Armchair Detectives And Podcasting's Prospects: A Conversation With 'Serial's' Sarah Koenig

Sep 9, 2016

Sarah Koenig of the hit podcast "Serial" and public radio program "This American Life" will visit Pittsburgh Sept. 13. Koenig will deliver the keynote at the official opening of Point Park University's Center for Media Innovation.
Credit Elise Bergerson / Press Photo

    

In June, a Baltimore judge vacated the conviction of Adnan Syed and ordered a new trial for the 35-year-old who's been incarcerated since being found guilty for the murder of his high school girlfriend 17 years ago.

If the case sounds familiar, you might be one of the millions who downloaded the first season of "This American Life’s" wildly successful spin-off podcast, "Serial." And if you never heard the show, chances are somebody you know did.

Sarah Koenig is the host and co-creator of "Serial," which wrapped up its second season last spring. She lives in State College, Pa. and will visit Pittsburgh this month to speak at the opening of Point Park University's new Center for Media Innovation--something she knows a thing or two about.

To preview that talk, 90.5 WESA’s Josh Raulerson recently spoke with Koenig about “Serial” and how she feels podcasts have changed the journalism game. Their conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

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JOSH RAULERSON: It's hard to imagine the case of Adnan Syed getting as much attention as it did absent the "Serial" podcast. Do you feel responsible at all for the fact that he's now getting a new trial?

SARAH KOENIG: I mean, I feel partly responsible. I think it got a lot more eyeballs on his case, obviously, and that led to new stuff and a ton more scrutiny.

RAULERSON: How does that sit with you? Does it make you a little uncomfortable as a journalist to have an impact on events that way?

KOENIG: You know, we did this story because I felt like something was wrong with this case. We wouldn't have done it otherwise. So, I feel like any time the criminal justice system takes a moment and says, "Wait. Can we just look at this again closely?" I feel like that's a really good thing. It's not so much like how this case will end or end up, but it's more just like, oh, the system is checking itself. And that's good.

RAULERSON: When you look back on that first season of the show, is there anything that you feel like maybe you got wrong or that you would do differently if you had it to do again?

KOENIG: Obviously, there are interviews I wish I had gotten that I didn't--not for lack of trying. We just didn't get them. But those are regrets--not in terms of, like, how hard we worked to get them, but just the people said no. It's always a bummer.

The thing that persuaded the judge this time to reverse [Syed's] conviction is this very technical thing having to do with the cell phone records. And that's something that I wish we had figured out. Because we knew about it, and my producer especially, Dana Chivvis, looked into it for like a year. She tried to get an answer--maybe not like a year, but like months and months and months--she was trying to get an answer to this very thing that ended up sort of flipping the case in the end.

So, that we didn't sort of pin that down--yeah, I wish we had.

RAULERSON: That's such a technical thing--and one of very many--that you could've spent time on. You spent time on a lot of other things, and that just turned out to be the decisive one.

KOENIG: Well, the thing is that we did spend time on it. It's just like--to get into why we didn't (spend more time) it just gets so boring and technical. But we sort of thought that we understood it enough, and we were like, "OK. I guess this makes sense. Not such a big deal." Then it turned out we were wrong; it really was a big deal.

RAULERSON: When you look at the online communities that sprang up around this show and people that just became totally absorbed in investigating it for themselves and trying to get to the bottom of it--did that take you at all by surprise? 

KOENIG: I was completely shocked and freaked out that people started to sort of armchair detective the thing. The part that's hard for me to hear about or watch is when it's done irresponsibly.

RAULERSON: So, you'll be in Pittsburgh to talk about media innovation, new ways of doing journalism. You guys deservedly get a lot of credit for making podcasting into what it is today. Where do you anticipate the industry going from here on out, and what do you think public media's role will be in that?

KOENIG: It's hard to know if it's going to be this sort of bubble where people invest a bunch of money in podcasting and don't make money off it, so they're going to back off again, or if it'll maintain and people will be like, "No, no. This is a thing we should invest in and do really well."

So, I don't know. I feel like what's happened now is that people can say "I have a podcast" and not be embarrassed.

I mean, look, a lot of public radio stations have podcasts now -- a bunch of them. So, they are a part of it, which is great.

I think there was this whole thing: Is it going to kill public radio? God, nobody wants that. I definitely don’t want that. So, I think it’s wonderful that so many radio stations are making podcasts now.