Emmanuel Dzotsi and Sarah Koenig.
Photo: Sandy Honig/Courtesy of Serial
Serial is deep into its third season, and in many ways, it’s never been better. Building on material from a year spent embedded in Cleveland’s Justice Center Complex, the team is painting a striking portrait of life as processed by the bureaucracy of the city’s criminal-justice system. That portrait is often difficult to absorb, but it is also nuanced, complex, and packed with vivid characters who spend their days at the center, from judges and defenders to ordinary people waiting for their day in court. When the season is running at full speed, it provides the highs of a great journalistic documentary study as well as the warmth of a workplace drama.
This season sees Sarah Koenig joined by This American Life reporter Emmanuel Dzotsi — born in England and raised in Ohio — who moved back to his home state for the year to work on the project. On the eve of a string of episodes that will feature Dzotsi behind the microphone, Vulture caught up with the new Serial co-host about how the season is coming along, growing up in Ohio, and being occasional roommates with his boss.
How’s the season going so far?
Things are going pretty well. Well, I say that, but I really have no metric on how these things are supposed to go. [Laughs.] It’s the first time I’ve done this. We came into the season with four, maybe five episodes done, which is way more than we’ve ever had coming into a season of Serial. But now we’re getting to a place where I’m realizing, “Wait, it’s almost Thanksgiving?”
So we’re hitting the part of the season where you’re reporting and producing as you go?
Basically, yeah. We had some extra time to really dig into these upcoming episodes, but I suspect the last two episodes are going to be like a mad sprint. [Laughs.] I’m excited for it. And I know Sarah [Koenig] acts like she’s not excited, but I think she is. We’ve been lucky to have a year and some change to work on this. I feel that way particularly when I see my colleagues across the hall at This American Life, or at pretty much any daily podcast, where they sometimes have to put out these detailed, reported stories within 12 hours. But that’s just the name of the game these days, right?
How did you spend that year? Did you go into Cleveland with a set of stories to pursue, or did you wait for story threads to emerge over time?
With the way we structured the season, we needed to talk about the machinery of this criminal justice system in the first few episodes. But it wasn’t like we picked the system and then found stories to tell about that system — it felt like it was both at the same time. The longer we spent in Cleveland, the more we started getting past … I don’t want to call it “the surface level,” but you begin to get past a certain initial reflection of a place. You know more people, you dive in deeper. For the next few episodes, we’ll be talking about people and a system that we’ve been following for months and months and months and months. Because we’ve been there watching for a long time now, we’re able to go to a different level with it.
We’re basically laying out for you the same sort of evolution that we have. But the question is — and I feel like this is the question for all our seasons — can we bring it all together? At the end of the day, people are going to be, like, “What are you saying?” I know in the past, people haven’t been satisfied with some of our endings, but I think there’s something we really have to say, and I think it will be really special.
What’s it like co-hosting the season with Sarah Koenig?
The term “co-hosting” didn’t really get thrown around until we started talking about the structure of the season. There were stories early on that, by virtue of me living full-time in Cleveland for the year and Sarah coming in every other week, that I had to just go out and do the reporting on my own. It was literally, “Well, Sarah can’t go because she’s literally not there.”
A big part of my job was to embed in the courthouse. When something interesting happened in a courtroom, and when all the people involved left that courtroom, I would literally follow them out and that would be my whole day. I didn’t think that was going to be case at the beginning. I thought I was just going to gather tape — that’s basically the life of a stringer, you know? But around October of last year, Julie said, “Well, no, we’re actually going to have you report this story.”
But given that this is my first time with a project like this, it was more than enough for me to just do the things I’m doing. [Laughs.] And at the end of the day, Serial, delightfully, is Sarah’s show. People tune in to listen to Serial to learn things about the system, but they also want to hear one of the best writers on the radio do her thing.
How did moving to Cleveland work? Did Ira Glass cover rent?
[Laughs.] So, basically, when Julie pitched the job to me, she said, “We’re going to move you out there, you can find a place of your own, and obviously we’re paying for it on top of your salary.” I’ve always been puzzled by this, but I think there was a real concern that I wouldn’t have wanted to move. They were like, “We’ll find you some sort of Airbnb situation or a two-bedroom place as long as you’re okay sharing it with Sarah from time to time.” The show would be paying for her hotel rooms when she comes into town anyway, so this actually makes more sense in the long run. And that’s basically what happened: We ended up booking an Airbnb and renewed it over and over again. It ended up working quite well. I’d never met Sarah in person before because she’s usually based in Pennsylvania. We’d talk on the phone about stories for Serial and This American Life, obviously, but it wasn’t until the day after I moved there when she showed up and I met my boss in person. [Laughs.]
