Talking to ‘Serial’s Sarah Koenig About Her Hit Podcast and Whether There Will Ever Be an Answer

Sarah Koenig Photo: Meredith Heuer

Fifteen years ago, a high-school student named Hae Min Lee was found dead in Baltimore’s woody Leakin Park, her black hair barely visible among the dirt and leaves. Detectives concluded that Lee had been strangled, and soon suspicion shifted to her ex-boyfriend, Adnan Syed, who was found guilty of the crime after a trial and sentenced to life in a maximum-security prison, where he still sits today. Syed claimed innocence in 1999 and still does now, as do his friends and family, which is how Sarah Koenig got tangled up in all of this. Koenig was working as a reporter on the public-radio show This American Life during the summer of 2013 when Rabia Chaudry, a friend of the Syed family, contacted her with a request to tell his story.

An instinct made Koenig follow the lead, and soon, she found herself in contact with Syed, his legal team, the peers who implicated him and those who provided his alibi, Lee’s friends and family, and a whole host of other experts who began to plant the seeds of a sweeping narrative inside Koenig’s head. The story presented more questions than answers and more roadblocks than breadcrumbs, and soon, Koenig knew that the only way to get to the bottom of it all — or so she hoped — would be to simply present the evidence to listeners as she found it, making a new kind of show in installments that addressed the shaky nature of truth and storytelling as time passes. Out of Hae and Adnan’s stories came the idea for “Serial,” a new podcast with Koenig (and TAL senior producer Julie Snyder) at the helm.

“Serial” debuted on October 3, 2014, and to call it a success would be an understatement. After only five episodes, the podcast tops the iTunes charts and has garnered the rabid following of a television crime procedural, complete with raging online debates and speculation about Syed’s guilt or innocence and the projected final outcome of the investigation. “Serial” has a little bit of everything — a dash of Dickens’s Old Curiosity Shop (a serial novel with such extreme demand that sailors mobbed Dickens’s boat for spoilers when he arrived for a New York visit), a touch of True Detectives high-gloss noir, the gory lyricism of Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, and the skeptical shape-shifting narrative of Janet Malcolm’s best work. Prior to the release of today’s sixth episode, we spoke with Koenig from her basement studio about how “Serial” came to be and whether she is saving up any bombshells for the grand finale.

After listening to the last episode (Episode Five), it is still impossible to tell whether or not Adnan did it! But the big question is … do you have some idea? It feels like you must know which way you are leaning by now.
It’s so funny, that is what everyone keeps saying, and to be honest, it’s driving me crazy. I do not know how this is all going to turn out. I just read a piece on Slate that insisted I have some tricks up my sleeve and am manipulating the audience in some way, and that really couldn’t [be] farther from the truth. I am not playing all of you. If you guys only knew how this is put together. I’m not far ahead of you. Episode Five just aired, and I just did a first draft of Episode Six this afternoon, so I am pretty much creating this thing in real time now. Yes, I could say, there was a point where I thought I knew the truth. And then I found out that I didn’t know as much as I thought I did, and I did more reporting, and now I don’t know what I don’t know again! Are you mad at me? Don’t be mad at me!

Were not mad, just rabid for any scraps of info we can get on how it turns out! Do you at least have an idea about the bigger arc of the season?
When we started, we did make a few attempts to map out the whole season, but we ripped it apart three times because we keep learning things. I’m still reporting. I’m doing it as I go. It’s not that I don’t have material for future shows, but things are changing everyday, like we just got in this huge new chunk of information, and I don’t know where it is going to take me. We always thought there would be about a dozen episodes in total, but even that could change, give or take, depending on what kind of new facts come in. Everyone still thinks I’m full of shit and have some kind of hidden agenda here, but it’s all much simpler than that. I’m always telling you everything I know.

Isnt it risky not to have a sense of the conclusion going into a project like this? Or did that make it exciting?
It’s a huge risk, but also, I want people to trust that I know what I’m doing and can bring this home. I’ve been a radio reporter for ten years, and if I learned anything from my time at This American Life, it’s how to craft a narrative so that even if the ending is ambiguous, it is somehow satisfying. I don’t know that I’ll ever be at peace with what we find or that there will be a definitive verdict. I’m not going to pick a side just because I’m supposed to for a Hollywood ending. I’ll pick a side if the reporting gets me there. But the goal is to figure it out, and I would love to figure it out. I hope I do. But I’m not forcing it. You all might be really disappointed! Who knows?

