Five years ago, the first episode of the podcast Serial came out. It quickly became a sensation, surprising even its creators with its success. Throughout the first season, millions of listeners were captivated by the questions that remained around a 1999 Baltimore murder.
In its most recent third season, Serial takes its audience behind-the-scenes in a Cleveland courthouse, showing us what everyday cases reveal about America's criminal justice system.
Guiding listeners through it all is Serial's host and co-creator, Sarah Koenig, who will appear at Wake Forest University Monday evening. She spoke with WFDD's Bethany Chafin ahead of the event.
On what first drew her to the world of audio:
The first radio stories I did were just freelance stories for This American Life. And I've never done any other kind of audio except for This American Life and was never interested in it at all as a medium. The way I found out about it is I was driving around on an assignment for my newspaper, which was the Concord Monitor at the time, which is in New Hampshire. And I was in the boondocks somewhere driving; I think it was a school tax story or something like very sort of dry beat reporting. And I was listening to the radio and ... this story was on. And I mean, it's going to sound all sorts of fawning and cliche or something, but it truly was unlike anything I'd ever heard before on the radio — the tone of it and the way that people were talking. It was a cool story, first of all. But also, I was really taken with like, "What is that?" And then I figured out what it was. And so I started pitching to them. That's how I got into it. And so it wasn't like, oh, I want to do audio. It was, "I want to do journalism that sounds like that."
On the origin story for Serial:
It was a thing that just sort of bubbled out that clearly I had been thinking about, but I hadn't really known I'd been thinking about, which was to do a serialized documentary over time. So instead of coming back to different stories every week, you come back to the same story week by week and you sort of tell it in chapters and you have the audience come along with you. And the reason I think that was in my head is because at the time I was listening to a lot of books on tape. I was doing a story that was based in North Carolina ... and so I was just driving a ton and listening to books on tape and loving it, you know, and just feeling like, "That's what I want to create ... a world in audio that sucks you in in the way that only a novel or a narrative can do." And, wouldn't it be cool if we can make something like that for radio?
On her first reaction to the success of Serial:
It's thrilling, right? But also, I think most genuinely, mostly I was just confused. I didn't understand it. It took me a lot longer than, frankly, it seemed like almost anyone else who was aware of it to understand what that meant, that it was entering pop culture. I did not understand that for a really, really long time, like much later than I should have. There just was nothing to compare it to in a certain way. So I didn't know what it meant.
On the transparency of Serial and revealing doubt while maintaining trust:
What allows me that "get away with it" of telling you when I'm having doubts, [is that] I'm assuming a certain level of trust that you've already formed with me as your narrator. And I don't take that level of trust for granted in any way. So the only way that I'm able to do that is by reporting the hell out of the thing that I am looking into so that I've done my homework. You know, you may not agree with me, but you will trust that I am coming to it honestly. Like I've looked as hard as I can to figure out the thing that I'm confused about. And I think that's what allows me to then kind of express my doubts, my misgivings, sometimes my opinions, if they're based on a lot of homework.
Editor's note: This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.