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The University of Chicago’s Independent Student Newspaper since 1892

Chicago Maroon

The University of Chicago’s Independent Student Newspaper since 1892

Chicago Maroon

Uncommon Interview: Serial’s Sarah Koenig (A.B. ’90)

Koenig tells the Maroon about her days on campus, what makes a great radio story, and what she thought of the many Serial parodies.
Serial/Meredith Heuer

Last fall, journalist Sarah Koenig became a household name thanks to the explosion of her podcast Serial, a deep investigation into the 1999 murder of Baltimore teenager Hae Min Lee. Koenig has been a journalist for almost 20 years, most notably as a producer on the public radio show This American Life, where she has worked since 2004. Before that, she worked as a reporter for The New York Times, the Concord Monitor, and the Baltimore Sun. She talked to The Maroon about her days on campus, what makes a great radio story, and what she thought of the many Serial parodies. An abridged version ran in print; here is the full version.

Chicago Maroon (CM): Were you always interested in journalism? Did you do it when you were here on campus?

Sarah Koenig (SK): Nope, not at all. I had no idea what I wanted to do when I was there. I think I wanted to be an actor more than anything.

CM: What did you major in?

SK: Technically political science, but Russian history and literature basically were most of the classes that I took.

CM: You worked in Russia for a while. Was that one of the reasons?

SK: Yeah, but I didn’t take Russian language when I was at Chicago. I didn’t learn it until after I left college.

CM: Did you do theater, then, if you wanted to be an actor?

SK: I did. I was in Off-Off Campus for years, and then I was in plays, and we performed as an improv group that performed at Jimmy’s once a week, I think. A bunch of us moved to New York and performed there for a while. And I was in the same generation of Off-Off, with people who, some of whom stayed in theater and became very prominent, like Dave Auburn.

CM: He wrote Proof.

SK: Yeah, he wrote Proof. He was in my generation of Off-Off Campus. We were also in things with Dan Aukin. He’s a really great director now. So I was with a lot of really talented theater people at the time. That’s where my heart was.

CM: So how did you get into journalism? When did that start?

SK: A couple of years after college. I needed a summer job, so I applied for a job at the weekly paper where I grew up and just started that way and never did anything else after that. I’m trying to think what year that was, because I worked for at least a year or two after college just kind of doing a little this, a little that, and finally was like, “I gotta have a job, a proper job.”

It started out as a summer job, and then I stayed on at the weekly paper for maybe a year and a half. And then I went off to Russia for almost three years. Maybe it was three years after college.

Actually, I did have a proper job on the North Side—I resettled Russian Jews in Chicago for a year and a half for an organization called Jewish Family Service. I had very primitive Russian then. I was trying to speak it. Oh, and then I went to grad school. Oh my God, I forgot about that. I went to grad school at Columbia for Russian history, and I lasted two weeks in grad school. By that time, I was in New York, and then I had a couple of dumb jobs, and I was doing some theater. And then I was like, let me see if I can get a job at the newspaper. I knew I liked the idea of being a reporter. I just had never been one, but I liked the idea of it. I had, like, romanticized it.

CM: And then you went to Russia. How did you land that job?

SK: I landed that job through a connection of my parents, actually. My stepfather had a tennis partner who was some high-up guy at ABC News, so I initially worked for ABC News, while I was in Moscow. I mean, the job I got was really low down on the totem pole.

CM: Like gathering tape?

SK: Not even gathering tape, I think. Mostly answering the phone. I don’t remember what I was doing. But then they figured out that I could do things and gradually gave me more responsibilities. I wasn’t actually there that long. I switched over and started working for The New York Times. That’s when I was like, “OK, this is what I want to do. Now I understand.” So I worked for The New York Times bureau for a year and a half, maybe, when I was in Moscow. And that was great. That was a really wonderful experience.

CM: When you got back to the States, you went to the Concord Monitor in New Hampshire for a while. Is that right?

SK: Yeah, I was there for a few years. Most of what I did there was political reporting. I covered the elections, in particular, George [W.] Bush’s primary campaign in New Hampshire. And after that, I went to the Baltimore Sun, and from there, I went to the radio.

CM: What made you decide to move from print to radio?

SK: I didn’t know anything about radio, really. I had done, when I was at the Concord Monitor, I had started freelancing stories for This American Life, just a few. I did maybe three or four stories over the course of a couple of years. It was such a different way of doing journalism and a different way of working because it’s super, super collaborative at This American Life. You’re working with people every step of the way, especially me because I didn’t know anything about gathering tape or anything. I gathered some of my own tape but very nervously and not knowing what I was doing, and working with a producer and working with an editor in that way was a completely new experience, and I really enjoyed it. Everybody was smart and young and super interested in what they were doing, and I just really liked it. When a producer job became open, I just went for it. It wasn’t like I thought my dream was to work in radio. I can’t even think of it as going into radio exactly. I think I just thought of it as, “I just want to do this kind of journalism because it’s much more exciting to me.” It was sparking my imagination in a way that the work that I was doing kind of wasn’t.

