Longtime members of the team at This American Life and co-creators of the Podcast series Serial – Koenig and Snyder discuss their careers and influences with a particular focus on Season 3 of Serial, a deep dive into the criminal justice system in and around Cleveland Ohio.

Kary:

This is the Crime Story Podcast with Kary Antholis where we have conversations about how and why narratives of crime and justice are told.  

Today’s podcast is a conversation with longtime members of the team at This American Life and co-creators of the Podcast series Serial – Sarah Koenig and Julie Snyder.

The conversation was recorded as part of a series of classes that I taught at The University of Southern California’s School of Cinematic Arts. Each week I would host an artist for a discussion that would help us better understand their values and aims as storytellers in the world of crime and justice. In addition to discussing the works and artists who shaped their creative thinking, we zeroed in on one particular piece of their work. 

With today’s guests, we chose  Season three of Serial… a deep dive into the criminal justice system in and around Cleveland Ohio. As I started listening to this season, I became obsessed with it, and worked very hard to secure an interview with Sarah and Julie.  They joined the final class of the semester… and only then by Google Hangout. (That’s why their voices sound a bit filtered.) 

Why did I care so much about interviewing them? 

Well, allow me to quote something that Sarah says about 5 minutes into episode 1 of Season 3. “Our first season was about a murder case in Baltimore.  Ever since that story aired, people ask: “What does this case tell us about the criminal justice system?” I don’t think we can understand how the criminal justice system works by interrogating one extraordinary case.  Ordinary cases are where we’d need to look… for at least a year”.  

This struck me as a profound insight into the nature of crime and justice storytelling, and has been very influential in my own understanding of how you get at truth in telling stories about today’s American system of justice. And that is why I sought out Sarah and Julie… for an opportunity to dig deeper into the insights that they gleaned from reporting season three.  So without further ado, here is that conversation.

Hey everyone, please join me in welcoming Sarah Koenig and Julie Snyder

Would you begin by giving us a sense of your path into the storytelling business… Let’s start with Julie…

Julie Snyder: 

Sure. I started working in radio when I was in college, at a college radio station, but I was just doing news then. I did the broadcast journalism class, and then they had me start teaching the class. And so I just did news. I went to school in Santa Cruz, and so I did news for the college radio station, then I worked at the local commercial news talk station, and I was the anchor during Rush Limbaugh’s show.

Julie Snyder:

And then I was getting kind of bored, after I did it for about three years, and I felt like I was still telling the same stories over and over. Like I was starting to report the same stories over and over, like how the rain was affecting the wine crops and stuff like that. So I felt like well maybe if I moved to a bigger city, that would be better.

Julie Snyder: 

So I moved to Chicago, and I worked for a commercial radio station in Chicago. And that was still really kind of dull.  And then I heard the radio show This American Life had just started. They’d been broadcasting for about six months, and when I heard that show I was like, this is much more in line with what I wanted to do. So then I applied for and got the job at This American Life, and that kind of really began where we started.

Julie Snyder:

The whole ethos of This American Life was really to just sort of tell stories in a very personal way. So like applying the tools of journalism to personal stories, and that was kind of how I first started learning how to do it and the pacing of doing it. And then later, the show sort of evolved, kind of flipped it around and used personal storytelling and applied that to more traditional journalism kind of stories, like news stories, like topical stories.

Kary: 

Sarah, would you give us a sense of your path into a storytelling career and perhaps some of your aesthetic and professional influences on your journey?

Sarah Koenig: 

I don’t really have a coherent story in my head of sort of how it happened. I would say I didn’t know what I wanted to do for a long time, like in college I didn’t know what I wanted to do, and then out of college, I didn’t know what I wanted to do. And I had so many weird jobs out of college. First of all, I went to grad school for two weeks, I lasted in grad school before dropping out of Columbia.

Kary: (09:23)

Studying?

Sarah Koenig: (09:23)

I was in the Russian History department for two weeks.

