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Sarah Koenig gives keynote address at COM’s Narrative Conference

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Sarah Koenig, the final keynote speaker at this year’s College of Communication Power of Narrative conference, recounted Sunday how she tried her best to ignore the fervent Reddit community as her wildly popular podcast Serial was airing last fall. The Reddit armchair detectives were trying to solve a 15-year-old murder case that Koenig and her staff were revisiting over the course of a dozen episodes. The podcast, a spinoff of This American Life, explored the 1999 murder of Baltimore teenager Hae Min Lee and the arrest and conviction of the man accused of killing her, former boyfriend Adnan Syed.

“Stuff I wasn’t putting in the episodes for ethical reasons [was getting on Reddit],” Koenig told a rapt audience of several hundred writers, multimedia producers, and students. “It was overwhelming, but it didn’t change the reporting.”

Koenig’s appearance was the highlight of the annual Power of Narrative conference, which this year explored how content creators can stay savvy, skilled, and solvent in journalism’s wired era. The three-day event brought 43 journalists to campus, among them former New York Times executive editor Jill Abramson, Russian-American journalist Masha Gessen, who is covering the Boston Marathon bombings for the Washington Post, and best-selling author and journalist Mitchell Zuckoff, COM’s inaugural Sumner M. Redstone Professor in Narrative Studies.

Over the course of her hour-and-a-half keynote, aptly titled What the…, Koenig, Serial’s host, cocreator, and coproducer, explained how she applied old-school, traditional reporting to the murder case and the arrest and imprisonment of Syed, who continues to proclaim his innocence and has argued that he received ineffective legal counsel.

Because of the stakes involved, among them the reputations of nearly two dozen witnesses and investigators, Koenig said she and her team “triple-checked” every fact before including it in the podcast. A veteran reporter who covered criminal justice and worked as a state house reporter at the Baltimore Sun and New Hampshire’s Concord Monitor before joining This American Life more than a decade ago, Koenig said the meat of Serial was “unglamorous, sloggy reporting.”

By way of example, she pulled up page 767 of the trial’s 2,000-page case file. “It was like asking for a sweater and instead getting an angry ball of yarn,” she told the audience. Wading through this massive document and cross-referencing dates, she discovered that “Mr. S,” who found Lee’s body, wasn’t telling the whole truth. Even when sources couldn’t or wouldn’t be interviewed for the podcast, the documents helped her rigorously report the story. The audience was right alongside her in her reporting, which she would detail on air, being clear to say when she was unsure of something or when a detail in the case didn’t make sense. She described this as “show your work” journalism.

As they were first putting the podcast together, Koenig said, she and the producing team thought that if they were lucky, 300,000 people might download each episode. Instead, it has been downloaded more than 78 million times.

Koenig acknowledged that at times she may have been too chummy with Syed during their 42 hours of phone conversations (she was never allowed to visit him in prison). She played a clip of one of the interviews for the COM audience and then critiqued it. “I’m laughing too much; it seems like we’re friends,” she said. “And he was trying to charm me.”

She said she believes that what drew many listeners to the podcast week after week was its cinematic features. “We designed it so it would feel like great TV,” she said, adding that she has yet to see the HBO murder documentary The Jinx: The Life and Times of Robert Durst, which has been compared to Serial. “Like a TV series, we had to end with a question to make people want to come back to hear the next episode… When people listened, we wanted to light up the part of their brains that lights up when they watch House of Cards.

Just two months after the final podcast aired in December 2014, the Maryland Court of Special Appeals agreed to hear an appeal by Syed, who has argued that his trial lawyer failed to pursue a plea bargain and also failed to follow up with a critical alibi witness.

“I do think there is something not right about this case,” Koenig told the audience.

When asked toward the end of her talk if she could reveal details about the case she will take on for season two, Koenig declined. “It’s hard to find a story that has enough substance and is currently unfolding,” she said.

On a lighter note, when asked which Serial spoof she preferred—the one that appeared on Funny or Die or the one that ran on Saturday Night Live—her answer: “Funny or Die’s… But, I mean, it wasn’t something that I loved.”

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Amy Laskowski

Amy Laskowski can be reached at amlaskow@bu.edu.

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