It’s a poorly kept secret that behind the media’s most influential innovators are almost-hidden partners — whose contributions are just as important as those who receive all the attention. For example, behind Walt Disney was Ubbe Iwerks; assisting Steve Jobs in realizing his vision at Apple was Jonathan Ive; and helping Sarah Koenig revolutionize podcasting with Serial is her producer Julie Snyder.
When we spoke with Koenig earlier this year, she was clear to credit Snyder with having the idea to make Serial a podcast. In other interviews, Snyder admitted to being the one who first learned about Adnan Syed, who was convicted of killing his ex-girlfriend in 1999 and whose story became the focus of the first season of Serial, the most popular podcast in the medium’s history.
Talking with Snyder, it’s obvious why she is so important to the podcast. While Koenig makes the decision to create a podcast sound like one guided by the fear of failure — she told us that she liked the idea “because no one will notice if it’s bad” — Snyder saw the potential for the medium in terms of experimenting with longform storytelling. And now that she’s accomplished so much with the podcast, having won a Peabody on top of creating such a popular show, we decided to call her up to chat about it.
Sarah credits you with the idea of starting a podcast. What made you want to work in the medium?
First of all, it seemed possible that you could actually get a fair amount of listeners. There was a period of time where the technology was there and people were podcasting, but it was really hard to access podcasts and not that many people were listening to them. But by the time we were starting, it seemed like there was a big enough audience for us in “Podcast Land.”
But the main thing that I thought really made it easy was that for a show on public radio, there’s a logistical process. First you have to have a distributor who provides it to public radio stations. Then there is the fact that you need to fit into broadcast schedules, and you need to be weekly — consistently weekly — for a whole year. Those kinds of restrictions on broadcasts meant for us — there was only me and Sarah — that we weren’t going to be able to put on a production quite like that.
We didn’t have enough money, we didn’t have a big enough staff, we weren’t going to be able to fulfill the professional needs of broadcast radio. But if we made a podcast where we weren’t going to have to service all that stuff, we could do it with just the two of us and with a slim budget. And if it’s not that good, then we’d just stop. [Laughs]
What do you regret about the explosion of Serial’s popularity?
There are certain things that I wish didn’t happen. I wish people didn’t do the armchair detective stuff: publicly speculating on people committing crimes or their characters, their backgrounds and revealing private information about them. That was sort of unsavory and I wish there was some way we could’ve controlled that. That was really shocking for us and it was disheartening.
To an extent, this is the price of when you get this many people involved, but I’m not quite sure we’re supposed to be okay with that. I don’t know, I just thought I saw people behaving irresponsibly.
Is that one of the reasons you went away from pursuing another true crime story for the second season of Serial?
No. Serial is all about following interesting stories where we feel like they are going to take us to surprising places and we’re going to usually learn something complicated — something that is a lot more ambiguous and a lot more nuanced then what most people take at face value. That, for us, is the definition of Serial. We never saw Serial as true crime; I forgot there even was a true crime genre and neither of us thought of the story that way.
There are entire cable networks that are devoted true crime stories and once they hit on their successful format, they will keep going back to it. That isn’t our interest at all.
What have you learned about the military from covering Bowe Bergdahl’s story?
The main thing I’ve learned — and it seems obvious but I didn’t understand it until I started working on this story — is that the military, and even the Army and the administration, these huge institutions that are reduced to monoliths, are all being run by people. There is such a diversity of views in the Army and also within the government, and within a platoon. People see things differently and they experience them differently, and that’s what affects their choices. There isn’t this monolithic “The Army thinks this way,” or “The generals know this.” It’s really individualistic and there’s a lot of nuance.
I think it’s because these institutions are so powerful you start to feel like there’s a grand plan and a puppet-mastery going on. And breaking it down in a story like this, where we’re just trying to talk to as many individuals who were affected by this story as possible, it becomes clear that the world of this story is so small and specific. With Bowe Bergdahl, he has such a specific and idiosyncratic way of looking at the world — not at all representative of other people — and yet because he involved himself in this really unique incident, the repercussions of it were huge.
I also really loved that in this story, we could move from the small and personal, to the big and global.
Yeah, and it’s easy to forget how huge this story is. I sometimes worry that Americans suffer from war coverage fatigue, even though it’s still this important story. You not only demonstrate the importance of what’s going on in Afghanistan, you’ve succeeded in humanizing Bowe; I feel I understand him as a person.
That’s the cool thing about audio and it’s the strength of the medium: you hear people speaking for themselves.
What do you hope people do with podcasting as a medium?
I would like people to continue experimenting. It’s a very experimental medium and I don’t think we know are the outer bounds of the form yet. It’s exciting to try different things, especially when they service the story or the format.