Sarah Koenig: (09:31)

And then I worked. I had so many weird, different little jobs. And then I worked in Chicago resettling Russian Jews on the north side of Chicago, and I worked as a copy clerk at the Chicago Tribune for a minute, and I think they only hired me because I said I would work on Christmas, and then I quit. It was the only job I’ve ever quit where I just walked out and I never told anybody, and nobody noticed or cared or nobody called me. I was just kind of rolling from this thing to that thing. I worked at a film festival for a little while. Anyway.

Sarah Koenig:

And then I moved to New York, I wanted to be an actress, and I did a lot of improv in college and we were pretty good. I had a group, and we were pretty good. So I moved to New York, and I was like, “I’m going to be an actress!” And so I took more small jobs, because I was going to be an actress.

Sarah Koenig: 

And then I was like this isn’t going very well, and so I took a job at my hometown newspaper, which was on Long Island, New York. And that was my first journalism job. And it was supposed to be just a summer job, and then I just ended up staying for like a year and a half.

Sarah Koenig: 

And I do come from a family that writing was very important. My stepfather was a novelist and a non-fiction writer, and that’s what he did for a living. And so I grew up with that from a very young age. My father wrote ads, like ad copy, but he was great at it and was wonderful with words, and super interested in language. So I did grow up around a lot of that, so it wasn’t strange for me that I would become a reporter, or wanted to become a reporter.

Sarah Koenig:

I mean, I didn’t really want to become a reporter, I just thought it would be sort of cool and it would give me something to do for the summer. And then, I don’t know, it felt comfortable, it felt like a thing I could do. And then, after like a year or two, I got a chance to go work in Russia, in Moscow, for ABC News. Which I did, and I didn’t like it. I did that for about a year, and I didn’t like TV at all. But a job opened up there for The New York Times, to be their local lackey-reporter-researcher in The New York Times Moscow bureau, and I took that job, I went and worked there. And that was the first time that journalism could be storytelling occurred to me. Like that had never been my understanding of what I was doing until I started working with the correspondents there.

Sarah Koenig: 

Particularly, I worked with Michael Specter and Alessandra Stanley, who were married at the time. And Alessandra in particular is a beautiful writer, and everything she wrote, even when it was very serious news, she was always amusing herself, she was always amusing herself when she was doing her work and taking it very seriously. And that to me, it was mind blowing, that you could be a reporter and also be really a true writer, and you could be funny.

Sarah Koenig:

And so that was that. After Moscow, then I just was like this is what I want to do, and I went to a small paper in New Hampshire, and that’s when I did some freelancing stories for This American Life. A friend of a friend knew somebody who worked there, and so through him I started freelancing a few stories. And then I went to a bigger paper, and I was always just like, “I can do this, and I’m pretty good at it.” I was covering politics, and the courthouse, sometimes, in Baltimore. But I had heard, kind of like Julie… I had never done any radio at all, but then I heard This American Life on the radio, and then I was like, “Oh my God. Wait, what are they doing? I want to do that. I want to work with those people.”

Sarah Koenig: 

So that’s when I started freelancing, and then when a job opened up, eventually I took it as a producer.

Kary: 

Before we dive into your experience at this American life, Julie, Sarah took us through some of her storytelling influences, particularly the literary environment that she grew up in. Would you tell us what your influences were coming up?

Julie Snyder: 

I think at the time when I first started working in radio, I didn’t know enough. Frankly, I didn’t have a background in… I come from a small town in the Midwest. We were not a family that had like the New Yorker laying around and stuff like that, which I think a lot of type people came from. I didn’t grow up listening to public radio. I didn’t have any of that stuff. It was really a matter of, when I first started watching documentaries, I think which was when I was in college. I had taken a documentary class, kind of just thinking oh, it’ll be at night and we’ll watch movies, and I thought that seemed really appealing. And then I remember then the professor, I think he understood that that was the appeal of the class, and so instead of us just launching into watching movies, made us go through other forms of documentary first. And so it was like oral history, or photography, and I was just like, “When are we getting to the movies?” But we did radio, and I was really thrown when I heard radio. The thing he played for us, there were these two women who they called themselves The Kitchen Sisters, and they still do stuff, they do podcasts, and they still do stuff for NPR. But at the time, they were doing these documentaries that were really weird, and sometimes would play, I guess, in the afternoon on All Things Considered on NPR. And one of the ones that I heard was just the sound design story of a Tupperware party that was really funny. Like the women in it were really funny, and there was like crazy stuff going on.

