Friday, May 12, 2017

An Evening with the "Serial" creators

Sarah Koenig and Julie Snyder, the team behind a little podcast called "Serial" you might have heard of were at Strathmore for a talk about the making of the podcast.  Given the case that the first season focused on took place in Maryland it was fun to watch them talk about how Maryland's information laws gave them access to files they might not otherwise have been able to access since ultimately the police officers involved decided not to speak to Koenig.  
Koenig and Snyder had worked together for many years at "This American Life" and felt the culture of hey, if you like this thing, try it, see where it goes really created the special blend that people have come to expect from "This American Life" and now several other shows, given the number of former "This American Life" folks across the radio and podcast landscape now.  They had once worked together on an episode of "This American Life" called "The Week" where they focused on stories from the week leading up to the show, from the splashy big news, to the small.  They had enjoyed that so much they pitched to the team the idea of making a show that was just that.  They said the reception to this idea was not great.  No one said no, but no one said super cool idea, go for it either.  They were not deterred and kept talking about it and kicking it around, and Ira Glass talked to Koenig and said hey, if this is the thing that speaks to you, then you guys should go for it, but do you have any other ideas?  And Koenig said, well, the opposite would be fun too, like a longform, multi-episode look at a single story.  And, well, since the show is called "Serial", I think the direction they ultimately chose is clear.  
They touched on the amazing momentum the first season had, and how they ended up having to try to manage (as much as one can) the internet and the news media.  They had made specific journalistic choices about things to include and exclude, had made certain deals with people that agreed to speak with them on condition of some form of anonymity, and to leave out certain things that they simply didn't have enough verification to include.  Not everyone on the internet played by the same rules. 
An audience member asked about the comparative lack of success for the second season which he had enjoyed.  Koenig and Snyder said they felt that the second season had been less buzzy.  It wasn't a murder mystery, and so people seemed to spend less time discussing it in between episodes in visible places (think pieces, podcasts, etc) but that the numbers did not support that it was less successful, and they also found that there were a lot of places they went where people were so glad they had done that story.  In fact another audience member stood up and said that he had been in Afghanistan for USAID and when the show started, people he couldn't get to talk to him about the case, all of the sudden began discussing it.  So he was grateful that it gave them that conversational starting point.
Ultimately, they felt certain that they would continue to follow the stories that spoke to them and seemed suited to this format, and work that way, rather than worrying about audience reaction. They did acknowledge that this was not a leeway all journalists worked with.  
It was a lot of fun to listen to them, and hang out in a theater full of podcast nerds.  (And that one dude who raised his hand when they asked if anyone hadn't listened to "Serial" yet.)