So how did “Serial” come about? Was this story the genesis for the show?
I had been thinking for a long time about doing something separate from TAL, something I would own. And I have a mortal fear of flying, so I drive long distances to report from places that most people would fly to. I remember driving back to New York from Asheville, North Carolina, and listening to many books on tape, and it hit me that those were the audio stories I liked the best — sustained narratives that you can lose yourself in for not just minutes, but hours and hours. And I thought, Why don’t I just try to create a show that replicates the experience of a book on tape?

So you think of “Serial” as a radio book? Your own true-crime potboiler paperback?
Well, I’m not probably supposed to talk about it in those terms, but even though I have never written a book before, this to me feels like it must be close to that process. The only difference is if I was writing a book, I would do all the reporting first and then organize it like a normal person and then publish it, but here, I am releasing my work as I go, which is sort of crazy, I realize.

Speaking of potboilers, do you think of yourself as a detective when you narrate this piece? I sense a bit of that vibe coming from you.
Well, it does help me when I sit down at the mike to kind of think of myself as a character and put that hat on. I just took my daughter to see Double Indemnity, the noir-iest noir there is, and I thought, Am I that detective right now? But also, I’m just being myself and trying to be as straightforward as possible, and tell the listeners directly when I think something is fishy or doesn’t quite add up, and freely admit when I don’t know how the hell something will turn out.

Yes, one of the things I love is that you speak to the listeners like they are your close friends, often expressing your own insecurity and exasperations. I loved when you added an aside where you worried your assistant producer Dana wasnt really listening to you. It feels like a radical kind of reporting, in which the reporter herself isnt completely sure shes right.
I am not sure! It changes constantly. When I started this, I just wanted an excuse to stay in my basement and work on a thing for a long time. If a few people listened, great. And oh my God, the response has gobsmacked us. A part of me is thrilled that people seem to be into it and listening, and another part of me wants to hide under a blanket and huddle in a corner. Suddenly there’s all this scrutiny, and people think I’m messing with them, but I’m not! In a great and terrible way, I’m learning right along with everyone else.

Not to be weirdly glib, but as a reporter, you should be honest all the time. I feel like the story we are telling is partly what happened here, what can we find out, and part of that question is my reporting. I’m in this story now, for better or for worse, as a character. I’m deeply involved; by definition, there is stuff I don’t know yet and I have to be upfront about that. If I were lazy or a crappy reporter, I might be nervous about saying when I don’t know, but I feel like we are working our asses off to report this out as completely as we can. When we don’t know something, it’s not for lack of trying. Now you are making me wonder if I should project more confidence!

What if you conclude that Adnan is innocent? Are you hoping that the show will have an effect on his sentence at all? I had a friend who suggested he make a Free Adnan shirt, but that might be jumping the gun.
Yes, it might be … but look, if Adnan has a life sentence and he should not have one, if there was some injustice, of course I think that should be addressed. I think that for anyone’s case. No one should be sitting in jail if he shouldn’t be, but that’s not the goal of this. I’m not an attorney, I’m not a judge, and I didn’t set out to free the guy.

What was the most “holy shit!” moment in your reporting so far? Was there anything that really shocked you?
There are a couple things going on now that are a little “holy shit!” that you’ll get [this] week, but I feel like — there was a point where I heard about the Asia letters and affidavit [Ed note: Asia was a classmate who provided an alibi for Adnan], and I thought something was fishy with the supposed alibi. But then I located her, and she had incredible recall, and I thought Oh, God, maybe he does have an alibi, and that flipped it on its head for me. Also, the way we found that the court selectively used the cell-phone records was pretty “holy shit.” Some of those records look really bad for Adnan, but are you supposed to excuse the rest of it that doesnt fit? Aren’t we supposed to care? Isn’t it our job to care?

Will there be a season two? Will it be focused on another murder?
There will be another season, but it might not be a crime story. We didn’t conceive of it as a crime show; it’s a mishap of the name. It’s not about serial murders or killers! I’ll be the host, but I don’t know if it will be something I fully report or do with a partner, or if I will present someone else to tell their story. I’m just glad people seem to be into it. When I first proposed the idea of a serial show that you couldn’t binge on and had to wait for every week, some people thought I was insane. I might still be insane, but at least all my listeners are now crazy with me.

‘Serial’s Sarah Koenig on Her Hit Podcast