“This is a Global Tell Link prepaid call from Adnan Syed, an inmate at Maryland correctional facility … ”
These words spoken by a man convicted of murder have triggered a macabre excitement in millions of listeners since 2014 as the opening to the Serial podcast, broadcasted by Chicago NPR affiliate WBEZ.
Co-creators and producers Julie Snyder and Sarah Koenig spoke about the secrets to their podcast’s success — as well as its’ controversies — on March 4 at the University of Southern California (USC) Visions and Voices event, “Binge-Worthy Journalism: Backstage with the Creators of Serial.” The lively, packed auditorium at USC demonstrated the payoff of Koenig and Snyder’s intense dedication and ingenuity.
Serial investigates the conviction of Adnan Syed for the 1999 murder of his former girlfriend Hae Min Lee. Though Syed sentenced to life in prison, he maintains his innocence to this day.
In the podcast, Koenig narrates their investigation into the 1999 murder of a high school girl named Hae Min Lee in Baltimore County, Maryland. After speaking to people with possibly new information and analyzing thousands of documents, trial testimonies, police interrogations and interviewing anyone, Koenig uncovered confounding inconsistencies in both sides of the story presented in trail. Spoiler alert: Serial ends in an unresolved cliffhanger.
The podcast’s creators recounted Serial’s journey in a comical fashion at the USC event — an approach different from that of their podcast yet effective in winning over the audience. The charismatic speakers cracked jokes from the get-go, inducing frequent eruptions of laughter from the sold-out auditorium.
“We would have to pause the recording when Sarah’s kids flushed the toilet upstairs,” Snyder said, as she explained how they initially produced Serial in Koenig’s basement.
According to Koenig, Serial was a spontaneous endeavor born out of desperation to replace an earlier pitch that underwhelmed their boss at WBEZ, Ira Glass. Since podcasts as a medium normally foster nonexistent fan bases, Koenig and Snyder felt no pressure in the initial production phases of Serial.
The project began with a shaky start. The producers projected pictures on stage of unenthused coworkers at their initial pitch meeting and emails showing a complete rewrite of the “boring” introduction of the pilot episode.
After Snyder and Koenig ironed out the preliminary kinks and released the first episode, they were shocked by how quickly it took off. It was the fastest podcast ever to reach 5 million downloads on iTunes and inspired a handful of spin-off podcasts as well as parodies on comedy shows such as Saturday Night Live.
Snyder believes the podcast’s popularity is due to both its unique artistic reporting style, which mimics a television drama, and Koenig’s raw reporting. The producers decided to include Koenig’s personal thoughts, doubts and speculations about the case in order to bring a valuable dimension of reality into the story.
“It’s important to be ballsy in your reporting and not pretend to always know everything,” Koenig said. “Rather than hiding the messiness under a clean narrative, the messiness became part of the narrative.”
Apart from the gruesome murder, the messiest part of Serial was Koenig’s objective journalism which came into question as she struggled to remain professional with Syed. Koenig said that she never planned to get as involved in the story as she was, and that she still struggles to classify her relationship with Syed. Over the course of their 42 hours of phone calls, Syed and Koenig slowly began to form a more personal relationship.
“It feels fake to pretend it was all business,” Koenig said.
She admitted to cringing when listening to parts of the phone calls in which her professionalism falters — such as when she sensed that Syed was flirting with her and did not call him out on it. Koenig explained that she and Syed both had a motive to stay friendly with one another; Koenig kept her fingers crossed that Syed would continue to accept her calls from prison, and Syed yearned for Koenig to portray him as innocent. For their own reasons, Koenig said that they both used their relationship as leverage.
“Of course his charm is calculated,” Koenig said. “But I think that all charm is calculated.”
Koenig forgives herself for testing the ethical confines of journalism because she maintained honesty with her subjects and her listeners throughout the investigation.
However, some fans and critics question the journalistic ethics of Koenig’s personal involvement in the case and the producers’ method of sculpting a nonfiction story into an artistic rendition that prioritizes entertainment.
“We were always weighing the value of disclosing something that could be damaging to someone,” Koenig said.
Serial fans took the entertainment news and networking forum Reddit by storm, according to Koenig and Snyder. Reddit users speculated about the case, going as far as to reveal personal information such as police reports about people they believed to be involved.
“We felt like we totally lost control of our own story,” Koenig said.
Synder personally called Reddit’s administrators to ask that they remove incriminating posts and continually monitor the site. But Synder’s request was made in vain. She suspects that the problem became too expansive for Reddit to attempt to contain.
Serial’s digital media team nearly made matters worse. In an attempt to filter out speculative posts from their official Facebook page. Logged in as the Serial page administrator, a Serial employee typed the post “Adnan did it” to test out if their filter worked.
Looking back on the ordeal with a sorry laugh, the producers played a clip from an interview with the employee in which he said his heart dropped when the filter failed and the post appeared on the page. Even though the employee immediately deleted the post, Reddit exploded with user comments. Luckily, speculation that the post was photoshopped quelled the hubbub.
Despite the controversies, Serial maintained an impressive fan base though season one. Its open-ended finale both disappointed and intrigued listeners. According to Koenig, it continues to have a life of its own now that the court case has recently been reopened in light of new evidence and an appeal by Syed.
Season two takes on an entirely different angle, it follows the story of American soldier, Bowe Bergdahl, held captive by the Taliban for five years and then arrested. According to Snyder and Koenig, each episode is a product of spontaneous inspiration and little planning. In fact, they worked on upcoming episodes on their trip to USC. Koenig said they are open to investigating almost any type of case in the future—except one about tax fraud. That, she jokes, would be too boring.
Serial’s wide-ranging and obsessive following shows that, while media consumers of our generation are content with gossiping about the Kardashians and cheering for their favorite UFC fighter on TV, we still value real-life, high quality entertainment.