After the original run of their acclaimed podcast Serial exceeded expectations, co-creators Sarah Koenig and Julie Snyder began looking for ways to exceed expectations once again with their highly anticipated second season. But this time, instead of focusing on a little known murder and seeking to answer a single central question, the new season explored issues of national security and its far-reaching consequences.
Koenig and Snyder provided a behind-the-scenes look at the development of the cultural phenomenon during the Binge-Worthy Journalism podcast program on April 20 at Symphony Hall. Following the record-breaking first season, Koenig and Snyder launched the second season of the popular podcast, which focuses on telling a story, a true one, over the course of the season.
The second season of the podcast differs significantly from the first season, an investigative report of the murder of Hae Min Lee in a Baltimore suburb in 1999. In Serial’s sophomore debut, Koenig and Snyder investigate the highly publicized and on-going military case regarding Bowe Bergdahl, a United States soldier who walked away from duty, was captured by the Taliban, and was held ransom for nearly five years. After years of negotiation with the United States government, the Taliban released Bergdahl in exchange for five Taliban prisoners from Guantanamo Bay. His decision to abandon his military post remains controversial, as six soldiers lost their lives in the search for Bowe Bergdahl, and many soldiers blame Bergdahl for their comrades’ deaths. Charged with desertion and misbehavior before the enemy, Bowe Bergdahl is currently awaiting his fate in the highest military court before the House Armed Services Committee.
Serial provides Bergdahl the opportunity to share his side of the story, or offer the American public some sort of explanation for his decision to abandon his military post. At the same time, Koenig and Snyder respectfully acknowledge those affected by Bergdahl’s attempt to reform the military system and thoroughly analyze military hierarchy, the protocol for negotiating peace talks, the United States’ history in rescuing other hostages, and the debate regarding Guantanamo Bay. Serial explores listeners’ personal definitions of loyalty, resilience, and justice. At the conclusion of each season of the series, listeners are invited to determine for themselves whether his decision proved heroic, foolish, or selfish.
In Serial, Koenig and Snyder created intimacy and empathy by refusing to run away from ambiguity or turn those involved in the case into caricatures. They successfully transformed a merely captivating story into something that was truly meaningful for over 200 million people. With a new season scheduled to air this fall, Koenig and Snyder hope to repeat that success, and enthrall even more listeners.
At the event, hosted by the Celebrity Series of Boston, Koenig and Snyder discussed the story behind the creation of the most popular podcast in the world, as well as the trajectory of news media.
Koenig and Snyder, who have worked together at This American Life for 12 years, initially planned to produce a podcast called This Week that, naturally, described all of the events—from Bin Laden’s death to Julie’s daughter’s first bicycle ride—occurring within that week. Met with little enthusiasm from their boss, Ira Glass, Koenig proposed a podcast in which she would report the same story each week.
The duo initially promoted Serial as an audiobook, but they decided to instead produce it as a podcast and to adopt a television model. Their self-described “creative aesthetic” is evident in the opening credits, “previously on Serial” introduction, and cliff-hangers. According to Snyder, the audience enjoyed the podcast and formed connections with the individuals involved in the case in the same way it would respond to a TV drama.
“As long as you stick to the truth, true reporting can be like art,” Koenig said.
Koenig and Snyder encountered tremendous obstacles in their investigation. For instance, the majority of the individuals involved in the case, such as the prosecuting attorneys, Adnan’s defense attorney, detectives, the person who discovered Hei’s body, and the key witness in the case either refused to participate in the story or could not be contacted. Surprisingly, Koenig describes the process of contacting the Taliban in the second season as “one of the easier things I’ve done in my career.”
The fan reactions and online attention undoubtedly posed their largest obstacle. Over 44,000 people subscribed to the Serial discussion board on Reddit, but many did not consider how their theories and conjectures affected the family of the subject, they said.
Despite their initial goal to reach 300,000 by the end of the first season, Serial became an instant success. In fact, they reached 300,000 listeners within the first five days of releasing the first episode. Over 200 million people have downloaded both seasons combined. Koenig and Snyder recorded and aired the last episode of season one within the same day.
Featured Image by Robert Torres