Julie Snyder: 

There was another story a guy told about fighting a bear, and he won. I don’t know if he even killed the bear, it was an amazing story. And those were the kind of things that I just hadn’t heard. I hadn’t heard people talk the way real people talk, and be funny and have that kind of humanness that felt like a real person. I’d never heard that on the radio. I think up to that point, all I’d ever heard were newscasters, and I thought that was the normal way of doing it.

Kary: 

And Sarah, do you remember what year the two of you first worked together?

Sarah Hoenig:

I got there in 2004, and we started… I mean Julie was… you were already senior producer, I think, by the time I got there. And Julie was in… we had a New York office, a Brooklyn office, and she was there, and I was in Chicago for a while, so we weren’t in the same space for a long time. So I didn’t like really work directly with you for a while, I think.

Julie Snyder: 

Yeah, that’s when we started working together, you know what I mean? And then kind of over the years, started doing more stories together.

Kary: 

And when you do a story together, give us a sense of roles and responsibilities, and how it breaks down between the two of you.

Sarah Koenig: 

So Julie tells me what to do, and I do it.

Julie Snyder: 

It’s weird, because we both have the title radio producer and it is odd, but basically when Sarah and I work together, I’m like the editor to her being the reporter. And Sarah was one of the first… now it’s become even more common at This American Life, where the producers really are reporters and are producing the bulk of the content for the show, reporting the bulk of the content for the show. But back when Sarah, when you first started, you were kind of the first one who was really doing that.

Julie Snyder: 

And so, because Sarah started then reporting so many stories for the show… yeah, sometimes I was your editor, sometimes Ira was your editor, but that’s basically how we started working together.

Kary: 

And the structure of This American Life, is it very collaborative? 

Julie Snyder: 

Yeah, it’s really collaborative.

Sarah Koenig: 

It’s intensely collaborative, which is why I wanted to go there. When I was working as a newspaper reporter, the times that I would freelance stories for This American Life, the process was so intense, and so collaborative. I had never experienced anything like it since, frankly, doing theater. It felt like almost putting on a show in that same way, where all these people come together and it’s like this big rush, and everyone’s bringing their ideas, and we’re arguing, and then this thing shakes out at the end.

Sarah Koenig: 

And I love that process, but it’s super super collaborative. There’s a senior producer who was Julie for many many years, the structure of it is centered on a weekly editorial meeting that lasts for hours often, where people are pitching stories to one another, bringing story ideas, and talking about what kind of shows we want to build and who’s working on what, so it’s like a pretty traditional editorial meeting, but more of just like a big long conversation.

Sarah Koenig: 

Editorial meetings, like at a newspaper when I was there, would just be like, “What do you got? What’s on the front? What are you working…” and then it was over, it would be like 15 minutes and everybody back to work. And at This American Life it was like yes, we were bringing ideas, and kind of doing thumbs up, thumbs down on what we should be pursuing, but it was also often we were just generating ideas through conversation.

Sarah Koenig: 

And Ira’s not really leading that meeting, he’s part of that meeting, and he was very influential in that meeting, I would say, but he’s not running it. Julie was running that meeting, and setting the priorities for the show, I think.

Julie Snyder: 

Yeah, I was a little more of management on that stuff. But yeah, and then it’s just a very cool process of where to do a story for This American Life… like the idea was that you don’t have to be a radio reporter, you don’t have to be an official voice to do a story for the show. Basically, if you pitch a story, you can do it. And so, the producer then gets assigned to the reporter and will help them basically navigate the whole thing, help them figure out what the story is, identify who all the people are they’re going to interview, goes with them. That’s why you hear a lot of times in those stories, where the reporter will say, “I went with my producer Julie, and we walked up to the door”. It’s why you hear the producers are so prevalent in the stories.

