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Stories That Make People Care

Serial host Sarah Koenig on compelling, empathetic storytelling in the age of audio.

Words by Carrie Neill, Visuals by Emi Tolibas

“I can say it fast—four nights in jail. Or I can say it like it felt to Anna—Thursday night, then Friday night, Saturday night, then Sunday night. For a bar fight—four days and nights. It was loud in there. People shouting and arguing up and down and across the cells.”

That’s Serial host Sarah Koenig in the megahit podcast’s third season opener, relaying the story of a young woman charged with assaulting a police officer. Since the launch of the show in 2014, Koenig has become something of a People Nerd superstar; millions of listeners have been captivated by her in-the-moment approach to storytelling and her undeniable relatability. As The New Yorker put it, the show “sounds like your smart friend is investigating a murder and telling you about it.”

But it’s more than Serial’s relaxed tone that have made it—and Koenig— a global phenomenon. It’s moments like this one, where Koenig goes the extra step to put listeners in Anna’s shoes, to draw that line of connection between subject and audience, that elevate the show from enticing human interest story to a profound look at the complexities of modern life.

It’s also a deft storytelling device. If Serial’s first two seasons were structurally similar to a novel or a season of prestige TV, its most recent, which unspools from inside a Cleveland courthouse, is more akin to a series of interconnected short stories. For a show whose reputation has been closely connected to the journeys of a few key characters, it could have been a stumbling block. But Koenig and the Serial team (she co-hosts the third season with fellow journalist Emmanuel Dzotsi) are adept at establishing those moments of connection throughout the season, allowing them to craft a broader commentary on the criminal justice system while still painting a compelling human portrait.

dscout sat down with Koenig to talk about Serial’s third season, what it takes to get people to open up, and the role empathy plays in podcasting.

dscout: In the first two seasons of the show, you were tackling subjects and stories that are traditionally attractive to journalists: a murder case and a case about the military and the Taliban and congressional investigations. But in Season 3, you’re presenting a number of smaller stories about the lives of people who interact with the criminal justice system in one city, Cleveland. Their stories are much less sensational and more representative—and yet, they’re still incredibly captivating. How do you build a compelling narrative around someone who is, at first glance, perhaps less remarkable, less unusual?

Sarah: Magic. No, just kidding. We don’t go into a season thinking, “We’re only going to tell stories about people who we think are going to be good 'characters.’” It doesn’t work that way. In the third season, we began reporting three times as many stories as actually made it into the series. Sometimes, no matter how much imagination or creativity you throw at a story, it can still end up being just a little boring. Or maybe you can’t get access to all the people you need to really tell it, or it seems duplicative of something else. Sometimes it just doesn’t work.

But one of the ingredients that always bubbles up with the people we do focus on is that they’re people we liked. Had affection for. Empathy for. For me to stay in it, I have to feel some attachment. And then when you feel that, the trick is how to communicate it in your story. But if you feel that attachment, often that just kind of happens. It’ll come through in the tape. Listeners hear a certain humaneness to the interactions that are happening. It just feels like normal people talking to one another who like each other. And that’s nice to listen to. When you can get that feeling into a story, that’s the difference. Then, no matter what the plot is, you want to be with these people because you can sense there’s something the reporter is interested in. There’s an interest the reporter is conveying in the story that listeners can grab onto.

The other thing that’s crucial is that I always have a question going in. That’s something our editor is always asking: “What's your question? What are you trying to find out? What are you trying to learn here? What about this don't you already understand?” There has to be something about this seemingly banal set of circumstances that’s confusing to me that I want to explore. Not in a didactic, “I’m going to use this person to explain to you, dear listeners, how this system works” kind of way, but genuinely. That turns out to be compelling partly because it's real. Even for people who are experts and understand the nuances of the system. This season we heard from a ton of attorneys and prosecutors and even cops who told us they’d been trying to communicate the reality of the system to family and friends and people outside the courthouse for a long time and they’d never really been able to do it, but they felt like we really got it. That’s so gratifying to hear—that our questions are the same questions a lot of people have.

I’m sorry, I'm very long-winded. I need to work on it.

Not at all! That all made sense.

I know, but I'm so jealous of other people who give interviews. I listen to them and think, how are they so pithy? Their answers are so economical. How do they do that? I can't do that.

Your relatability feels like one of the key things that resonates with listeners. You give such honest reactions to people when you’re interviewing them—listeners get a real sense of how you’re connecting to what you’re hearing.

It’s definitely not something that I invented—This American Life has been doing that for a long time, bringing the narrator or reporter on stage. The first directive I got at This American Life was always: mic your questions, mic your questions, mic your questions. That was my first experience in radio, and that was radical to me. Why would my words matter? Why do my questions matter? It makes for better storytelling. It’s more entertaining, but it’s also more transparent. We’re showing you how we’re putting the show together, that there’s nothing underhanded or sneaky about what’s going on.

We also use those moments sparingly, for pacing or in service of an idea or a point. Believe me, you’re not hearing all my reactions, not by a long shot. It would be a ridiculous mess if you heard everything I was doing. But I think almost all reporters have those kinds of reactions during interviews. We’re just people talking to other people. We’re going to have reactions, especially when we’re talking to people about things that are disturbing or uncomfortable or ugly or heartbreaking. What I hope it does is help listeners trust me, and trust that I’m not manufacturing a preconceived story.

