The old adage is that a reporter should never be the story, but Serial host Sarah Koenig doesn’t have that luxury. The first season of her podcast was a national phenomenon when it debuted in October 2014: It was the first podcast ever to reach 5 million downloads, and has since been downloaded over 80 million times. Because Koenig is both the co-creator and the voice of Serial, she's been pushed into the spotlight.
Her newfound fame has had its upsides, like the fact that she was listed in Time's "100 Most Influential People," parodied on Saturday Night Live, and had Stephen Colbert call her his "favorite guest of all time" (though it was kind of a joke). But it has had serious drawbacks as well. When the podcast first broke, the Internet lit up with blogs criticizing her reporting, with some going so far as accusing her of being attracted to the subject of the first season, Adnan Syed.
When we talked last month, Koenig made it clear that the fame was an unintended consequence, and one she could live without. What reporter wants to have stories speculating about what he or she could possibly be reporting on? Now, midway through the podcast's second season, she has bigger things on her mind -- like the demands of a show with a first season that refuses to end, as well as a brutal release schedule. At the time of our interview, Koenig was in between the release of two episodes on consecutive days, an unheard-of feat for a weekly podcast with a narrative. Thankfully she did have some time to answer a few of my questions.
KQED Arts: How does it feel to have the podcast, the flagship?
Sarah Koenig: I'm supposed to say it feels great, right? [Laughs] No, it's exciting. Before I started doing it, it wasn't a world I thought about at all. Now I'm recognizing that it's really cool what we do.
When you first envisioned the podcast, why did you choose that as a medium?
First of all, it wasn't my idea to make it a podcast; it was Julie Snyder's idea. She suggested it as a podcast and we were both like, "Yeah, that sounds great because no one will notice if it's bad." Honestly. We were like, "It's an experiment." It might not work. We just want to try it and it's not going to be a big debacle if it's bad. Who cares, we'll just try it.
That was very freeing. We felt like we could do whatever we wanted because it's a podcast. We wanted to make something we were really proud of; it's not like we lowered our standards. But we wouldn't have to sell it to radio stations, and so it felt so unconstrained in a really great way.
We thought if we could get, say, 300,000 listeners, then that's great. Those are great numbers.
Boy, did you surpass that.
[Laughs] We did, we did.
Are you receiving a lot of desperate pitches for you to cover people's stories, especially now that the podcast has led to a new hearing for Adnan Syed?
I think there's someone else on our staff that is fielding those, so I personally am not seeing if we are getting them right now. After we finished with Adnan's story, yes, there were lots and lots that came in.
Were you concerned at all with opening old wounds for people like Hae Min Lee's family when you started reporting on Syed's case?
Of course. I'm a person with feelings and I'm also a parent. We were mindful every single day that Hae Min Lee had a family and their pain is extraordinary.
But if there's something wrong with this case, our job as reporters is to check into it. If we had found nothing weird, if I had done a bunch of reporting and came away thinking, "I get it. It's all on the up-and-up. I understand every piece of this and how it went from A to B to C to conviction." That's not a story. We wouldn't have done it. [Laughs] It's not like I woke up one morning and said, "I'll poke into this" and went on the air the next week. We looked into it for a year before we began broadcasting. And we continued reporting throughout the podcast. We knew there were problems with the case.
Are you currently working an insane schedule?
Right now, yeah. In fact, we're still making the episode that will air tomorrow. [Laughs]
You just released one this morning!
I know, we're nuts.
How are you keeping up with this pace, then? Is it even sustainable?
No, not forever. But I don't have to sustain it forever. I just have to sustain it until the end of the podcast. But no, it is not a viable life choice.
It's not always like this. We're in the pressure cooker; we're in the hole right now. We have slightly more normal lives when we're not broadcasting. Right now we are making episodes in real time and yeah, it's not easy.
You've said in interviews that you wish the podcast didn't get so popular so quickly. Now, midway through the second season, how do you feel about your fame?
I'm used to it. When it was happening the first time around a little over a year ago, it was just so unexpected and confusing and fairly overwhelming. It was a lot more stressful thinking about what's happening and why it's happening and what's our responsibility to it -- do we need to respond to things or not?
This time around it's been, "Eh." I'm not watching it in that same way, and it feels like I'm just doing my work and I hope people like it.