Producer Sarah Koenig on Baltimore-set 'Serial,' a global podcast hit
By By David Zurawik
The Baltimore Sun|
Nov 20, 2014 | 5:07 PM
Hae Min Lee, a Woodlawn High School senior, went missing in 1999. Her body was found nearly a month later. Adnan Syed, classmate and ex-boyfriend, was arrested and found guilty of her murder, though he claims he is innocent.
Sarah Koenig, a former Sun reporter, is host and executive producer of "Serial," a podcast from the producers of public radio's "This American Life." The weekly, non-fiction account of a Baltimore murder involving students at Woodlawn High School is the media hit of the fall. At the center of 'Serial' are Hae Min Lee, who went missing in 1999 and whose body was found a few weeks later in Leakin Park, and her former boyfriend Adnan Syed, who was convicted of murder, sentenced to life plus 30 years in prison.
It has been downloaded and streamed more than 5 million times, according to Apple. And that's only one way to access it. Beyond the U.S., "Serial" is at the top of the download charts in countries ranging from Germany to India. The Sun talked to Keonig today as a new episode became available to listeners.
So where are you in the "Serial" narrative? How many more episodes?
We're planning 12. We just released the ninth this morning, so we're thinking about three more. But we're always prepared to change our plans. Nothing is hard and fast. But we're planning for 12.
Can you talk about the voice of this piece? As a reporter, compare to traditional standards of mainstream journalism, you seem very self-reflective and transparent in your narration. And yet, even as you express doubts about what you know or don't know, I feel like it makes you more authoritative. I trust this voice.
I think it's too soon for me to evaluate that, because I'm still in the middle of it. You know, we're making episodes as we go. So, like, I just finished Episode 9 two days ago, and it aired this morning. We're very much in real time week to week producing it. So, I haven't done a lot of reflecting yet on how it all worked.
But I've been doing radio stories for "This American Life" for 10 years, and this doesn't feel different to me in terms of the voice of it, in terms of other things I've done for the radio show, really. I'm definitely more of a quote unquote character, I guess, than in the others. But it's not like I've never been a character in one of my own stories. So, it doesn't feel that new to me.
In terms of why you trust it, I know what I hope people are responding to. My hope is that I'm being as open minded as I can approaching this material. And if we're honest with ourselves – all of us, not just reporters , not to get too grandiose here – but we have to remind ourselves sometimes to be open minded. It takes a little work to stay there, and so if you're hearing me do that, that's because it's honest. I'm reminding myself, "Well, you can look at it this way, but you can look at it this other way as well."
So, it's a good reminder just to me to be able to be like, "My first impulse is to think about it this way, but just hold up, hold up. You don't always know what you think you know.'
And I'm hoping, too, that it's coming from that I have a general competence as a reporter. I've been a reporter for more than 20 years and this isn't my first time out. So, I'm hoping that's coming through as well: that you can trust that I'm competent and that I'll be honest with you.
I'm glad you're hearing it that way and trust me, but I'm sure there are other people out there who are not hearing that way and don't trust me as a narrator. I don't know, but you just sort of do what you can do.
What about the decision to go against the tidal wave of on-demand media and make people wait week to week for a new installment as they did in 19th-century England for Dickens? Was that a big debate?
It wasn't a big debate… Julie (executive producer Julie Snyder), Ira (editorial advisor Ira Glass) and Dana (producer Dana Chivvis) may have more to say about it. But to me it wasn't a big question… Honestly, it never occurred to me that people would be impatient.
Part of the challenge for Julie and me when we were thinking about what kind of show we wanted to do was not just a documentary over time, but almost a documentary in real time. We're not quite doing that with this story, but we would still like to do a story where it is in real time.Obviously, I've spent a year reporting his story, and I'm still doing it. I'm still actively reporting parts of it. But obviously the bulk of it is done now. But we were thinking, "Could we do one where I'm doing the interviews that week and coming to you with what I've learned that week?"
So, that was an initial thing, but we pretty quickly realized we can't do that with this thing. But we didn't also want to just have a canned thing. We wanted it to feel vital as it was going – vital in the way, not of being important but alive, vital in that way.
I came in 2000, and I think I left at the very end of 2003.
Had you been to Leakin Park, which plays such a powerful role in "Serial" as the place where the body of the teen victim is found?
I know I had been through it and know there was at least one crime I covered that involved Leakin Park – maybe a body. I knew about Leakin Park. I knew its reputation.
I love your description of it as a place "known for dead bodies." In your reporting on some of the dark humor and matter-of-fact acceptance among residents, I thought you captured a deep truth about crime, violence and life in Baltimore. Can you talk about that a bit?
If you go to probably any jury trial in Baltimore that involves violence, either an assault or murder, and watch the voir dire, to me that's when you get a sense of what it's like to live in Baltimore. When they say, "Has anybody here been a victim or crime or know somebody who's been a victim of a crime?" and you see how many hundreds of people stand up and get in line to talk to the judge. And then, there's what they say to the judge and how matter of fact and common it is, it's just like, "Holy, holy."
… There's so many people talking about it in just that matter-of-fact almost technical way, "Yeah, my brother was shot. Yeah, my aunt was raped." And you're just like, "Holy (expletive)."
Nine episodes in, three to go, have you figured it out? Have you determined guilt and innocence in the murder?
OK. Good ending for this piece. We'll leave it there.