The creators of the wildly successful podcast, Serial, come to the Merriam Theater to kick off their national tour about the show.
For 12 weeks last year, millions of people around the world did something that they had rarely if ever done before — download and listen to a podcast. They were all engrossed with a 15-year-old closed murder case from Baltimore.
And they didn’t just listen. They made Serial and its subjects part of the national conversation in a way that had never happened in the history of the medium. Listeners were on a first-name basis with Adnan, Hae and Jay; they GoogleEarthed Leakin Park, they shared their frustrations over the Nisha Call.
In short, Sarah Koenig and Julie Snyder, the creators of the podcast, found that much like their progenitors of the first generation of wireless — the radio pioneers behind The Shadow, Stella Dallas and other serials — they had tapped into the pop culture zeitgeist, their unique style of long-form journalism becoming must-listen content for more than 70 million downloaders at last check.
For those who have felt the void since the show’s first season ended in December, for anyone who just can’t wait until the second season begins in the fall, or for listeners who still have questions they need answered about what happened during the 14-month reporting and production process that tried to determine whether or not Adnan Syed killed his ex-girlfriend Hae-Min Lee, what Jay really had to do with the murder, the story behind the impromptu graveyard status of Leakin Park and what should really be made of the timing and exonerative potential of a phone call with Adnan’s friend Nisha, Koenig and Snyder will be discussing all things Serial Thursday night at the Merriam Theater.
“We were getting a ton of requests to talk about what had happened while it was going on and after it ended — ‘What did you guys make of this, why do you think it turned out the way it did.’ It seemed like a good way to answer those questions was to make a talk about it,” explains Koenig. “We didn’t have the space or clarity to understand it while it was going on, but now that a few months have passed since the end of the first season, we have some thoughts about what happened, why the show became so popular, what we did that we intended to do, what we did that we didn't intend to do — that’s why we’re doing this.”
The duo’s Merriam event is the first of their aptly titled “Bingeworthy Journalism” tour. When the premiere of Serial was announced, it was presented as a podcast analogue to the relatively recent phenomenon of “bingeworthy” dramas like House of Cards and Orange is the New Black on Netflix.
For Koenig and Snyder, who have worked together for 12 years on the popular NPR program, This American Life, even a fraction of the audience size of those shows would have constituted success for their program.
“There wasn’t a huge amount at stake if no one listened, because we were still doing this as part of This American Life, and we were still employed as This American Life staffers,” Snyder says. “A best-case scenario for us would have been in the realm of respectable podcast numbers — we figured if we could get about 300,000 downloads per episode, that would be really solid — you can get a modicum of self-sustainability” in that range.
And then some: Serial reached 300,000 downloads in five days, becoming the first podcast to ever hit 5 million downloads and setting records with every additional listener.
Amazingly, despite becoming water cooler and dining room fodder around the world and generating press in outlets ranging from Mother Jones to The Wall Street Journal, Koenig and Snyder were unaware of what they had wrought. As Snyder says, At that point, during production and release, “we still didn’t know — we were working a lot, so we just weren’t that focused" on the public reaction.
Snyder says she first realized the show’s impact when she found out it had gone meta. “I was told that Slate wanted to do a podcast about our podcast, and I just went, ‘I don’t understand what is going on. I think by the end, there were five or six podcasts about the show!”
Koenig says she exercised a willful ignorance about all of the coverage. “I listened to one of the Slate episodes, and it made me feel bad, so I didn’t listen to anything else” about the show after that. "I was reading stuff in the beginning, but I started to get freaked out by it, so I didn’t read as much.”
Koenig, who lives in State College, Pa., with her husband, Benjamin Schreier, an English professor and director of the Jewish studies program at Penn State, had what she calls “a very secular upbringing,” but lives a much more Jewish life now “because my husband is that kind of dude.” She worked for Jewish Family Service in Chicago after graduating from the University of Chicago in the early 1990s, helping to resettle Russian immigrants.
She does allow that she finds one of the many parodies of the show, “Cartwright: How People Obsess Over ‘Serial,’ ” to be funny. “It’s my favorite one because they’re not making fun of me, so I don’t have to feel sad,” she says. “It’s a Canadian group making fun of the people who listen — it’s like a podcast of the podcast about the podcast.”
Snyder is equivocal about the mini-industry of humorous riffs on the show, which have been primarily online, although there was a notable New Yorker cartoon and a "Saturday Night Live" digital short spoof as well. “There was a level on some of the parodies where the subject matter of the story didn't totally feel like the kind of thing where it was a laugh riot,” she explains, referencing the fact that Serial is about real people involved with a real murder. “I get it, I totally get it, but I’m not sure I’m the target audience. That said, I really liked the "Funny or Die" parody that they did right before our final episode. It was a lot of making fun of Sarah, stressing out about not having an ending. I thought it was really smart, but it hit really close to the bone in a lot of ways. I remember watching it with my hand over my mouth and thinking, oh, they have no idea.”
Bingeworthy Journalism: An Evening With Serial Creators Sarah Koenig and Julie Snyder
May 14 at 8 p.m. at the Merriam Theater
250 South Broad Street, Philadelphia