Annapolis — Sarah Koenig was probably grilled about the case of Adnan Syed and her podcast “Serial” in her onstage conversation at Maryland Hall for the Creative Arts. But some of the most provocative questions from her trip to Annapolis came from people who had never heard “Serial,” “This American Life” or any podcast.
About 60 fourth through seventh-graders at St. Anne’s School of Annapolis got tips and advice from Koenig Friday on podcasting before her appearance at Maryland Hall that evening. Koenig was introduced to the students by fellow Columbia University attendee and St. Anne’s Head of School Lisa Nagel.
As Koenig began talking about what she does as a podcaster, a fourth-grade girl — likely a future White House pool reporter — seized the opportunity to raise her hand. Instead of answering Nagel’s question about what students think a documentary is, she asked Koenig about the most important part of her job.
“Telling the truth and being fair to people,” Koenig responded.
“Because often I’m writing about very difficult things … and you have to really respect the fact that if you make a mistake you can really hurt someone. So my mistakes can hurt someone. That’s the most important part of my job, respecting everybody I talk to and making sure I get it right.”
Another fourth-grade girl, Ila Mae Davies, wasn’t afraid to ask the question on her mind: “I’m not one of those 400 million people who do podcasts, so I’m wondering what it’s about.”
After Koenig explained the premise of each season of “Serial,” students wanted to know how she got started in podcasts and what led her to the show she’s famous for.
When she worked as a national reporter, Koenig said her fear of flying meant she spent long hours driving to assignments in different states. So she started listening to books on tape to get her through the rides.
“At a certain point I realized that’s what I want to make,” she told the students. “I want to make something that’s nonfiction but feels like a book on tape, that’s giving me that same feeling when I’m driving and I’m completely lost in a story.”
After working for “This American Life,” she told the students she decided to start her own podcast, “Serial,” as an experiment without the pressure of trying to sell it to radio programs.
“If it was really bad, no one would know because no one would listen to it,” she said.
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Students also wanted to know what Koenig learned from making the world’s most famous podcast.
“Over the last 10 years, I’ve realized I really am interested in the way we judge and punish each other as a society. Looking back, so many of my stories were about that and I didn’t know it at the time,” Koenig said.
She later added, “I sort of thought if I talk to a person enough I will figure out who they are and I’ll figure out their heart, and I’m not sure that’s true. I feel like I’m always trying to understand the limits of how well one person can understand another person.”
The students also got to do a little podcasting of their own, as Koenig showed them how to use her equipment and gave some interviewing tips. She showed them how to position the microphone, check the volume and make sure the equipment itself doesn’t interfere with the recording. She also taught them how to combat dead-end responses with follow-up questions.
Koenig told seventh-grader GG Garcia that even shy people like her can be reporters and use their equipment like a costume. GG also learned simple questions can get profound answers. When she asked classmate Hugh Coyle why he buzzed his blonde hair, Hugh told a story about how his cousin had bone cancer and Hugh shaves his head every year to raise money for cancer research.
When asked if she always wanted to be a podcaster when she grew up, Koenig told the students podcasts didn’t even exist when she was a child and she didn’t have a clue what she wanted to be even through college. But when she became a reporter, she knew she was meant to be a journalist.
“I get to be really nosy for no reason,” Koenig said. “I have an excuse to ask people really personal things and they tell you nine times out of 10. It’s really fun.”
This article has been updated to correctly identify GG Garcia.