‘Serial’ makers give Boston audience a peek behind the scenes

Printed from: https://newbostonpost.com/2016/04/21/serial-makers-give-boston-audience-a-peek-behind-the-scenes/

BOSTON – In a setting normally reserved for professional musicians in tuxedos, two public radio producers, clad in casual dress pants and button-down tops, took to the Symphony Hall stage Wednesday night to casually discuss “Serial,” a podcast phenomenon that took the media world by surprise.

National Public Radio’s Sarah Koenig and Julie Snyder discussed their creation and its ethical and entertainment aspects to an enthusiastic audience in Boston’s Back Bay. The periodic podcasts have been downloaded 200 million times by people in all but two countries worldwide. Their show was the fastest podcast ever to reach the 5 million download mark from Apple’s iTunes online store, doing it in just six weeks.

In its first season, the show investigated the case of Adnan Syed, a Baltimore man convicted of murdering his ex-girlfriend in 1999. It examined the question of whether he might be innocent. Their investigation led to a February hearing on whether to grant Syed a new trial.

This month, the second season of “Serial” concluded after looking into the case of Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, who faces desertion charges after he left his base in Afghanistan in 2009 and spent five years in Taliban custody. The radical Muslim militant group released him in 2014 in a prisoner exchange with the U.S.

In the podcast, Koenig and her team explored the reasons why Bergdahl walked away from his post and whether or not his actions stemmed from mental illness.

When developing the podcasts about Syed’s case, the producers discussed recording the first episodes in Koenig’s basement. They said they dug through 2,000 pages of state records to review evidence and portray their view of the case. They recalled working under the impression that they were under “no pressure; no one listens to podcasts.”


Reality-based crime shows, like “Making a Murderer” on the Netflix.com online video streaming service, have soared in popularity in recent months, creating cult followings. A handful of mock “Serial” podcasts have also been created, the producers said, and more than 50,000 users of the online forum Reddit subscribed to the “Serial” thread discussing alternative outcomes and potential perpetrators in the Syed case.

“It felt like we were losing control of our own story,” Koenig said to a full house in Symphony Hall, adding that the producers struggled with the moral implications of creating a story that spread questions among the Internet’s vast audience, leading some to dig up more information about the case and cast their own theories about it.

Some listeners had said that the entertaining style used in the podcast made them feel uncomfortable. Koenig suggested that some see it as a form of “escapist entertainment,” adding that some listeners aren’t “used to responding to journalism in that way.”

Snyder said that she thinks the end product turned out well – and that “truthful reporting can look a lot like art.”

In searching for subjects, Snyder said they look for material that will “reflect life like it really is.”  Reporting stories that reflect the realities of life takes a form of artistry, she added, while the narrative can move a story “from artistry to something that is meaningful.”

Before starting “Serial,” Koenig worked for more than 10 years as a producer of public radio’s “This American Life,” where Snyder had worked since 1997. Snyder remains senior producer of the radio show, which she runs with Ira Glass.

Contact Kara Bettis at [email protected] or on Twitter @karabettis.