I loved working at newspapers, but my heart was never really in the stories I was doing. More it was when I was covering criminal justice stuff—I was more interested in that. But the politics stuff, I was always a little bit like, “Yeah, I can do this. I’m pretty good at it.” I kind of know how to fake it enough that I’m doing it, but I was never that into it. I was always trying to work the angles in a way of just like, “Well, maybe if I write a feature about such and such, it can masquerade as actual political reporting.” I worked with some really good reporters who, I could just see they had a fire for the politics and fire for really understanding, you know, county election numbers and jurisdiction outlines, and voting patterns. And I was always just like, “Oh really, I have to learn that?” I could see that they were enjoying something about it that I wasn’t that into. So I think it was more that I just wanted to do a different kind of work.

CM: What do you think makes a good radio story? When you come up with an idea, or someone pitches you something, what makes you go, “OK, that’s a good story for the radio?”

SK: There are some really wonderful stories that just don’t lend themselves to radio because there’s nobody to tell it, you know what I mean? I’m very interested in fracking and the Marcellus Shale development that’s happening here in Pennsylvania, where I live. I did a whole hour of radio, a This American Life story, some years ago, on fracking. It took me a really long time to find a story for the radio about it because it’s a policy story.

When I talk about radio, I’m talking about This American Life. I’ve never done any other type of radio, to be clear. I only know how to do a This American Life story.

For us, why do it on the radio? Well, if you can find somebody to tell it, besides the reporter. That’s a big requirement. You can do a lot of print stories where you really don’t need other people to be your characters, you know. You can just compile your information, and that’s that. And obviously anything that has archival sound, that has, like the story we just did for Serial, where we had interview tapes, we had trial tape, and so that kind of thing lends itself really beautifully to the radio, and it communicates a lot of things that are harder to communicate without hearing it.

But I’m not someone who thinks there’s only one way to do things, you know what I mean? Talented people can make wonderful stories with whatever they’ve got.

Sometimes we get pitched stuff at This American Life, and it’s a great story, but I can’t see it as a radio story, and those are usually stories that are being adapted from a magazine story or a print story, where a reporter is like, “I’d love to do this for TAL,” and you’re just like, “But who’s going to tell it, and what tape do you have, and besides you, who’s talking?” You have to think all that stuff through. And there are obviously stories that we do on the show that wouldn’t work in print because they’re about the sound.

CM: This American Life is a couple of stories over one hour. What interested to you about the format of Serial, doing one story over a series of episodes?

SK: We had been talking about what new thing can we try? [This American Life and Serial Senior Producer] Julie Snyder and I had been talking about it for a while. Our first idea was to start a show on the “This Week” format, which we had done, which was just stories from that previous week. Could we make that into a show, its own show? And that would be our spinoff, and it just wasn’t getting traction with the staff. People were really like, “Uh, okay, if that’s what you want to do.” So it was just barely on the table. And then Ira [Glass, This American Life host], was like, “Look, if that’s what you want to do, I will support you. Sure, let’s go ahead. But do you have any other ideas?”

And I was kind of like, “Well, the other thing I would like to do is basically the opposite, just do one story.” You know, we never go back to our stories that we do on This American Life, and they keep going. It’s not like they stop just because we stop. And I had been listening to a lot of books on tape last year because I drive a lot, and I love them so much when you’re driving. So in a way, I think that’s what was in my head. Why don’t we do that, but it’s a documentary, so it’s like a book on tape that you listen [to], you get a new chapter each week, but it’s a documentary.

So he was like, “Great! Let’s try it out.” It was very quick. I don’t even think I thought of it on the spot exactly, but it wasn’t much more than that. It was not like I spent weeks figuring out like, what would be the most ambitious. It was just like, “I don’t know. I like really long stories.” I like getting lost in the world of a story for a really long time. That’s what I really like about a great novel. It’s what I like about a really long magazine piece. I like that kind of reporting, just feeling like you’re living inside of a different place for a while and getting to know people inside it and getting to understand the complexity of the place, and that’s what I was hoping we could recreate with the podcast, just kind of create that world for people.

CM: One of the things that I found really interesting was you were figuring it out at the same time as we, the listeners, were. Was that intentional? Why choose to do it that way?

SK: Yes. It was a choice, for sure. Certainly we could have reported out the whole thing in advance, made all the episodes in advance and release them week by week or all at once or whatever, I don’t know. But I think we wanted it to feel kind of alive, the whole process, and if you think about it, a story like this, we didn’t know what we didn’t know, and we didn’t know what we were going to find. And if we had cut off any possibility for people to bring us new information, think about what that would have meant. It would have meant that people would have come forward afterward, and said, “What about this? What about that?” and we would had to say, “Sorry! I’m already done.” So we wanted this story to change as we went. It was important to our reporting, certainly, for my reporting. It really helped. I mean, it hurt in the sense that it was a really ridiculous production schedule. We were really on a crazy—what’s the thing that the hamster’s on?

CM: The wheel?

SK: The wheel. Yeah, it was really like that, for many, many weeks, and that’s not a good life to live, generally. But we were able to be responsive, and as I learned things, I was able to ask Adnan about them, as we were going, and all of that. So it was very important to the story, even  though it made it much harder to do. It was important for the story to be as complete as it could be.