Julie Snyder:

And then from there, we do an edit process of where we do a lot of edits, we keep on bringing on new people and getting more feedback and more ideas, and it’s just like we still kind of do it all on that process today. Like we’ve got kind of a main core group of people who are putting it together, but we’re constantly reaching out and asking other people to weigh in.

Commercial Break for Crimestory.com  

Kary:

Could you take us through how the idea to do the first season of Serial came about, and then after the success of the first season, how the idea evolved – for season three – to spend one year in American courthouse.

Sarah Koenig: 

I would say in around 2012 or so, 2011 even, Julie I think you said to me, we should start our own show. Like we should make a thing together.

Julie Snyder: 

We should.

Sarah Koenig: 

We should take off, we should take it over.

Julie Snyder: 

We should take it over.  Make a break for it.

Sarah Koenig: 

We should make a break for it. Julie wanted to make a break for it, and she was like, “You should host a thing.” And I was like, “What? That’s crazy!”

Sarah Koenig:

And yeah, I had no ambitions to do that. It really had never occurred to me as something to do, not because I didn’t think I could do it, although I probably didn’t think I could do it, but also just it wasn’t my ambition. I was perfectly happy making stories and thought I was fine. But Julie was like, “No, I think we should try something.”

Sarah Koenig:

But we didn’t know what that thing would be. And then, after a while… we had done an experiment for an episode of This American Life that was called This Week, and the conceit of the show was that all the stories in the show had happened in the seven days prior to the broadcast. So it was like a news magazine show, but in the style of This American Life. So like big national stories but covered our way, and then also little personal stories, mixed together. And the thing tied it together, it had all happened that week, which is just a very very different model from anything that This American Life normally does. 

Sarah Koenig: 

And so Julie and I had worked on that show, and we had a really good time doing it, and worked well together, and it just seemed fun, so we thought that was going to be our show. It was going to be called This Week. And we pitched it to the larger group after about a year, I think, or so. We pitched it to the whole staff of This American Life at this retreat we went to, which was… anyway. And we pitched the whole thing, and nobody liked it.

Julie Snyder: 

Yeah, they hated it.

Sarah Koenig: 

Like people didn’t even know where to look, they were like avoiding eye-

Julie Snyder:

Yeah, they were embarrassed for us. They thought it was such a bad idea.

Sarah Koenig: 

It was really bad. But we didn’t give up, honestly. We didn’t give up. We made another This Week show for This American Life, just to try out the model, just be like, “Hey, this works, right? We can do this.” And then, after more months went by, I remember Ira called me and was like, “Okay, so if you and Julie want to do this This Week thing, I’ll back you.” And like, “You go try it and I’m behind you.” But he was like, “But before we commit to that idea,” he was like, “Do you have any other ideas?”

Sarah Koenig: 

Because I guess he wasn’t so hot on it either. And I was like, I don’t know, what if we tried this other thing? My idea was like what if we just did sort of the opposite of This Week, which was one story, one documentary story over time, we follow it week after week, and you come back to the same story. And I liked that because I really like books on tape, and I, at that time, was really afraid of flying. I can fly now, but I really had a very very hard time with airplanes at that time. And so I had been working on a story in North Carolina, and I live in the middle of Pennsylvania, and so I was doing that drive a lot. And so I listened to a lot of books on tape, and I was like, “That’s what I want to make.” Like I just basically want to make a book on tape.

Sarah Koenig: 

I mean I didn’t say that to you guys, but that’s what I wanted to make. And he immediately was like, “Huh, that’s a good idea.” And then I think I pitched it to Julie, or we talked to Julie, and she was like, “Hmmm that’s good.” And everybody agreed right away, like very fast. It was just that quick that we started. And so then the next thing was like okay, what would the story be? And how should we try this out?

