Dallas — Julie Snyder is the co-creator of the podcast phenomenon Serial. After working many years with This American Life, Snyder and Sarah Koenig began a new reporting venture, a long-form investigative podcast over several episodes released week by week. 420 million people downloaded Serial since its debut in 2014. Snyder and Koenig will offer a talk at AT&T Performing Arts Center on March 16 as part of the HearHere series, discussing their work with this groundbreaking podcast. Shelby-Allison Hibbs recently spoke with Julie Snyder about her work on the podcast.
Theater Jones: What’s the driving force with Serial? Is it a question, an interesting person, an overall plot?
Julie Snyder: That’s interesting because we’ve kind of switched it up every season. We obviously, in the first season, had a driving story—a driving question. That was an obvious one, “Was this guy wrongfully convicted or not?” We had another one, “How does a police investigation or a prosecution work?”
But then for season two, for Bowe Bergdahl, it wasn’t so much. For that one, we thought there was an interesting story to tell here. We could actually talk about the war in Afghanistan and this very personal narrative. We kind of saw it as a vehicle to explore bigger issues about foreign policy and the war through this one story. So, that one wasn’t structured so much off of a question but there were areas to explore within the story.
And then the third season we were back to a question. But, the question wasn’t that specific. We were back to a question of: “What is the way that criminal justice works for 99 percent of the people going through?” Like, what does every day criminal justice look like?
Can you talk about the relationships you’ve formed with your subjects, particularly since many individuals discuss traumatic moments in their life? Has anyone ever tried to back out of participating in the series, particularly since it has blown up into a cultural phenomenon and is released one week at a time?
No, nothing like that dramatic. Part of airing these stories is very similar for both me and for Sarah. We’ve been doing this [radio] for 20 years. [With Serial,] part of that is all exactly the same. I would never—and neither would she—release the podcast without letting the people in the story knowing what is in it. [The people featured] have all been through the fact checking process. They get a pretty good idea of what they said, what the frame of the story is, and the focus of it.
I don’t think anybody has ever had a surprise like that. We’re pretty good about that. It is interesting though with episodes coming out one at a time. We did anticipate [issues] with that in the first season, but I think we even got better at it. For the second season, we proactively let people know it’s weekly, “We’re going to be getting to the thing you talk about. I’m going to give you a heads up and I just want to reassure you that the part that’s important to you is coming up in episode 4. Now if you take issue with it, and want to give feedback, I just wanted to let you know, to prepare you.”
I’m sure there are so many trails and rabbit hole to go through, how do you know what you’re looking for? How do you know when to stop or at least pause in your research?
We do spend a lot of time. I mean with two years in between shows, it clearly takes us a while to put all of this together. I just try not to think of it as a waste of time but part of the process. We go through this to get to what we need or the answer [we’re looking for].
That’s what an editor is for, as well. So it’s good for us to talk to each other and bounce ideas off each other. Definitely there are times when we’ve said to each other, “I don’t even see at this point how this is fitting into the structure of the story. So even if you find the answer to what you’re looking for at this point now I don’t think it’s relevant. We’re not even going down this path at all.” So sometimes we can say that to each other and reluctantly move on.
There’s a lot of stuff that’s left on the cutting room floor. It’s interesting to us but we made the decision that it’s probably not going to be interesting to the listener.
What line do you walk between curiosity, having empathy for the people you interview, and then also some skepticism about what each person tells you?
I am one of those people who is naturally inclined toward believing anything anyone says to my face, in person. I want to believe anything anyone says to me and that no one has ever lied to me personally. If I were a reporter I would need a strong editor’s hand to remind me that that might not be the case. In a lot of ways, Sarah may rely on me for that and in this past season so did Emanuel. They’re the ones who are forming more personal relationships with people. Trust and verify is a journalism standard and a cliché, but that’s a good place to be. Editors are there to point out areas where that may not be the case and it may be in someone’s interest or this may not be true or to push this a little further. Push around the edges of the story to make sure that what we know we’re saying is true is true.
Since Serial premiered, a number of podcasts that hold similarities to the episodic, narrative structure of Serial have been created. For some who may be getting into developing a podcast that is like Serial, investigating a real event through several episodes, what advice would you give them?
The advice that I would give to them is that it’s very hard. If you’re not an experienced radio reporter, it’s going to be very hard to do, if you don’t want to create something that’s the same as everyone else’s. If you want to copy other ways of doing it, it’s possible. But, it’s hard if you want to do something that’s emotional with characters and scenes and thoughts and ideas and analysis.
The people I’m working with, they’ve done radio stories for 20 years. There’s a real trick to knowing exactly what kind of “take” you need. They go in with a plan and a wish list. In their heads they’re thinking it through in an editing sort of way. It’s kind of hard to do it until you just do it a lot and you go through the whole process a lot. It’s kind of hard. And it takes a while.
Be prepared if that’s what you’re going to do. Play to your strengths.
Are you planning a season 4 or started working on a upcoming season of Serial?
I don’t know, I would say yes and no. We’ve always got a lot of different things that we’re moving forward. Which one of those might end up being season 4 I’m not exactly positive. We’re also doing some other shows and producing those with other reporters. Would that be a serial podcast or stand alone? All those things are to be determined. But yeah, we’re working. We have another show hopefully coming out in October. That’s the next one we’re working on and that one will be hosted by and reported by another reporter.