CM: Sometimes you chose to reveal certain details later in the series. How did you decide what was important for listeners to know up front, and what to reveal later?

SK: What are you thinking of? I think people really assumed that I knew a lot more than I did earlier than I did. It’s funny, I was talking someone. He was a big fan of the podcast. He’s a TV guy, and he did not realize that we were doing it week to week. But I was like, “I was saying in the podcast, here’s something I just learned this week.” And he was like, “Oh yeah, but I just figured that was kind of bullshit, or I just figured that you had it all written and then you added something.” And I was like, “No! I was actually just learning about it.” So there really wasn’t…somebody asked me recently, “Surely you knew that the 2:36 call, those 21 minutes weren’t really going to be the vital 21 minutes, you know?” And we really did not know that. We figured that out as we were broadcasting. So I think there’s a bigger assumption that I held—I think people think that I held back more than I truly did hold back. If you have an example, I can answer it.

CM: There were parts where you would hint at things about Jay, but then we had that whole episode about Jay.

SK: Yeah. We definitely knew more about Jay earlier on. I knew more about Jay than you did, let’s put it that way. But I think, on something like that, it felt like you guys need to catch up to where I was, say, a  year ago. And what that means is, you need to have the same familiarity with the evidence. Or I need to catch you up, you know what I mean? So that felt like, I need you to understand all of these building blocks of the case before I can then kind of turn to, “OK, what am I now able to find out?” So that was the reasoning for that.

There’s no point meeting Jay if you don’t understand the cell records, you don’t understand the relationship between Hae and Adnan, and you don’t understand the prosecution’s case, and you don’t understand the forensics, you know what I mean? It’s not going to mean what it needs to mean for you, and the same is true of Adnan. I didn’t really let Adnan talk much at length until much later, and the reason for that is, again, I wanted you guys to know what I knew by the time I was asking him those questions because, again, the full meaning of it would have changed, I think, if you hadn’t known all the things you needed to know going in.

But in terms of the actual new things that happened, I did not wait very long to tell people those things. Some stuff was more thematic, like the stuff about [if there] was anti-Muslim prejudice going on in the course of this investigation and trial. I mean, sure, that’s reporting I had done all throughout, but it felt like the best way to deploy that is underneath this sort of question, and that was a string that I had been gathering as I went, and then, that just felt like the most coherent way to present it. Sometimes it was literally just like, the logic of the information needed to come out in a certain way, and other times, it was just structural, like, this seems like a good time to bring this up.

But yeah, it was not like I had big secrets that I wasn’t telling you guys, I promise! There’s really nothing you don’t know.

CM: What surprised you most about the response? It just became this huge phenomenon.

SK: Yeah, it surprised me most that it became this huge phenomenon. I mean, truly. We had no idea that any of that was going to happen. That remains totally weird to me, in mostly a good way. The response was very, very surprising.

CM: Have you seen some of the parodies?

SK: Yeah, I have. I don’t think I’ve seen all of them. I definitely saw the Funny or Die one. I saw the SNL one. My favorite one is the one, they’re like this Canadian comedy troupe. They’re so adorable. I think I like it because they’re not making fun of me directly, so it’s easier for me to like it. It’s the one where they’re obsessed and then sort of competitive about who’s more obsessed. It’s very cute.

CM: Is it weird seeing yourself parodied?

SK: Of course it’s weird! It’s weird to hear other people I don’t know say my name. It’s not as weird as you think, somehow, because it doesn’t like it’s me, exactly. There’s a remove. It’s a tiny bit surreal. It’s kind of like they’re saying the name Sarah Koenig, but I’ve never met them, so they’re obviously referring to this person on the podcast. It’s almost like I’m the character Sarah Koenig that they’re referring to. It’s all odd.

CM: Can you tell us anything about Season 2? What stories are you looking into?

SK: I can’t tell you what we’re looking into, but I can tell you that we don’t have one yet. We’re still looking.

CM: When do you think it will air?

SK: I really hate to predict. Our launch date for Season 1 changed about three times. We would love to air it sometime in the fall, but I don’t even want to promise that just because it so depends on, obviously the story we choose, which would dictate the reporting, which will dictate the timeline and all of that. And people’s lives intervene.

CM: You mentioned earlier that you’re really interested in criminal justice. Would you be open to doing another season on a criminal justice story?

SK: At this point, everything’s on the table. A bunch of us on staff are really interested in criminal justice problems and the system itself, so it’s possible. But again, I don’t want to play the game. We really don’t know. We don’t have a story yet.

CM: Like you said, stories always continue, and this story is continuing, with Adnan getting an appeal. Would you ever consider revisiting this case?

SK: I would, if something huge happens, I would certainly like to report it. The difficulty now is that everybody else in the world is also reporting on this story. I can’t even get a scoop on my own story anymore! Somebody in Britain will probably know the news before I do. But yeah, I think, if some extraordinary development happens, I would consider doing another episode as a follow-up or an update, but so far that hasn’t happened. But you know, we’ll see. It also depends on when. Like if I’m in the middle of rolling out Season 2, that’s going to make it really hard. So we’ll see.

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