If, in recent weeks, you’ve walked up to a group at a party passionately debating whether Jay is telling the truth or overheard a headphone-wearing passenger on the train mutter something about a body in Leakin Park or interrupted a friend at her computer analyzing images of a 15-year-old cell phone call log, well, you’ve encountered “Serial” addiction.
Since it debuted earlier this month, “Serial,” the new podcast spinoff of “This American Life,” has consistently topped the iTunes charts, spawned dozens of discussion threads on Reddit and made a whole lot of people happier on Thursday mornings, which is when each weekly episode is released. The story, told one installment at a time, re-investigates the murder of Baltimore high school student Hae Min Lee, whose ex-boyfriend Adnan Syed was convicted of strangling her to death in 1999 and has been imprisoned since.
The true-crime outline may sound familiar; the storytelling is not. The plot and characters unfold from episode to episode, meandering through fascinating wrong turns and unresolved mysteries. Halfway through the season, with 6 of the planned 12 episodes released, even the program’s producers aren’t sure how the story will turn out. Storyboard talked with “Serial” host and executive producer Sarah Koenig and executive producer Julie Snyder about how you structure a story when you don’t know the ending, the challenges of explaining how cellphone towers work and lack of sleep.
An edited transcript follows:
Storyboard: Maybe it’s just the English major in me, but the first thing I thought of when I heard the title “Serial” was Dickens. Is that what you were thinking? Can you talk a little bit about how you came up with the model for telling the story and how it’s evolved as you’ve been producing the segments?
Sarah: Yes, I was thinking of Dickens. I’m sorry — I know my colleagues do not like it when I discuss this because we’re “doing something that’s new.” I’m an old-fashioned consumer. I’m actually a very catholic consumer of entertainment. I like high and low and books and TV. I like it all. I listen to a lot of books on tape, and the reason I do that is because I hate to fly so I drive to a lot of places that normal people would take airplanes to and so I take out books on tape and I love it. I love getting lost in some story for hours and hours.
It’s not like it came to me in a flash, “We should make a radio show like that!” It was more like well, what if we just did one story over time? I’ve probably formed this into a more conscious line of cause and effect than it probably is, but I think somewhere in my head is that idea of a book on tape. So, that’s how I think of it.
And how has that model changed as you’ve been actually making it happen?
Sarah: I think our ignorance probably allowed us to go ahead and try it. If we had known the difficulties, we might have thought twice. I think it’s good and bad. I’m assuming Dickens knew what his story was as he was going. We really are reporting it as we go.
Julie and I have probably made two or three structures for the whole season, where we plotted out episodes one through twelve, for example. And we have ripped apart or erased each one within a few days of making it, or a week of making it, each time as we’ve just realized, “Wait, this story’s making this turn now; we can’t do what we thought we were going to do.” And that’s scary but it’s also kind of wonderful in that the format allows us to be so flexible and so responsive to new information as we’re getting it. We created this structure but it’s helping us and hurting us.
So you mapped out several structures in advance for how you thought the story might unfold?
Sarah: Yeah. So with each one, we’ve always known we don’t know exactly how it’s going to end, but assuming it’s going to go the way we think it’s going to go, here’s what we’ll do. And then, when we realize maybe it’s not going the way we think it’s going to go, let’s take it apart and start again. Or even just simpler things where [we are] figuring out what the audience needs to know to be with us along the way, so that when we figure stuff out, we all have the same base of knowledge. So, some of it is as simple as that. Then we’re still reporting it and so our assumptions about what things mean, or things that we kind of decided were one way five months ago — this is happening a lot where we’re going back to the same notes, the same police reports, the same whatever– and being like, “Oh, I never noticed this thing before because now I know all this.” You know what I mean? So, things are changing.
Were there any models or inspirations you had in mind for telling a story this way?
Julie: Yeah, definitely. In some ways, it’s a very traditional story in that we’re pretty solidly in the realm of a true-crime story, which is not breaking any new ground. I feel like the difference of what we’re trying to do compared to a lot of stuff you see, especially on TV, would be to try and tell a story, to talk about the case in a way where you understand that everybody is a real person and that it happened to real people and not play it for exploitation.
But other than that, I think we recognize in that way, we’re not breaking new ground. It’s a genre that is pretty tried-and-true. In terms of breaking it out into serialized installments, so that things are moving forward and changing as the story goes on, we’ve talked about this before, that there was a documentary called “The Staircase” that was on the Sundance channel. And I think that was seven parts, maybe eight parts. It followed a murder trial in North Carolina and it was very similar in a way that we felt about going through this process where a lot of times, like Sarah just was explaining, you see things differently based on the information that you have at the time.
