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Monday, September 27, 2021

Backstage with the creators of Serial

Julie Snyder, the executive producer of Serial (left), and Sarah Koenig, the host and executive produce (right). (ARIEL ROBBINS / AGGIE)
Julie Snyder, the executive producer of Serial (left), and Sarah Koenig, the host and executive producer (right). (ARIEL ROBBINS / AGGIE)

Co-producers of popular podcast give talk in a packed Mondavi Center

During Monday’s “Backstage with the Creators of Serial” event, co-producer Julie Snyder talked about how difficult it can be for journalists to own up to the fact that they don’t know everything about a story and probably never will.

“It puts you in a vulnerable position to admit uncertainty,” Snyder said.

So, in the spirit of Julie Snyder, I’d like to admit that I haven’t listened to every episode of Serial, haven’t gone back and listened to Season One since I first listened over a year ago and haven’t kept up with Season Two’s exploration of the Bowe Bergdahl case. But none of that stopped me from thoroughly enjoying my evening at the Robert and Margrit Mondavi Center for the Performing Arts.

For those who have never heard of Serial or for those who are confused as to how two public radio producers managed to sell out the Mondavi Center on a Monday night, here’s a quick rundown. The podcast originally began as a spin-off of “This American Life,” the long-running radio program hosted by Ira Glass. While “This American Life” consists of hour-long podcasts focusing on a new theme every week, Serial is, as the name suggests, a serialized podcast that tells one story over the course of several weeks. Launched in October 2014, the podcast quickly exploded in popularity and became the fastest podcast to reach five million downloads in iTunes history. As of February 2016, Serial had been downloaded over 80 million times.

And after watching Julie Snyder and co-producer and host Sarah Koenig take us backstage and show us some of the less glamorous aspects of podcast production, it’s easy to understand why Serial exploded the way it did. Snyder and Koenig are clearly committed to telling stories in a complex and nuanced way. They understand that the most compelling stories are the ones that lie in the details, the stories where the truth is much less black and white than it appears to be.

Koenig and Snyder are also experienced and dedicated journalists. In Season One, the team told the story of Adnan Syed, who had been found guilty of murdering his ex-girlfriend, Hae Min Lee, and sentenced to life in prison. As part of her job, Koenig had to conduct an immense amount of research on the case. Koenig told an anecdote about her experience sorting through a 2,000-page government document that included everything from diagrams of tires to an obscure drawing of how cell phone towers work.

“It was like asking for a sweater and getting an angry ball of yarn,” Koenig said, to much laughter.

Snyder and Koenig were refreshingly funny and transparent throughout the talk, letting the audience in on behind-the-scenes moments like the time they accidentally posted “Adnan did it” from the official Serial Facebook account or the time Adnan called Koenig from jail to tell her he’d just eaten an entire box of Krispy Kreme donuts.

After the presentation, audience members were allowed to ask questions directly to Snyder and Koenig. While a question about Islamophobia and the presence of Islam in both seasons seemed to throw the creators off (“Islamophobia is bad,” Koenig said), the pair fielded the questions with humor, grace and humility. There was the inevitable question about whether Koenig thinks Adnan Syed had really killed Hae (she understandably didn’t give a yes or no answer), as well as a question about what Season Three would focus on.

The Speakers Series for the 2016 to 2017 season at the Mondavi Center will be announced in April. Here’s to hoping that they’re just as fun and entertaining as Julie Snyder and Sarah Koenig were.

 

WRITTEN BY: Amanda Ong – arts@theaggie.org

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