Wednesday, March 9. Tickets are $59-$129, available at sunsetcenter.org. Serial’s website is serialpodcast.org.

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