Podcast stars Sarah Koenig and Julie Snyder speak in St. Louis Park
By Gabby Landsverk, Sun sailor Newspapers
The now-iconic piano music echoes through the packed room, followed by the recorded message from the Baltimore Correctional Facility. At Beth El Synagogue in St. Louis Park, this may seem more than a little out of place. But then, a familiar voice can be heard; not through the speakers of a laptop, or through a set of headphones, but live and in person as host Sarah Koenig, of ‘Serial’ podcast fame, appears onstage along with co-producer Julie Snyder.
The two radio stars came to Beth El as part of the Synagogue’s Inspiring Minds series for a special behind-the-scenes discussion of their groundbreaking investigative story, told week by week, which revolutionized podcasting as a new form of modern storytelling.
Rabbi Avi Olitzky introduced the presenters, explaining that the May 10 date – between Passover and Shavu’ot – is significant, as it marks a “temporal valley between redemption and revelation,” mirroring the search for justice in the criminal justice system in cases of wrongful conviction.
“Our journey today is a path from redemption toward revelation,” Olitzky said. “If only our society could be guided on a similar path. Today, for many in the criminal justice system, redemption is unavailable.”
Olitzky explained that of more than two million people behind bars today, between as many as four percent, more than 20,000 people, are innocent, serving time for a crime they didn’t commit.
One of those cases may be that of Adnan Syed, the central focus of the Koenig and Snyder’s podcast.
The first season of ‘Serial’ is an in-depth investigation of the bizarre and troubling case of Syed, a Baltimore high school student convicted in 1999 for the murder of his ex-girlfriend and fellow student Hae Min Lee. Syed is currently serving life in prison for the crime. However, Koenig and Snyder’s research into the crime uncovered inconsistencies in the prosecutor’s argument concerning Syed’s whereabouts during the crime as well as some of the evidence presented. Over the course of 12 hour-long episodes, released weekly, Koenig and Snyder dig deep into Syed’s story, the murder, and the messy, complicated lives of everyone involved.
Spoiler alert: While they ultimately draw no conclusions about who actually committed the crime, or whether Syed is innocent or guilty, the process provides a compelling look at the criminal justice system and the intricacies of both the individuals involved and human nature as a whole.
Snyder said the pair – both working at the radio show “This American Life” – began creating the podcast in Koenig’s basement, as an experimental project.
“We thought, there’s no pressure — no one listens to podcasts,” she recalled. The goal for the finished product was 300,000 downloads, a respectable audience at the time. ‘Serial’ quickly broke records, becoming the first podcast to ever surpass five million downloads.
Clearly, the show was just as compelling to listeners as it was for its producers, who were immediately drawn into Syed’s story.
“I loved the world of it — high school and romance, immigrant families and police work. It was complicated,” Koenig said.
With Koenig reporting and Snyder editing, the pair put more than a year of work into the research for the show, speaking to dozens of sources and delving into stacks of case records.
The documents for the case, provided through the state’s law enforcement and freedom of information policies, included more than 2,000 unorganized pages of information.
“It was like asking for a sweater and having someone shove an angry ball of yarn at you,” Koenig said.
For the final product, the show condensed many hours of investigation into the final 12 hours of narrative; reporting continued throughout the episodes’ release to provide updates and additional insight.
“We wanted the show to feel like this vital thing, like we were experiencing this along with the listener,” Snyder said.
Today, listeners have downloaded the show more than 330 million times, including both season one and season two (which chronicles U.S. soldier Bowe Bergdahl, who was captured by the Taliban and held prisoner for five years after leaving his post).
For public radio producers, this kind of celebrity is unheard of, Snyder said.
“The word that best describes what it is to be here is ‘incredible,’ in the most literal sense of the word. We’re public radio performers, we’re not used to people paying attention to us,” Snyder said. “This forced the question of how did this happen, and why?”
Part of Serial’s success may be because of its hard-hitting, investigative story, presented in a conversational narrative tone that doesn’t hide the messy and complicated facts of the case — the podcast doesn’t wrap things up in a neat, tidy conclusion, Snyder said, which may be part of what makes it so appealing.
“Often, really honest reporting is a kind of art,” Snyder said. “We learned to always be looking for detailed moments that reflect life the way it is. We don’t run away from ambiguity and contradiction. We capture all the ways that it’s bizarre and funny and upsetting and sad. That’s the artistry. It creates an interest but also empathy, and empathy it what moves something from being merely interesting to being meaningful.”
Koenig added that with deeply personal stories, involved the lives and deaths of real people, it was important to be sensitive about the consequences of the story, recognizing its complicated impact as both entertainment and investigative work.
“It isn’t just about putting information out into the world, it’s about not putting it into the world,” Koenig said. “We were always wrestling with the value of information, asking ‘Is it necessary? Is it fair?’”
Throughout the episodes, Koenig as the podcast’s host and reporter mirrors the listeners’ ups and downs, the uncertainties and doubts as new information is uncovered, or previous details proven false.
“(Sarah) was very honest that she didn’t always know everything and that was important to us,” Snyder said. “It puts you in a really vulnerable position to admit uncertainty.”
As style of storytelling, she added that Serial’s success is precisely that it doesn’t follow a set ‘recipe’ or pattern, but wades directly into the dense, detailed complexity of its subject, rendering them for the viewer in all the messy, sometimes uncomfortable glory of real life.
“In Serial, we wanted to make a story that didn’t feel fake in any way, that doesn’t shy away from complexities and idiosyncrasies and make everyone as three-dimensional as possible, including me as a journalist,” Koenig said.
As a narrative choice, this clearly resonated with audiences, sending Serial to the top of the podcasting charts and forever changing the face of contemporary storytelling, elevating podcasting to an increasingly popular art form.
“We realized people were reacting to Serial in the same way they might react to a TV show,” Koenig said. “So you have people enjoying it the way they enjoy escapist entertainment, but it wasn’t — it was real, it was journalism, and people aren’t responding the way they’re using to responding to journalism.”
Their latest project, “S-Town,” is an equally unconventional story, hitting more than 10 million downloads in the first four days of its release.
“It wasn’t clear, even to us, where it was going to go. There’s not an obvious story to follow, and that was really exciting to us,” Snyder said.
Despite what current politics might have some believe, Snyder added that the momentum of S-Town’s success, and Serial’s continuity popularity, is a strong indication that the news media is still alive and well, although stories may be told in first-person narratives rather than pen and ink.
She confirmed Serial will soon release a third season, anticipated in mid-2017. Until then, however, she said inquisitive minds everywhere can take heart that in the era of fake news, there is still a place for people wiling to search for the truth and share what they find.
“This has allowed us to feel like we can be bold and experimental,” Snyder said. “We learned that people do have patience for journalism that takes its time, and that was very heartening for us.”
Contact Gabby Landsverk at [email protected]