Sarah Koenig: 

And Julie and I initially had talked about making a radio show, not a podcast. We were going to make a radio show, and I was already working on the story of the Adnan Syed case for This American Life, like I was going to do it as an episode of This American Life. And so then when we got the idea for Serial and we needed a first story, I was like, “Well, what about this one I’m already working on?” And I just kind of sketched out, here’s what episode one could be, here’s what two could be, here’s what three could be. Because it was such a complicated story, and it was a whole world that I was learning about, and the case itself was complicated, but it brought up all these larger questions, and so I sketched out a thing. And then we were like all right, let’s do it. It was pretty fast, I would say, that we settled on that one story. And then we just did it.

Kary:

You did season two, you did the Bowe Bergdahl case, and then you found yourself asked the question what does this one story tell us about the justice system? And you asked yourselves that question, and how did that conversation go? And how did it morph into Cleveland?

Julie Snyder: 

I mean I think basically, like going back to the first season’s story, the Adnan Syed case. When Sarah had first told me about it, what was really appealing to me about that story was that I thought it would be an interesting way to approach a wrongful conviction story. I really love criminal justice stories, and stories about the court system and cases, and I’ve read a lot of them. I really have consumed a lot of those stories, I’ve read a lot of them.

Julie Snyder: 

And at that time, I had felt like wrongful conviction stories had gotten a little rote, of where I felt like a lot of times there was an obvious thing to point to about what had gone wrong in the case. That either you had seen it was like a racially biased jury, or prosecutorial misconduct, or crooked cops, or like a drunk defense attorney falling asleep at the table. And I had suspected, just from kind of doing research and knowing more about the courts, that it was much more mundane than that. That there was a systemic way that wrongful convictions were happening, where you couldn’t see it. It was happening just in the machinery that we’d built.

Julie Snyder: 

So what I liked about the Adnan Syed story was that it was one where you didn’t see an obvious place where something went wrong, and where there was a real feeling among courthouse watchers, and people involved in the case and everything, that it was a pretty… yeah, that was it. It was like… justice was done, you know, got a trial, got convicted and nobody took a second look at it. So I thought it was really a nice opportunity to go in and take a sideways kind of approach to talking about the more kind of hidden problems in the criminal justice system.

Julie Snyder: 

So that was cool, it was just that after that first season, and in the year since, there has been so much interest in crime and true crime stories, and that’s been cool to watch, to an extent, but a lot of it’s really gross and it felt like it wasn’t really dealing with the way courts and crime actually really occur and are experienced by most people in the criminal justice system. And then for us as well, that a lot of people… and we say this at the beginning of the third season of Serial, but a lot of people would ask us about the first season, the Adnan Syed case, like what does this case tell us about the criminal justice system?

Julie Snyder: 

And for that, again there’s the systemic kind of things that were going on, but on the other hand, we definitely felt like this case in so many ways was not emblematic of what happens in courthouses across America on a daily basis. Just the fact that Adnan Syed had a trial alone makes him an anomaly. And a private criminal defense attorney. He had no record. It was first degree murder. All of those are things that you don’t see very often at all in a courtroom.

Julie Snyder: 

So that was when we had thought about doing a year in the courthouse. And we kind of stole that. We basically totally ripped off that idea from a book that we had read that had come out like 10 years before where a reporter in Chicago had spent a year inside one courtroom in Chicago, and so we kind of stole that idea. And we didn’t do one courtroom in Cleveland, but same idea.

Kary: 

And once the decision was reached, what was the first thing? How did you pick Cleveland? And then, once you picked Cleveland, how did you put the team together and where did you start?

Sarah Koenig: 

We thought about a bunch of cities. What we wanted was a place that was big enough where you were going to see different kinds of cases, and that felt sort of fairly typical for America. And we thought of Philadelphia, we thought of Baltimore, we thought of Chicago. And the problem was getting access to the courtrooms. I mean the courtrooms, obviously you’d have access to, but recording anything was either entirely prohibited, or in the case of Chicago, which I think was the place that we got closest to before we chose Cleveland, it was just so prohibitively difficult, we weren’t going to be allowed free access to roam, and that’s what I felt like we needed to do for sure.

