Photo: Ian Allen
It was the day after the first episode of the second season of the Serial podcast finally kerplunked into view — along with its subject, a soldier named Bowe Bergdahl, who in 2009 walked off his post in Afghanistan and was captured by the Taliban and held for five years and is now awaiting court-martial for desertion — and the show’s host, Sarah Koenig, who doesn’t sound quite like her deliberately paced radio self in person, was a little unnerved by all the attention.
“I mean, obviously this is going to die down,” she said. “But I was talking to some of my sources who were like: ‘I was interviewed by CNN about this today!’ And I’m like, What-what-what, whoa! But then I realized that this is a national story. I have to suck it up.” She laughs, with explosive self-consciousness. “I can’t complain about it. That’s ridiculous. I feel like I want to say,‘Nobody read ahead!’ ”
Here she drops into a patiently-explaining-teacher cadence: “Everyone wait for us to be done. That’s my dream world: ‘Nobody read anything, just listen to what we do and make your measured, calm judgments.’ But that’s not the world we live in, obviously.” And then, in a squeaky whisper: “Can’t we just wait? I’ll get there, I’ll get there …”
Last year, Serial was an experiment, to find out if people would do something a bit old-fashioned: tune-in-next-week-to-find-out-what-we-learned. It came from the producers of the public-radio program This American Life, who had themselves been early to podcasting (which makes sense, since it’s more or less radio-to-go). But from the start, Serial was meant to be different: a single story told over time and from a number of different angles. Listeners would tune in weekly, was the hope, to hear updates on what Koenig and her producers, Julie Snyder and Dana Chivvis, had dug up about whether a man named Adnan Syed, who’d been sent to prison for killing his ex-girlfriend in Baltimore 15 years ago, when he was a high-school student, had actually committed the murder. The right-a-wrong part was the hook, anyway: Who doesn’t love a whodunit? But over the course of 12 installments, Serial turned into something else: an immersive meditation on American justice, journalism, and “truth” and the fractured suburban mores of middle-class immigrant communities. As a postcard of a very particular and somewhat overlooked experience — an unfamous case in an unfamous place — it was just what This American Life had made its name doing but spun out at greater length, and with higher stakes. After all, there was a man’s life on the line. And because you heard him week after week, you felt like you got to know Syed, as you got to know what it’s like to be Koenig doing this job. Maybe you came for the justice, but you stayed for things like the time Chivvis and Koenig are driving around and Chivvis says, “There’s a shrimp sale at the Crab Crib!,” and Koenig says, “Sometimes I think Dana isn’t listening to me.”
When Serial launched, in October 2014, nobody had heard of Syed, and his case seemed settled (he had been, after all, convicted). Many people had never even heard of podcasts (Apple had just made its convenient Podcasts app a permanent feature of the iPhone home screen that fall). And Koenig, who quickly became a kind of accidental celebrity advocate for a celebrity convict she’d made a celebrity, was hardly a household name, although she’d been with This American Life for a decade. TAL might have felt like a cultural institution to some of its listeners — as much a part of the enlightened-liberal-intellectual ecosphere as HBO or The New Yorker or bam — but until this year, it was a remarkably small-time operation. Before the success of Serial, TAL couldn’t even afford a conference room. Episodes were often edited at Ira Glass’s desk, with producers sitting on the floor, and the offices were so humble, he told me, that “a friend came in and saw them and said, ‘You should never show these to anyone!’ ” Koenig did a lot of her work on Serial’s first season, which launched with the same shoestring budget, in the basement of her house in State College, Pennsylvania, often commuting to New York via Megabus. The MailChimp ad spots that season quickly became a joke: the “MailKimp” podcast, they called it on Twitter. Which sort of added to the quasi-Kickstarter-y, artisanal charm of the whole endeavor.
Twelve episodes and 100 million downloads later, Serial succeeded in transforming podcasts into something with the audience size of a TV show, but different. There is something so intimate about them — voices sitting in your ear, unmediated by the screen — and there is a particular type of stardom that results. Koenig and Syed were turned into digital-age folk heroes, blogged about, recapped, sub-Redditted, annotated, debated, and critiqued. Several (mostly pretty amateurish) podcasts were dedicated to the podcast, and an SNL skit parodied the show’s methodical earnestness. Oh, and it won a Peabody.