As you get more information, all of a sudden that information gets colored. And so, I would imagine that is exactly the experience that a lot of, certainly reporters but maybe even investigators and homicide detectives and those kind of people who do this for a living, have as well. We really felt that realization of things changing as you find out more. So that was what we were looking at as a model.
What really appealed to us about the serialized format when Sarah first proposed it was that you could also do stories as they’re unfolding. So you could even do stories in real time. I’m so tired right now and I think Sarah’s so tired right now that the idea of that seems horrible, but it would be really cool. That would be really, really cool.
One of the most striking consequences about choosing to tell a story in a serial format is that you have all these people who are now investigating it and analyzing it and commenting about it right alongside you. There are discussion boards on Reddit, for example, and Rabia Chaudry, the woman who brought you the story idea, is blogging about it. Did you anticipate that might happen? How do you feel about it?
Sarah: I didn’t know so many people were going to listen. I really, really didn’t. I’m thrilled and it’s exciting, but I didn’t know so many people were going to give a shit, you know what I mean? And so, I didn’t see that coming, no.
I’m not on Facebook, I’m not on Twitter. I’m not someone who pays the attention necessarily to that sort of Internet activity. So I just didn’t even know. I’ve been really surprised and I think it’s great. People are engaged, right? But I also fear it, too. It’s very easy to start throwing around accusations and information or stuff you think you know, or whatever, and to just forget, like Julie’s saying, that these are real people. These are real people with families and lives, who have trusted me with their information or with their anonymity, and so it makes it nervous. It makes me really nervous.
Do either of you follow any of it? Are you looking at it at all?
Julie: Honestly, we’re so busy and working so much, so mainly only in the way of just trying to make sure that there isn’t horrible misinformation that’s being accepted as true.
And has it impacted the storytelling?
Sarah: I don’t think so. I’m not reading it for the most part. One of our colleagues is scanning it for two things. One is if there’s somebody who really knows something, can you let us know? And then also if there’s anything really horrible on there, we want to know about it and just make sure nothing too terrible is happening. But other than that, I’m not reading it. We don’t have time. So no, I don’t think it’s affected the story. It’s reinforced to me how careful we need to be. We were being careful anyway, but it definitely is a reminder–people are really listening closely. Julie, do you think it’s changed the story at all?
Julie: I don’t think it’s changed the story. I think the main question I had for a long time is, “Are you confused?” Because there’s a lot of information. Last week’s episode — even my husband was brought to his knees a little. Even he was like, “I’m not sure I totally got everything… It’s dense.” That’s more my concern when I’m looking at the Facebook page and looking at posts. I think what I’m trying to gauge is, “Did we just try all of your patience and you’re just like ‘Okay, I was interested, but I wasn’t that interested that I wanted you to spend 45 minutes talking about cellphone towers in Baltimore County.'”
One of things that’s so interesting about “Serial” is that you’re not cleaning up the narrative as reporters often do. It’s really messy. We go down all the wrong turns with you. Can you talk a little bit about why you’re doing that?
Sarah: To me, that’s the pleasure of figuring this out. I think our rule of thumb is if it’s interesting to us, we’re going to assume it’s interesting to you. And as long as we’re responsible, not throwing stuff out there that’s totally half-cocked, and as long as we can corroborate what we’re doing, I think that’s kind of the fun of it.
In the midst of this dark, violent story, there are these surprising moments of levity. Can you talk a little about why you’ve included those and what purpose they serve in the storytelling?
Sarah: Oh my God, now you’re making me feel like it’s wrong to make jokes while we’re talking about a murder. Is that—is it wrong? Oh no, am I a bad person?
No, I think it’s effective storytelling.
Sarah: It’s not new to the story. For me, it just feels very normal, the way that I’m writing it and I think I like to have fun where I can.
Julie: Last week’s episode was so dense. But it was also a little unrelenting, so it’s nice to have a moment that just feels like a little bit of some breathing room and a break. So, yeah, take it where you can get it.
Sarah: But it’s not like we’re sitting around saying, “Insert joke here.” You know what I mean? We all have a pretty similar sense of humor, I think on the show. Julie and Dana [producer Dana Chivvis] and I think the same things are funny. When I heard there’s a shrimp sale at the Crab Crib, it just cracked me up, so let’s use it. If we can get away with it. Believe me, we’ve put in a lot of other goofy stuff that we’ve taken out before anyone else hears it.