Sarah Koenig: 

And so, another journalist who we’re friends with and knew what we were interested in, said you guys should check out Cleveland. He knew this lovely judge there that he had interviewed. And so, we called up Cleveland, and we got a meeting with the administrative judge for the felony court there, and it was weird, it really didn’t even take much convincing. He was like, “Yeah, whatever. Bring it.” Like, “Anyone can record in here.” And I kept waiting for the conditions, or for the other shoe to drop, whatever, and he was just like, “Yeah, no, I mean, whatever. I’ll let them know.” And just like, “Whatever.” I was like, “Really?”

Sarah Koenig:

And then the first thing I did, which is what I would do with any story, is just start reading about what’s going on in Cleveland right now and who the players are, and then just start calling people and say hey, can you educate me about Cleveland, what’s going on, what are the issues in the criminal justice system? I think a new prosecutor was about to get elected, so that was happening. So I just started calling people, calling people, calling people.

Sarah Koenig: 

And then I was like screw it, I’ve just got to go. Like I don’t even know what I’m looking for, but I’m just going to go. A big capital murder case was going on, and someone said that’s probably the biggest thing we’ve had in a while. And so I just started going and following that case. It was a big involved, I don’t know, maybe month long trial or something like that. It does not appear in the show, we didn’t end up using it, but it was a really great way to kind of get an introduction to the building, meet a lot of the main players in the building, frankly, because everybody somehow had a piece of this trial or was interested in this trial. Sometimes, people would just come sit and watch because it was like a big deal case, and we hired Emmanuel Dzotsi who ended up reporting in the series with me, and he does a couple of stories in the series.

Sarah Koenig:

So it really was just the three of us. I mean it was me and Emmanuel, and Julie back in New York. And Emmanuel moved to Cleveland for us, and he was at the courthouse almost every day. I live four hours away, so I was going almost every week for a couple of days. And that’s how we started, we just showed up.Commercial for CrimeStory.com.

Kary: 

Tell us about getting access to the subjects, the defendants in the cases that we heard.

Sarah Koenig: 

Some of them came through attorneys, like I would meet the attorney first, and just get to talking and, “Do you have any interesting cases?” And, “What’s going on?”

Sarah Koenig:

And so a few cases for me were like that, through attorneys I found them. And a couple were things I’d read about in the newspaper, where I just kind of cold went to the defendant and said, or the former defendant and said, “Hey, I’m interested in your case. Can you talk about it?”

Sarah Koenig:

There seemed to be an inverse proportionality to the seriousness of a case and the willingness to talk to me. The ones who I would think would not talk, and should not talk, would talk. And the ones who I was like I literally cannot understand what possible harm it could do, they were the ones who were like uh-uh-uh, or would set a meeting with me and not show up, or say sure sure sure and then I would never hear from them again.

Sarah Koenig: (38:39)

So yeah, like the woman in the first story who, you know, gets in a bar fight and ends up with a minor misdemeanor… or a fourth degree misdemeanor, it’s actually not a minor misdemeanor… I mean it probably took me six or seven months to get her to talk to me. So yeah, it was weird. And then the guy who was accused of shooting the five month old baby and killing her was like, “Yeah, yeah, no problem. Yeah, let’s talk.”

Sarah Koenig: (39:07)

So there was no predicting. And sometimes it didn’t work. There were people I really really tried to get and could not, they just didn’t want to participate. I mean I don’t think there was any major story we tried to follow where we had to kill it because we couldn’t get the people, I think. But yeah, it was unpredictable, a little bit.

Kary: 

The series seems to build to some pretty bleak conclusions, with on the one hand the idea that many Cleveland police officers view young black men as doomed to wasted lives of crime and prison, and on the other hand the idea that a young black man like Jesse experiences so much humiliation and abuse by cops… that their anger and frustration at their own passivity builds to a point where they feels compelled to try to salvage their self-respect and dignity by lashing out. Would you say that you intentionally created those arcs in the series, or was it much less formal than that?

