Three Questions with Serial’s Sarah Koenig

The host and EP discusses the follow-up to her 2014 smash-hit podcast.

sarah koenig

Serial’s Sarah Koenig will speak at Symphony Hall this month. / Photograph courtesy of Serial

On March 30, Serial host and executive producer Sarah Koenig and producer Julie Snyder will share their recipe for can’t-get-enough storytelling during their Celebrity Series talk, “Binge-Worthy Journalism,” to be held at Symphony Hall. The pair perfected the form with their addictive week-by-week true-crime whodunit podcast, which broke iTunes records and won a Peabody last year. The new season, launched last December, details the strange case of former POW Bowe Bergdahl, an American soldier who made headlines when he strolled off base and into the Taliban’s grasp. Here, Koenig shares her perspective from the other side of the mike.

What was the most difficult thing about creating Serial ?

The biggest challenge was this giant question we didn’t know when we started: Would people stay with you? Can you sustain a story over time, week to week, like that?

You ran the first season as you were gathering information. Is it tough to build a larger narrative under those circumstances?

It was difficult, especially in season one. We were discovering brand-new information as we went, but that was also the beauty of it. We would make a structure of episodes six through 12, and then two or three weeks later we would rip it apart and say, “No, we have to do this thing first.” We’re still doing that with season two— ripping apart the structure constantly—and that’s natural. You try things, they don’t work, and you learn new ways you want to tell the story. We wanted it to be alive like that.

As a producer, you usually tell stories outside the news cycle. So why did you choose to cover Bowe Bergdahl, a figure who’s been covered to death?

[Mark Boal, of Page 1] came to us with taped interviews that were so compelling. I don’t look for obscure stories, or stories that haven’t been covered. I just think, Is this a good story, and is there something we can bring to it that’s interesting? We would only do it if we had something surprising or emotional to bring to it.

Koenig will be appearing at Symphony Hall on April 20 alongside her producer Julie Snyder.