September 22, 2019

A glimpse behind the ‘Serial’ microphone: Interview with Sarah Koenig

Sarah Koenig, a veteran radio and print journalist, rocketed into the spotlight as host of the award-winning podcast “Serial,” a long-form nonfiction series that premiered in 2014. During the show’s first season, Koenig investigated a long-closed case involving a Baltimore high school student, Adnan Syed, convicted of murdering his girlfriend, Hae Min Lee, bringing to it her incisive reporting and personal analysis along the way.

Within weeks of its debut, “Serial” became the most downloaded podcast on the Web; it now counts upward of 80 million downloads, making Koenig, now 46, a national celebrity — named one of the world’s 100 most influential people by Time and placed on the Forward 50 list. The podcast also won the prestigious Peabody Award. 

“Suddenly, investigative journalism became our hobby, our passion. People were talking about it everywhere you went. It was a true cultural phenomenon, and radio was once again front and center in our daily lives,” actor Ewan McGregor wrote in Time. Now in its second season, “Serial” is exploring the story of Bowe Bergdahl, the American soldier who walked off his base in Afghanistan in 2009 and was captured by the Taliban and held prisoner for five years. 

I caught up with Koenig a few weeks ahead of her scheduled appearance March 5 at the Valley Performing Arts Center at Cal State Northridge

Danielle Berrin: Before you became a journalist, you helped resettle Russian Jews for Jewish Family Service. Your husband, Benjamin Schreier, is an associate professor of English and Jewish Studies at Penn State, and your late father was the “legendary” ad copywriter, Julian Koenig. How do you think your Jewish background informs your work?

Sarah Koenig: (laughs) I was not raised religiously at all. My parents are very secular. I mean, we did Passover once a year, and that was pretty much it, growing up. Now, [because of my husband] I’m more much more involved with the traditions of Judaism. We’re raising our kids as Jewish. But I didn’t have a Jewish education at all. So to me, the values I grew up with are just the values I grew up with — from my parents. 

DB: What have you learned about Judaism from your husband?

SK: What I’ve learned from my husband is — boy, there’s a lot to talk about! There’s a lot of arguing to be done over the questions of what it means to be Jewish.

DB: “Serial” has been praised for striking this divine balance between investigative reporting and really good storytelling. What makes someone good at those things?  

SK: The thing that sort of guides me, at least on the reporting side, is curiosity — just like wanting to know. It sounds super obvious, but I feel like there’s a lot of stuff out there [where] it doesn’t feel like the person telling the story really cares about it. More and more, I feel like I don’t understand things more than I do, and that can be scary. Because then I’m just, like, “Wait, what am I talking about? Do I even know what I’m doing?” But what it does is it forces me to just keep asking, and keep thinking about it, and keep reporting until I feel like I have a grasp on it. I’m actually driven in many ways by [the] fear of getting it wrong. Like that’s the thing that keeps me up at night — the fear of getting it wrong. 

DB: In your coverage of Adnan Syed’s recent hearings on his petition to re-open his case, I noticed you got so excited at the prospect of learning an answer. These highly complicated stories have so much uncertainty, so many different truths, recollections, even lies that you encounter. Do you believe there is some pure, objective truth? 

SK: For some stories, for some questions, clearly there’s an answer you can find. But other stuff, you realize it’s actually a matter of perspective; and it’s subtler, and the forces at play are much more human and mushy than maybe [you] thought. Because you want to think we live in this orderly world that has rules, and then you realize, like, every single system we operate under in our country is, you know, run by people. And it’s very tempting sometimes when you’re confused to just latch on to the explanation that makes the most sense to you; or that’s easiest to explain, even if it’s not right. And, like that’s the thing you have to resist — it would be so easy for me to just take this one person’s word for it and tell the story this way, but, oh my God, what if they’re wrong? 

DB: Where does your incredible gift for story come from?

SK: That’s really nice of you to say. I don’t feel like that’s true. I work with really, really talented people who are really good at that. [My producer] Julie Snyder is the storytelling force in a way, like she’s the puppet master. Not that I don’t bring anything to it, obviously, but she’s the one who will hear it and … she’ll restructure things. I guess the thing overall is, like, when I sit down to think about, “How am I gonna tell this to someone?” there’s always — and you probably do this when you’re writing, or telling a story to friends — you’ll be, like, “I can’t wait to get to this part because this part is gonna blow you away …” [But] if you think about the way [“Serial”] is structured, it’s pretty traditional storytelling. It’s pretty chronological. I don’t think of it differently than, like, “How would I tell this story to my friends?”

DB: Did you read a lot of books growing up? Watch a lot of movies?

SK: No. … I mean, yes. But not more than the average kid. … I wasn’t, like, you know — I feel like you’re looking for the inventor-in-the-cellar origin story, but …

DB: Yes. I want the origin story. Was it something about resettling Russian Jews?

SK: (laughs) No. I mean, I love language. I really, really love language. And I care a lot about it. But that’s more about the writing than the storytelling. I resist storytelling techniques, and I resist language that I think actually obscures meaning and covers up complexity. That annoys me. Writ large, I think what we’re trying to do is kind of lay bare the way things happen, really. And I think language is a big part of that — saying [things] in a way where you’re striving for clarity and elegance rather than cliché.

DB: I like that. “Clarity and elegance.”

SK: But that’s gonna make it sound like I’m saying I’m clear and elegant! That is our goal; we don’t always reach it.

DB: You mentioned earlier this idea of really caring about the stories you tell. But when you’re so deeply engaged, how do you decide when to be objective and when to color the story with your own deliberations?

SK: Honestly, the thing it does is make you more careful. Because you not only feel responsibility toward this person that you now have a relationship with, you’re also second-guessing yourself and your own bias. So you have to watch really carefully for your own bias [and] also watch really carefully that you’re not over-correcting and going too much in the other direction. … It’s a struggle. But it’s actually a good one; I think it’s actually good for journalism.

DB: I have to ask you my one, last, burning feminist question: We live in a very youth-obsessed culture, and we do not focus much on women’s lives after they reach a certain age. So I wonder what it means to you to achieve this level of success at this point in your life?

SK: (laughs) Honestly, I’m grateful it didn’t happen earlier, because I think it would have probably messed with me a lot more. And now I’m just more mature. So I know that, like, “This too shall pass,” you know? This is my 15 minutes. I guess I’m proud that what has brought us success is our work, and nothing else. I think it’s hard sometimes for women. Sometimes I think about actresses, like how Carrie Fisher got all that s— for how she looked in this new “Star Wars” movie? And I just felt like, I’m so glad that I don’t have to worry about anything like that. I’m some middle-aged lady now, and that’s fine. But I don’t know — this makes me uncomfortable, this line of questioning, honestly.