All of which might’ve seemed quite beside the point. And in fact to listen to a lot of the hyperearnest TAL staff, who talk about “public-radio values” and genuinely seem weirded out by the vulgarity of the new media business it is. But Serial’s success also seemed to ratify the project at the heart of TAL from the beginning: to upend conventions that made so much journalism seem drab and inauthentic by making it more experiential.
As a storytelling gambit, TAL had been proved a success long before Serial came along. But as a business proposition it was still sort of antediluvian, depending on the same public funding and listener-loyalty pledge drives. The deluge was technology. TAL now has the same number of listeners via podcast as via radio — about 2.2 million — but because they are considered much more committed (and therefore sold more effectively to sponsors), listeners in that second group are more valuable. And the first season of Serial blew those TAL numbers out of the water — about 8 million weekly listeners and 100 million total downloads. With ad rates for podcasts now reaching $100 per thousand listeners, that audience could translate into something like $10 million in sponsorship money. Which is lucky, because it just so happens that the first season of Serial arrived with Glass’s grand plan to detach his storytelling operation from the high-minded cloister of public radio; launch a new, independent broadcast network that includes This American Life and its spinoffs; and make a bet that the newfangled oral tradition he and his team had mastered over the past 20 years could actually make a dent in the market on its own terms.
For Serial, the question quickly became what to do next. Another true crime? Something … bigger? Perhaps Koenig & Co. were overthinking it, trying to outflank a possible backlash (or an actual one: See the way Glenn Greenwald’s lefty-scold site the Intercept made itself into a kind of Serial ombudsman) or at least the heightened scrutiny that comes with a follow-up: how not to repeat yourself, how to surprise, how to do something different, maybe better? Certainly how to deal with all the attention. Unsure exactly which path to take, Serial worked on a bunch of stories, including, I was told, something about Guantánamo detainees (Koenig had done a TAL on that subject already). “We just didn’t see there would be any problem of getting something done this year,” Koenig says wryly, when I had taken a Megabus out to see her. “Why would there be?”
But by this summer, none of the ideas for season two seemed to be coming together perfectly or quickly enough. Serial had made a public commitment to its listeners, some of whom had donated money, that a new season would arrive in 2015, and had also made some commitments to the lead sponsors of that yet-to-be-built follow-up — MailChimp, Squarespace, and Audible.com, back from the first season — but also, this time, a streaming deal with Pandora, which had brought in its own advertisers (bigger fish like Esurance and the Warner Bros. film In the Heart of the Sea).
The folks at Serial figured the best way to keep all those commitments was to take on a partner: Page One, a multiplatform media outfit bankrolled by Hollywood producer Megan Ellison and home to Mark Boal, the journalist turned filmmaker who won an Oscar for his script for The Hurt Locker and also wrote Zero Dark Thirty. (Koenig’s one-word deadpan review: “Heartwarming.”) Koenig is building the new season on 25 hours of taped interviews Boal did with Bergdahl as research for a feature film; she herself is not interviewing Bergdahl at all, which is an unusual position for any journalist to be in. Especially since part of what made last season so compelling was the intimacy of her prepaid-call-from-prison tango with the accused, which, truth be told, some listeners read into. “Oh, that I’m in love with Adnan?” Koenig says. “That he was” — she breaks into a teen lilt — “myyy boyfriend? I found that so fucking offensive.”
Like last season, this one begins with a cipher as a subject. It’s not that people haven’t heard of Bergdahl, or that he hadn’t been profiled, often effectively — the dreamy homeschooled Idaho kid who tried to join the French Foreign Legion and read Ayn Rand. But the prisoner swap that brought Bergdahl home had politicized him so thoroughly that many people disengaged from his story, Koenig and Glass included. “I think the story happened very quickly and people missed it,” Glass tells me. “I knew it happened and I never thought about it much. I wasn’t even intrigued by it.”
But hearing his voice in your ear, with the level of emotional production value that the Serial team brings to it, makes you understand that Bergdahl is his own odd, proud, confused human self, trapped in his own decisions and delusions, as Syed was, as the soldiers sent to rescue him were, as even the Taliban Koenig talks to are. If This American Life is an empathy machine, then Serial — and in particular Koenig, your carefully self-presented guide to this story — is its most effectively authentic audio avatar.