Julie Snyder:

No, it was just that formal. It was exactly that formal.

Julie Snyder: 

There was definitely an idea of wanting to build… I think there’s an element, and really Jesse was kind of one of the main people that I felt very aware of, of trying to like build up to, because Jesse in a lot of ways, he can be really trying, he could be really obnoxious. He’s the kind of person who doesn’t like… a lot of times, he’s provoking cops. He provokes other people, he provokes the cops, he’s a shit talker. He seems like somebody who is just his own worst enemy.

Julie Snyder:

And I did feel like while parts of that were true, and Jesse was very honest about that as well, you know what I mean, and kind of like owned it, there were other parts of it of where you’re like this doesn’t exist, Jesse doesn’t exist on his own. And this is like a long, long relationship that Jesse has had with the police, and while his was maybe more extraordinary in terms of the fact that they had kind of been going around and around and back and forth with each other in a small town, with a small police department for, at that point, 15 years, it wasn’t totally dissimilar from things that we had seen in other people’s relationship with the police. And that was, a lot of times, the humiliation.

Julie Snyder:

And so, yeah, it was an element. And distrust, and also not always your own personal relationship, but also… and I think we talked about in the show, in these last few years, when it comes to that, the Tamir Rice shooting really hangs over a lot of Cleveland, and it’s certainly still in the forefront of a lot of people’s minds and their feelings and thoughts about the police. So yeah, it was something that I definitely wanted to build to, so that by the time you got to Jesse, you had an appreciation of seeing this history kind of playing out in other people as well.

Kary:

How do you come to decisions about length? Both in terms of episode lengths and in terms of number of episodes?  How do you decide when enough is enough?

Julie Snyder:

I’ve always felt like for a radio story, for any story we’ve worked on, that the way I kind of judge it is if somebody says to me afterwards… this was especially easy when we were doing weekly shows at This American Life, but they’d be like, “Oh, yeah I heard that story last week.”

Julie Snyder:

I thought it was a good story if I could be like, “Oh, really? Oh, I’m so glad”, and I had nothing more to say about it. Like if I felt like I had nothing really to tell them. If anything I had to say about that story was more boring than the thing they actually heard on the radio, I felt like that was a good sign and that meant that we had done all of our best stuff.

Julie Snyder:

If I had stuff to say that was more interesting than what was on the radio, then I feel like we’ve failed at our job, which that happened as well at times. But that’s what I feel like when we’re kind of trying to figure out the length of the show or how much we’re going to include. There’s sort of that level of do I have more to say? And then is it that interesting anymore, you know? Like is it relevant, does it feel like it’s pushing the story forward, does it feel like it has a big impact or not?

Julie Snyder:

And definitely, there was, especially for this last season, for Cleveland, yeah we could have just kept going and going, we had a lot more that we could have explored, except for the fact that we didn’t, honestly, frankly, just have the material, totally, to do it. Like we had shards of the material, but not like the full thing, so if there were other topics and other things for us to do, we would’ve had to have gone back out and done more reporting.

Sarah Koenig:

I mean, we ourselves didn’t know how long it was going to be till really quite close to the end. Like when we first mapped out what we thought the episodes would be, we had 12 episodes. And then that became 11, and then a few months before we ended it was 10, and we thought we were doing 10, like the whole time we thought we were doing 10, and then just like three weeks before we ended, Julie was like, “I think it’s 9. I don’t think we have a 10.”

Sarah Koenig:

And I pushed back a little bit, because I liked the idea of 10, but then we were like, “No, we’re good. We’re done.” Like we’ve said what we needed to say, and 10 was just going to feel tired and it just wasn’t going to add enough.

Sarah Koenig:

But yeah, it’s a tricky thing, especially with a story like this one where there wasn’t one narrative, it was all of these disparate things we were trying to weave together, so it made it much less obvious to know when we were done.

Musical interlude.