It must be a little weird to move back home to Ohio to work on a project like this. What has that felt like?
My family, after moving around a bunch of places, wound up in Toledo, Ohio, around 2005. My dad worked for a company which had offices all over the world, but was headquartered in Toledo — they were basically employing 50 percent of the city, and the other half mostly worked for GM in Detroit — so when the financial crisis hit, you know, it was an issue. I went to Ohio State for college and moved to Chicago after graduating. Like a lot of people, when I left my home state, I thought I was never going back. Maybe that’s why Julie was afraid I wouldn’t move. But I actually really liked being back in Ohio.
It was also hard, particularly because Ohio can be a very segregated state. Obviously Cleveland is a very different city from Toledo, but it’s still very Ohioan and midwestern in that way. One part of town is particularly diverse or black, and the other part of town is just not. The suburbs, especially, is really white, and everyone who runs the city is from the suburbs. New York, especially Brooklyn, can be a very segregated place, but in New York, as a black person, I’ve gotten used to living my life in a certain way. I’ve gotten used to my friend groups looking a certain way. I’ve gotten used to disappearing in New York. I’ve never really felt conscious — well, maybe in Tribeca — but there are many places in New York where I don’t feel conscious about my race. Whereas the big thing that really hit me when I moved back to Ohio was having to understand, again, certain social rules and norms. In a lot of different parts of Cleveland, black people and white people just do not mix. I understood it as a child and a teenager, and then coming back to it after having lived in relatively diverse places as an adult, that was a real social shock to me. Especially when you’re reporting on the criminal justice system, there were certain things I had to relearn about what it means to be a black person in a place like Cleveland. About the vision some might have of criminality and its connection to blackness, and what that means.
All that was really, really important for my reporting. Also, growing up there, I felt like I knew the people I was reporting on. I remember watching some jury selections, and people were talking about themselves and their background, and I was just like, “Oh my God, that is basically my best friend’s dad from another dimension.” [Laughs.] One of the guys I’ve been reporting on for the next two episodes, I grew up with people like that. I know that dude. Judge Gaul in episode two, I know that guy.
Despite the fact you grew up in Ohio, do you think you’re perceived as an outsider because of your English accent? I’m thinking of the moment in that second episode, when Judge Gaul seems to regard you as an acceptable person to share his opinions on the black people he judges.
That is actually something I’ve dealt with my entire time growing up in Toledo. When I first moved here, the way I actually learned about race relations in the United States was because a lot of white people I knew had very narrow definitions about what blackness could be. A lot of black people have this experience, I think, when a white person who gets to know you starts saying things they wouldn’t normally say about black people, because maybe they don’t see you as one of them. With that, I think there’s definitely an outsider perspective going on. And yeah, maybe it made it easier to get some people to be a little more honest about how they think about things — often in a way that makes me cringe. [Laughs.] But I’m not going to lie, sometimes it was an obstacle. An English accent — because of colonialism and centuries of oppression — carries a certain authoritativeness, right? If you take that connotation, and then you hear it coming out from a black person, and you have your own prejudices about black people and their place in society, I don’t know, that’s got to be confusing for you.
So, for some people, I was a bit of an unknown quantity. But I also think our presence as reporters in that courthouse was different for people. The public radio stations around the Cleveland area have some great reporters, but they don’t really have the resources for a pool reporter who sits around the Justice Center all day. Even just the notion of an audio interview, sometimes that doesn’t exist. Ohio has some great sunshine laws which allow you to walk onto the street and record all day if you wanted to, but there aren’t a ton of people taking advantage of that. And so, in general, people were weirded out but also interested to see this really smart, intelligent woman walking around with a microphone asking all these questions, followed by this young, black English guy doing the same thing. [Laughs.] I can’t tell you how many times where we’re explaining what we do, and people are just like, “Wait, how’s the blog doing again?” But I also have to say, there weren’t very many black reporters around the courthouse. You’re talking about a lot of people who aren’t used to being interviewed about black people by black people.
This interview has been edited and condensed.