In the case of Syed, that empathy produced a public outcry for at least a new examination of the case, if not a new trial. (A hearing prompted by Serial will be held in February.) Bergdahl’s case is a bit different, and showcasing his story may have quite different effects. When season two’s first episode was released on December 10, an Army investigator had recommended that prison time would be “inappropriate” and Bergdahl’s lawyer, Eugene R. Fidell, had told the Times that “we have asked from the beginning that everyone withhold judgment on Sergeant Bergdahl’s case until they know the facts. The Serial podcast, like the preliminary hearing conducted in September, is a step in the right direction.” But a few days after the premiere, General Robert Abrams decided that Bergdahl should, in fact, be court-martialed. If convicted of desertion, he could go to jail for another five years on top of the five he spent locked up by the Taliban. If he’s convicted of “misbehavior before the enemy,” an arcane charge having to do with the way his disappearance endangered the troops in his platoon, he could go to jail for life. And whatever the judgment of that court-martial, the story presented on Serial will surely hang over it and Bergdahl for quite a while — the closest thing we are likely to get to a full and authoritative account of just why he wandered off his post and into the Afghanistan war zone back in 2009, and what it meant that he did.
This American Life “started out with small, personal stories,” Glass tells me, sounding very much like Ira Glass. “Our business goals for Serial? Sarah and Julie thought of it as this little thing they would try.”
“What is the biggest thing in the culture right now?” he recalls Snyder asking him. “The TV shows which people binge-watch.” So they thought, “Can you do that with journalism?” And while the seriality of Serial turned out to be crucial, what really made the program seem new was the way that, during its first season, it felt like it was being produced a bit seat-of-the-pants: They were still working on later episodes when the first was released, which enabled you to feel like you were with Koenig as she pieced the thing together. “When people are responding as you’re going — that’s not something we anticipated,” Snyder says.
In a way, season two is their own response to season one. “Would we do another murder case — become a sort of public-radio Law & Order?” says Glass. “They didn’t have an interest in that.” From the looks of it, they didn’t want to go small and obscure again either. Plus, as Boal says, “I’m pretty sure Sarah didn’t want to repeat herself and be the whodunit girl.”
It all sort of depended on Koenig, whom I meet at her office in a small building near shopping (Supercuts, Kitchen Kaboodle) a few blocks off campus in State College, where she’s lived with her husband, an American-literature professor, and their two children since 2008. (“I’ve been in jail cells that are bigger,” Boal says of the office. “It’s amazing that she’s holed up out in the sticks and yet she has this giant and well-deserved presence in the culture. You sort of expect her to be on the 42nd floor of the Trump Tower.”) There’s a big American flag on the wall as well as a map of Afghanistan, some n+1’s on the bookshelf, a rolled-up yoga mat, and a pulpit she bought for $20 at a flea market that she uses as a standing desk (“Yes, I’m the high priestess of podcasting”). I ask about a vintage-looking poster, in Russian, of a woman with a kerchief on her head, her finger pressed against her lips. She reads it to me in Russian, then translates: “It’s not a far leap from gossip to treachery.”
When she was a few years out of the University of Chicago, where she’d done some theater, her stepfather, the novelist Peter Matthiessen, helped her land a gig at ABC News’ Moscow bureau. She chose that over the L.A. bureau, where she would have been assigned to help cover the O.J. trial. While there, she began writing for the New York Times, then became a newspaper reporter — she found the notion “romantic” — eventually winding up at the Baltimore Sun, where for a while she covered the courts (and had written about Syed’s problematic lawyer, which gave Koenig her in for season one).
But being a newspaper reporter covering the Maryland statehouse ultimately bored her: “I didn’t want to spend one more minute in Annapolis — not that there’s anything wrong with Annapolis — than I had to,” she says. When she landed at TAL, she said, she realized that there, “nobody does stories they don’t want to do. But you have to earn it: You can’t just have all this self-indulgent fluff; it’s based on reporting.”
This season, the reporting is being done even more in real time, and I ask her what makes her nervous about that. “Uh, getting it done. I don’t say that lightly: It’s a bear to get something like this off the ground, and I was nervous about this in the same way I am about every story I do. But this one more so than last season: It’s making sure I knew what the hell I was talking about. I had a big learning curve on this one. I’m not a war reporter. I’m not a national-security reporter. You know what I mean?” Like Glass, she hadn’t followed the Bergdahl story as it unfolded.
