Last Wednesday, Sarah Koenig, host of Serial, spoke to a packed house in the ’62 Center’s Adams Memorial Theatre. Serial, This American Life’s investigative journalism podcast reached record audiences with its first season last year, with pioneering audio-storytelling methods.
Director of Program in Teaching Susan Engel, who introduced Koenig, is friends with Koenig’s family and has known her since Koenig was a child. Engel, along with Professor of Comparative Literature Christopher Bolton and Professor of English Shawn Rosenheim arranged the lecture, with sponsorship from The Program in Teaching, The Comparative Literature Program, The Williams College Doc Lab and The Book Unbound.
Serial’s first season tackled the case of Adnan Syed, a Baltimore man in prison for the 1999 murder of his ex-girlfriend Hae Min Lee. In each of the 12 weekly episodes, Koenig revealed evidence, as she discovered it, to a rapt worldwide audience.
Koenig confessed, “The murder case of Adnan Syed is not an extraordinary case and the results of my reporting are not extraordinary.” Instead, she credited Serial’s success to its journalistic approach, where confusion and discomfort are part of the narrative and show’s innovative aesthetic.
Koenig expressed that her original idea was to approach Serial as a book-on-tape, but her producer Julie Snyder scrapped that approach, telling Koenig, “It’s going to feel like great TV.” Snyder decided that the show would mimic TV dramas with an iconic theme song, recap sequences and by pulling stories together into “episodes” and “seasons.”
While Snyder dreamed up the show’s aesthetic, Koenig focused on reporting in her signature, conversational storytelling style, recorded mostly in her basement.
Koenig admitted, “I was pausing recording while my kids were flushing the toilet.”
The podcast, which has been downloaded over 80,000,000 times since the first episode aired in October, blew away Koenig’s expectations. She explained that This American Life’s initial goal was to get 300,000 listeners, as most successful podcasts are at that level. This American Life’s titular radio program, for comparison, has 2,000,000 weekly listeners. Serial reached 300,000 listeners within five days of its launch, and has now been heard in every country on earth except for North Korea and Eritrea.
Koenig then gave the audience an in-depth tour of her creative process by diving into episode three, “Leakin Park.” Interviews drive much of Serial’s narrative, so “Leakin Park” is unusual in that it does not have a single interview. Instead, Koenig dug through the state’s evidence obtained from a Freedom of Information Act request, which Koenig said is “like asking for a sweater and getting an angry ball of yarn.”
To show the audience what digging through the evidence involved, she flipped through a gigantic PDF that included unlabeled, miscellaneous pages such as tire advertisements, unintelligible diagrams and evidence logs. Eventually, after exploring cryptic evidence logs, she showed how she landed upon the story of one of the crime’s key witnesses, the anonymous, “Mr. S.”
Finally, Koenig addressed one of the show’s most controversial themes: her journalistic relationship with Adnan Syed.
In recording the show Koenig recorded a total of 42 hours of phone calls with Syed on tape, and in that amount of time, their professional boundaries blurred. She played a clip for the audience of Syed flirting with her by admitting he’s getting gray hairs, and admitted that he occasionally charmed her.
“There were fissures of mistrust all over our conversations,” Koenig said.
Koenig also addressed criticism that she took advantage of the characters in her story. She admitted that after recording this season, she read The Journalist and the Murderer by Janet Malcolm, a true story about a journalist who takes advantage of his subject, and felt uneasy similarities with her own situation.
She emphasized that she did her due diligence in reporting the story and while, for the sake of the show, she did not include every boring aspect of her research, she said, “There was never a piece of evidence that I sat on.” When asked if she wrote each episode with a specific audience in mind, she said that she made sure she was accountable, first and foremost, to the family of Hae Min Lee.
“There’s no shortage of crime reporting, but that stuff makes people appear fake and fictionalized,” Koenig said. In Serial, her mission was to make all characters appear three-dimensional, including herself.