Do you think it affects how people hear the narrative? As a journalist, of course, you’re meant to be impartial. So how do you balance being part of the story, while also curating the story?

We are always trying to be as fair as we can, to find the truth, to convey ideas, and to have empathy for the people we’re talking to.

Sarah Koenig

I think what you're asking, is, as a journalist, is it ethical? How do you balance the journalistic ethics with sort of having an emotional response? And you have to watch it. It’s not anything goes. Just because you're having a reaction doesn't mean it's a valid, worthy reaction. I have, thank God, the power of editing, so I can get rid of stuff that shouldn't be in there. So of course it's curated. But we never forget our roles as journalists. We are always trying to be as fair as we can, to find the truth, to convey ideas, and to have empathy for the people we're talking to.

Obviously, not all of the people you’re speaking with are people you agree with—or they might have really reductive or simplistic views of other people who are part of the story. Yet they often really open up to you. How do you build that kind of relationship with someone you might disagree with fundamentally?

Sometimes you just get lucky—there are some people who will say whatever the hell is on their mind regardless of who's listening. They’ve been waiting their whole lives for someone to come along with a microphone and start recording.

I’m happy to let a person say their piece. It doesn’t mean it’s going to make it into the story, but they’re giving me their time. If they want to lecture me for 45 minutes about how a certain police procedure is foolproof, I sort of say, “Sure. Go for it. Here's your moment. Talk.” I want them to feel heard. And I really, genuinely do try to listen to them, even if I come in with a preconceived idea that what they’re saying is all horseshit, or part horseshit. I really try to be open-minded about it. Because often, I really do learn something. They’ll make a point I hadn’t thought about or say something that I hadn’t previously understood was so important to them. I try to listen for that.

I also try to do what I think every responsible journalist does, which is not to blindside people. I always go to people, as uncomfortable as it can be, before a piece airs to give them an idea of what we’re going to say, so they have another chance to respond if they want to. I feel like that’s just being fair. There are always going to be people who will be pissed off no matter what, but at least you can let them know what’s coming so they aren’t surprised by what they hear, and give them a chance to respond.

Sarah is the keynote speaker at People Nerds San Francisco in May! Learn More

In making a season of Serial, you're recording hundreds and hundreds of hours of conversations with people, and then you have to go through all of that tape and parse out the pieces you’ll actually use on air for the story. How do you know when you’ve hit on that moment that will really capture listeners and make for compelling storytelling?

It's different in different contexts. For the third season, we were recording so much in the courthouse, and so much of what is happening there is mannered and theatrical: “Ladies and gentlemen, if it please the court.” Or there’s manufactured outrage. That stuff wasn’t so interesting to us. But we tried to pick up on anything that felt off-script or genuinely emotional. Sometimes you’d hear someone be very vulnerable. You could tell that they didn’t walk into the court that day expecting to say what they said, and that’s when our ears would perk up.

In a more general reporting context—often I know it’s a compelling moment when I can’t wait to tell someone else. If I immediately wanted to call my executive producer or my co-host and say, “Oh my God, you'll never guess”—that’s a good sign. If I can't wait to tell you about it, that's probably good tape.

I know it’s a compelling moment when I can’t wait to tell someone else. If I immediately wanted to call my executive producer or my co-host and say, “Oh my God, you’ll never guess”—that’s a good sign. If I can’t wait to tell you about it, that’s probably good tape.

Sarah Koenig

The stories you’re presenting on each season are journalistic investigations. Yet one of the things that’s made Serial different from the start is that people started listening to it as entertainment. And those two kinds of narratives—journalism vs entertainment—have very different structures and arcs. In entertainment, there’s almost always a definitive sense of conclusion or resolution. During your first season, even Ira Glass said at one point, “I think you guys should finish this by solving it.” Do you feel pressure to have that kind of definitive conclusion or takeaway? Or are you okay leaving things more open-ended, a bit more in line with how reality works?

I like endings that are thought provoking. And you can’t have a neat ending to real life. That would be crazy—even though people wanted it, especially with season one. But I also understand we created this. We’ve thought a lot about that, and how we could do it differently. Because people were interacting with it as entertainment even though we kept saying: “It’s journalism, it’s journalism, it's journalism.” But we produced it in a way that sounded like entertainment. That was the box we put ourselves in. But the third season, I don’t know that that conclusion was really open-ended.

No, definitely not in the same way.

As long as you’ve put in the time, done your homework, gone in with an open mind, and listened to everyone, I think it’s fine to come out and say, “Here’s what I think I can say with some authority.”

Sarah Koenig

I think in that case, we’d asked you to spend all of this time with us in this building, and it felt right to have it be a little bit more of an essay at the end about what we really think. I think that's okay as long as you've earned it as a reporter. As long as you've put in the time, done your homework, gone in with an open mind, and listened to everyone, I think it's fine to come out and say, “Here's what I think I can say with some authority.”

But in terms of a neat ending to something like season one—I can't even imagine what that would have looked look like. That could never have been a thing. Unfortunately, I think people felt betrayed when we didn’t solve the case at the end. And I thought, “Oh dear. If you thought we were going to solve this, then you have not been listening very carefully.”

Carrie Neill is a New York based writer, editor, design advocate, bookworm, travel fiend, dessert enthusiast, and a fan of People Nerds everywhere.

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