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Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Serial’s Secret Sauce? Indulging in Ambiguity

Posted By on Wed, Mar 9, 2016 at 4:00 PM

click to enlarge JULIE SNYDER
  • Julie Snyder
Narrative, serialized journalism isn’t new, but in the past two years, it has gotten new life thanks in great part to Serial, an NPR show and podcast in its second season. Co-creators Sarah Koenig and Julie Snyder discussed their series’ success at Cal Performances on Sunday night, taking the audience behind the scenes and debunking a cultural phenomenon.

First broadcast in 2015 and begun in Koenig’s basement, Serial’s first season centered on the 1999 case of Adnan Syed, a then-teenager convicted of murdering his high school girlfriend Hae Min Lee, who maintains his innocence. Koenig and Snyder told Syed’s story over the course of 12 weeks, focusing on a different aspect of the case in each episode and often doing investigation in between shows. The show is detailed, full of tedious investigative journalism that would seemingly make only the geekiest researchers smile, and yet it's incredibly engaging.

[Spoilers below the fold!]

“I loved the world of it. I loved that it was high school kids, and it involved friendship and love and police work and immigrant families, and then it had this really strong central character,” Koenig told the audience at UC Berkeley’s Zellerbach Hall, adding that she had already been reporting on the Syed case for a year before starting Serial.

Even though Serial’s end brought no answers to a case with many holes, the series still “paid off.” The podcast had 300,000 listeners just five days after launch, reached 5 million downloads on iTunes within six weeks and both seasons — Season 2 follows U.S. soldier Bowe Bergdahl, who walked off his post in Afghanistan in 2009 and was held prisoner by the Taliban for nearly five years — now have 175 million downloads, with listeners in almost every country of the world.

Both Koenig and Snyder had worked for ultra-popular and prolific NPR program This American Life, but neither expected the community response to their new series.

“When people listened to it, the part of their brain that’s used to lighting up for TV shows was lighting up with Serial,” Snyder said. “They’re taking it in the same way as they’re taking in escapist entertainment, but it isn’t that. It’s journalism. So the audience is like, ‘What is this? It must be something new.’”

So what do Koenig and Snyder peg as Serial’s secret sauce? Beyond the captivating case, what was the “it” factor that kept you listening? The co-creators seemed to think it was openness and an uncanny ability to engage listeners in the process – which proved helpful when new information would come in during the show’s run.

“Dense information creates a storytelling problem. We need the listeners to basically be in those details and understand their significance with us. The genius solution was Sarah should just tell us what she thinks,” Snyder said. “There were also times where I thought it was important for Sarah to tell us what she didn’t think, or didn’t know. She was very honest about that, so we decided not to pretend otherwise.”

What would normally be a huge red flag in traditional journalism added a “living, breathing” quality to Serial that is unheard of in traditional investigative crime reporting. Reporters often develop relationships with their sources — to build trust and ensure a call back from someone who owes you nothing, Koenig noted — but acknowledging your personal opinions while remaining objective in reporting can be a tricky task.

To illustrate, Koenig played a clip of an interview with Deirdre Enright, the head of the Innocence Project Clinic at University of Virginia Law School. Enright tells Koenig, “You sound really down on Adnan today” and Koenig responds, “I go up and down. Sometimes I’m totally with him and we’re going to fix this thing, and other times I’m like I don’t know man.”

“I would sometimes see Sarah getting knocked for [her uncertainty]. I think it’s a really ballsy thing to do to be honest in your reporting,” Snyder said. “I think that artistry is OK in reporting as long as you’re sticking to the truth. I think that really truthful reporting can look like art.”

Snyder said Serial was heavily modeled on television — which is often told episodically, includes opening credits, a “previously on” and uses cliff hangers. Television shows like Breaking Bad are visceral and build a world, fleshing out characters that, on paper, could be one-dimensional.

“I think one of the main lessons we’ve taken away is…we should always be looking for the details and the moments in the stories that reflect life as it really is and not reduce people to caricatures,” Snyder said. “Not to run away from ambiguity and contradiction, but to reflect the world as it really is. This creates intimacy and empathy, takes a story from interesting to meaningful.”

Snyder and Koenig’s willingness to discuss their feelings of ambiguity in the show reflected the wider trend of conversation. Serial and Adnan Syed’s case sparked dozens of articles, investigations, Reddit posts and follow-up podcasts. It arguably helped spur the podcasting industry and brought many listeners back to radio.

“So often I think we’re told that we’re idiots, that we have short attention spans or everything has to be in 140 characters, and it’s not true,” Snyder said. “We do have patience for journalism that takes its time and that has been super, super heartening for us to learn.”


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Jessica Lipsky

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