The two main characters, Adnan and Hae, they’re still a little elusive. I’m waiting for that moment where we really get face-to-face with Adnan, whether it’s literally or metaphorically. Is that going to happen? And how are you thinking about the characters as you develop them over the course of the narrative?
Julie: Sarah’s going to be so happy that you just said that. We have to do all this work of laying out the details so that we can talk about the case on the air and in the story in the same way we talk about it amongst ourselves, with that level of familiarity. And so it takes all this time of explaining this and explaining that and talking about this and talking about that.
At the same time, Sarah has had so many conversations and interviews and experiences with Adnan and with a lot of the other people involved in the case and that she’s talked to over the year, and moments that aren’t necessarily related to — thumbs up, thumbs down, did he do it or did he not? That is the struggle, and I think it is one that we’ve had, right Sarah? Of trying to figure out when can we just settle in? When can I talk about this other stuff that isn’t directly related to having to vote on what you believe. When can we do that?
I do hope that we’re entering into that soon. I feel like we’re getting there now because now we’re at the point where you know everything that Sarah pretty much knew pretty soon on with an intensive amount of reading and some understanding. So then we can get into the kind of conversations and the interviews and the moments that are a little less…
Julie: Technical, exactly. Yeah. I’m glad that you said that’s what you’re waiting for because, honestly, I’m not sure everyone feels the way that you feel. I can’t quite tell. Is there more of a “Just tell me who did it” kind of thing? Like, “All I want to hear is evidence. I don’t really want to hear anything more narrative than that.” I don’t know. But we want to. But it has been a little bit of a struggle figuring out when we can do this.
Sarah: The popularity of this podcast, I was unprepared for. I think a lot of that is the fact that it’s a crime. It’s a murder case. I had not banked on that’s what people are responding to. It’s not our great idea and our wonderful storytelling; it’s just that people can’t resist a murder mystery. I really did not appreciate that until now. I’m afraid there probably is some of that out there, where it’s just a caper. And that’s fine. I think that’s not our interest, though. That’s not our intention. I think our intention is more complicated and probably more subtle, and maybe too subtle.
It’s funny because I keep thinking for all these people who are like, “Does she know the ending? What’s the ending? How’s it going to end?” To me, when I’m watching “House of Cards” or “Downton Abbey,” or whatever it is, I don’t want to know the ending. To me, the pleasure is in the story, right? So I’m always a little bit like, “Wait, don’t you guys just want to stick with me? Why are you trying to get ahead of the story? Isn’t the pleasure in having it lay out? To me, that’s what I like. So I don’t relate, honestly, so much. I really don’t. I’m sad when it gets to the end of those series. I just want it to keep going.
Do you feel now that you know which of the paths the story is going to take?
Sarah: I don’t think so. Julie? I don’t.
Julie: You know what? I’m not going to be a sucker anymore. I’m not talking about in interviews, more in my own life. I have been it so many times, being all like, “I am 98 percent sure,” and then literally turned back around and said it the other way. I’ve really made an ass of myself in front of Sarah and in front of my colleagues here one too many times in the last nine months. I think I’ve learned my lesson. I’m not making any definitive statements. I just can’t.
If you were starting afresh today with this concept and this particular story, is there anything you would do differently based on what you’ve experienced so far?
Sarah: Yes. Have more than two episodes done by the time you launch. That would be my number one change.
Julie: Yeah. That’s huge. Also, to be totally honest, the “Let’s figure it out ourselves” kind of thing really stresses me out, so I might be a little more wary on that front as well.
Sarah: We’re all a little fried. Julie and I haven’t seen our kids properly in about six weeks. All our home lives are crumbling. I don’t think we would put ourselves in the path of this much stress again, in the same way.
Julie: It’s so nice to be able to take on experiments and challenges and to tell things in new ways and work on new projects. It’s really invigorating, and I think I have learned so much both as an editor but also about what it means to come up with kind of a new concept and positioning that. In so many ways, it’s been incredibly fulfilling.
Sarah: I know, as soon as you started saying that I was like, “Oh right, I’m whining.” That’s ridiculous. We are so goddamn lucky. We are so lucky that we have the freedom to do what we’re doing. It’s crazy, it’s crazy. But we are very tired.