Kary: 

Can you give us an update on how the series has been received in Cleveland? Has there been any movement towards reform inspired by the show? Does Judge Gaul still have a job? How was it received there?

Julie Snyder:

Yeah, I mean we’ve got good and not so good, I would say. First of all there was a very positive response to the show, for the most part, from people in Cleveland, and not just residents, from the courthouse as well. And then, it’s being taught right now in a class at Cleveland Marshall School of Law, which is cool because it’s a local law school where a lot of the prosecutors go to law school – are graduates of. So the fact that they’re teaching a class right now on season three of Serial and talking about a lot of these issues, I think for us that feels significant and that feels like okay, we’re seeing change happening and stuff.

Julie Snyder:

Like on a very specific level, in Euclid, which is where one of the guys, Erimius Spencer, got beat up for having a blunt, they changed their marijuana laws to be in line with the rest of the state, so now it is a ticket for marijuana possession and it’s no longer a first degree misdemeanor. So those kind of things are good.

Julie Snyder:

I mean, I think then there’s a flip side of Judge Gaul won reelection pretty handily. The one thing I would say is he had already won his primary before we aired the series, and in Cleveland, like in a lot of major cities, it all happens in the primary because everybody’s a Democrat. But yeah, he won, and he probably will continue to win.

Sarah Koenig: 

I have heard he’s checked some of his language, though. I did hear he’s tempering it.

Julie Snyder: 

He’s tempering it? That’s good.

Sarah Koenig: 

Yeah, whatever that’s worth, but…

Julie Snyder:

Yeah… There were these hearings in the state house in Ohio about ODYS, which is the Ohio Department of Youth Services which Sarah reported on a lot and documented some really really disturbing… this disturbing state of youth detention services. And so they have a new director, and I don’t know, he was being questioned by state reps and then one of them had brought up Serial and said… the woman who had said that, one of the state reps who is from Cleveland, and said like that was pretty disturbing and upsetting to hear and what are you guys going to do about it? And that was like a disappointing response that he had, which was sort of like, “Oh they didn’t report on the good things that we were doing”, and also kind of implying that’s not really what’s happening and that Serial’s just entertainment.

Julie Snyder:

And I think that, for me, that kind of filled me with rage. Because I just feel like we’re not going to get anywhere if people continue to deny… I don’t know, Sarah documents it, you know what I mean? It’s not like we made it up, it’s not like we have actors come on and say these things. It just made me mad. It made me really mad. Like just acknowledge it, and let’s try and fix it.

Kary:

I’m just going to ask you one question I ask all of our guests, which is what’s the best piece of advice you ever got? Or what’s the best piece of advice you can offer young aspiring storytellers?

Sarah Koenig: 

Just go ahead and do it. Don’t wait for someone to give you permission, don’t wait for the perfect story or the perfect outlet or the perfect job. Just start. If you want to do it, just start doing it. It sounds like such a cliché as it’s coming out of my mouth, but that’s the only way you’re going to figure it out, is just by doing it rather than waiting.

Sarah Koenig: 

And I was someone, I was always terrified to do any kind of freelance anything, so I do not speak from experience when I say this, but I really think that’s the thing to do, is just don’t wait. Especially now there’s no reason to wait, because you have the internet.

Kary:

And Julie, what advice would you pass along.

Julie Snyder: 

I’m always just looking for things that surprise me. It’s really a nice way to find your way to stories and to find your way to stories that are worth telling, I think is to look for things that are surprising to you. Like that’s not the way I thought things worked, that did not turn out the way I thought it would, that is not the way I had pictured this thing happening. You’re going to find your stories in that world, in a world of surprise.

Julie Snyder:

If you’re interested in doing a story, ask yourself “does this story or does this idea, does it look just like other stuff I’ve seen?” Because if it does, that’s not very surprising then. And also, it’s not good, nobody’s going to like it. Like it’s going to be kind of tired, I think. So that’s the best advice I’ve gotten, is look for surprise.

Kary:

Ladies and gentlemen, please join me in thanking Julie Snyder and Sarah Koenig.