‘Serial’ creators speak at Zellerbach Hall

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Elise Bergerson/Courtesy

Dare it be said: Sarah Koenig and Julie Snyder may just be the modern Woodward and Bernstein. They’ve re-kindled the popular romance with journalism, and everyone is talking about it. Instead of taking down a presidency, their investigations range from a high school murder trial to the war in Afghanistan. And rather than working in paper and ink, they’ve got a podcast.

It all began in a basement, where they muffled recording noises with pillows and had to pause whenever a kid upstairs flushed the toilet. One and a half years and 175 million downloads later, Koenig and Snyder are responsible for an international pop culture sensation that thrust them into stardom status.

Koenig and Snyder are the creators and producers of “Serial,” a spinoff from National Public Radio’s “This American Life.” On Mar. 6, Cal Performances hosted Koenig and Snyder for their sold-out show at Zellerbach Hall, titled “Binge-Worthy Journalism: Backstage with the Creators of Serial.” The two women are currently touring the country discussing what exactly just happened to them.

“Narrative journalism is not new, and the serialized style is as old as Charles Dickens,” said Snyder, a UC Santa Cruz graduate, at the presentation. “So what happened here?”

According to Snyder, “Serial” “lights people’s brains up” in a way similar to a TV drama but is even more compelling because it’s all true. Furthermore, the serialized format allows for factors of suspense and narrative development to make the show addicting.

Each season of “Serial” investigates a true story with ambiguous conclusions. Episodes unfold week by week as Koenig, the show’s narrator, uncovers more information and considers various possibilities as to what may have really happened. The first season explores a Baltimore murder trial from 1999, which charged the murder of high school student Hae Min Lee on her ex-boyfriend Adnan Syed. Syed, who is currently serving life sentence plus 30 years, has consistently pled innocent. The 12 hour-long episodes weigh the conviction based on immense amounts of research, as well as 42 hours of recorded phone interviews between Koenig and Syed.

Season two, which was barely discussed during the event, delves into the high-profile case of Sgt. Bowe Berghdal, who in 2009 abandoned his base in Afghanistan and was captured and held hostage by the Taliban.

In their presentation, Koenig and Snyder pulled back the curtain of audio reporting and provided an inside view on the show’s invention, production and public response.

Koenig, 46, is a true wizard, her brilliance matched by a searing wit and onstage magnetism. The audience cheered and roared with laughter as she delivered every expectation of charm exuded in her audio persona. The two bounced off each other like a comedy duo with jabs of hyper-aware self-deprecation.

Koenig also examined her own role and characterization as the narrator and investigative reporter of “Serial.” One of the most fascinating moments was when she “close read” part of a phone interview between her and Syed, who was calling from prison. She played short clips of the recording and then took it apart how, displaying how both she and Syed were, with those few shared words, playing each other. Both used  rhetorical emotional appeals to family, health, pressure, etc.

The pop culture phenomenon surrounding “Serial” is at best multifaceted; At worst, some say it is controversial. They spoke about aesthetics in media and discussed the ethics of turning a tragic murder into a piece of entertainment to be consumed like television. (Their short answer? It’s OK.)

Furthermore, they addressed the uncommon issue of needing to suppress audience engagement — fans in the Reddit thread began unearthing personal information of Season one “characters” who had their identities semi-protected. Conspiracy theories abounded; The who-dun-it claims spun out of control.

Koenig discussed other epistemological concerns, such as why they withheld information for the sake of a source’s privacy.  Additionally, she stressed how important it was for her to be honest in her uncertainty. Koenig’s refreshing and unapologetic ability to voice when she doesn’t know something has been widely appreciated.

Details of innocence or guilt aside, Koenig said she hoped that investigating Syed’s case would illuminate the holes and flaws that have been, and continue to be, blindly accepted in the American criminal justice system.

“That’s my job, to shine the light on shit that’s not working in this country,” Koenig said, to which she received — as she did throughout the night — a wave of thunderous applause.

Contact Sarah Goldwasser at [email protected].

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