Boal is, if anything, the opposite: His method is that of the embed, which he did with the military for Playboy when writing the pieces that became The Hurt Locker. Making Zero Dark Thirty, he got so close with the CIA that he was allowed to attend then-director Leon Panetta’s classified ceremony honoring the team that hunted down Osama bin Laden. That movie sold itself as a journalistic narrative, built from reporting, but was later criticized for being too dependent on official government sources eager to furnish the public with an official story. And, as you might predict, Boal’s mission for the second season is a bit different from that of his TAL collaborators, whose method inevitably humanizes (and sympathizes with) its subject, in this case a man who may have endangered his fellow soldiers with what he now describes as a kind of conscientious-objector’s protest in a war zone. Boal is less forgiving: His object is to tell the story of Afghanistan in a way that does justice to military heroes. “I struggle in terms of Bowe’s story and the larger scheme of things: There are so many people who have served in Afghanistan, who have honorably and honestly served with actual heroism. So it’s difficult for me to tell a story of someone who walked away. That is something that I wrestle with.”
Which makes for an unusual collaboration. Boal says his nephew, Teddy Gold, a student at Middlebury, first suggested it. “I just want to be sure he gets credit,” Boal says, “because it’ll drive Hugo crazy.” Hugo is Hugo Lindgren, the president of Page One, who had done a special issue with This American Life when he was editor of The New York Times Magazine (he also worked at New York) and who brought the material to Serial. “We had these tapes and they were interesting tapes, they were kind of all over the place,” Lindgren says. “They sounded like conversations at three o’clock in the morning when the interrogation with the police had been going on a while and going off the rails.”
“You can say the tapes weren’t intended for broadcast, but it’s a little more than that,” Boal says. If, with a piece of journalism, the relationship with a source is a sort of “one-night-stand situation,” Bergdahl was a serious courtship. Since there was no deadline, “I had the luxury of spending a year talking to Bowe,” he says.
Lindgren wanted to know if Snyder thought the tapes could be the basis for a podcast, and shared some of the transcripts with her and Koenig. “I was like, ‘Don’t let anybody fuck it up,’ ” Koenig says. “Don’t let anybody turn it into the smaller, flashier, simpler thing, which might … happen. Because that happens. If you care about the nuance of this, the emotion of this, give it to This American Life, or give it to us, or someone like us. But keep it close. It’s vulnerable, it’s very personal. You don’t want someone playing fast and loose with it.”
It is tricky: Bergdahl is still in the Army and still, on top of that, facing charges. Ultimately, he is trusting Boal to tell his story in a way he may not ever be able to himself. Which meant that Boal had to then decide whether to trust Serial. “He was extremely nervous and cautious to turn this over to us, which I completely understand,” Koenig says of Boal. “I didn’t get that at first; I was like, ‘What’s the problem?’ But it’s his voice, it’s very personal. He’s the me in the Adnan relationship, and the notion that I would turn over my 42 hours with Adnan and give them to another reporter — no way. Ever. It’s a nonstarter. The fact is that he took that leap of faith. And he’s just now, I think, breathing a little easier.”
“You could not pick two people with more different work habits than Mark and Sarah,” notes Lindgren.
Just before the first episode’s premiere, they let me sit in on a conference call in which Koenig read her script for episode two with Boal, Snyder, Chivvis, Glass, and several others on the line — she reads live, and then the producers play the relevant clips, with anyone listening weighing in with notes. Typically, there are multiple rounds of edits, often via Skype, to get the rhythm and pace and facts right. In this session, the only time Boal interrupted was after, in a classic Koenig aside to the listener, she said, “I bet you didn’t know that grapes are Afghanistan’s biggest horticultural crop.”
“I think opium is,” said Boal.
“Is that a horticultural crop?”
They agreed to fact-check it and later took it out.
At the end of the read-through, which Glass timed at 46 minutes and 45 seconds, he wondered if the theme of the episode shouldn’t be made a bit more explicit. To which Koenig responded: “I like it that you come to that realization.”
“That’s a classy way to do it.”
“I’m classy that way.”
“I can say with a lot of confidence that nobody knows how this will end,” says Boal later. “And I’ve looked at the outlines for future episodes. One of the exciting things about Sarah is that she lets listeners into her deliberative process. And I’ve tried many times to get her to give me a preview of that process, and she doesn’t like to do it that way. She likes to do it in real time. So I’m pretty much just as curious as you are.”
As I’m leaving her office, Koenig gets a message on her phone: “Ohhhh, I’m so excited! Oh, I’m so psyched! This is someone who I loved but who was super-skittish about getting on the phone, for reasons which I completely understand.” And who now, having heard the first episode, is willing to talk.
*This article appears in the December 28, 2015 issue of New York Magazine.