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The Student News Site of Westfield High School

Hi's Eye

The Student News Site of Westfield High School

Hi's Eye

Setting the Podcasting Standard: How Sarah Koenig Made Her Way to ‘Serial’

Photo courtesy of Sarah Koenig
Sarah Koenig headshot

From studying political science to working as an aspiring actor to reporting in Russia, Journalist Sarah Koenig has done it all. You may know this name from her renowned podcast Serial, with over 743 million downloads, but Koenig’s story is about more than just a podcast. 

Although journalism was not Koenig’s original plan for her career, she grew up surrounded by literature and writing. Koenig’s stepfather, Peter Matthiessen, was a well-known writer and explored fiction, nonfiction and magazine journalism. Koenig said that she had always been exposed to journalism but “didn’t study it in college or anything like that.”

She actually took a completely different path in college as a political science major at the University of Chicago, where she took many classes in Russian history. Koenig said, “I didn’t really take classes that interested me, and once I got out of college, I kind of didn’t know what I wanted to do.” 

Koenig’s jobs post-college put her in “all kinds of different worlds,” one of them being theater. Her dream career after graduating was acting, a skill she honed throughout college. Koenig knew that Chicago was known for being “the birthplace of improv comedy,” which encouraged her to spontaneously take an improvisational theater class and try out for the improv comedy troupe on campus. 

She ended up enjoying her pursuit of improv comedy and being a part of the skilled group at her university. Koenig added, “We put on shows three times a year,and they were popular, and we would perform once a week. It was great. It was really fun.” Koenig also said that she has stayed in contact with many friends from her improv comedy group who have succeeded in careers in the field. 

After college, Koenig moved to New York City along with many of her friends from the improv group. While the group was performing improv comedy in New York, Koenig began auditioning for acting roles — but did not land any gigs. This was the point where Koenig realized she was not cut out for acting as she jokingly said, “​​I didn’t have the confidence or thick enough skin to put up with the rejection.”

With hopes of an acting career behind her, Koenig moved back to her hometown in Southampton, NY and took a summer job at the local newspaper, the East Hampton Star. “And that’s what started it,” said Koenig. It was her first job at a newspaper and a high point in her career. The newness made it “really fun,” Koenig said. “We were all like babies trying to make a thing and we didn’t know what we were doing.”

After writing for the East Hampton Star, Koenig went to Russia for a few years to work as a journalist. There, she began doing television reporting for ABC News as an “underling” before changing jobs to work for The New York Times as a researcher in the Moscow Bureau. 

She loved this experience on many levels because “it felt like a huge adventure” to her. Koenig felt like she was living on a “foreign, strange planet” due to the differences she had to adapt to. 

However, Koenig also loved the working aspect of it. During her years with the Times, Koenig said she “was working with people who were at the top of their careers and just so good at their jobs. And it was a whole other level of understanding what foreign reporting was and how it worked.” This was a valuable experience for Koenig and she emphasized her appreciation for being able to learn from the journalists around her.

Once Koenig’s time in Russia came to a close, she worked at several newspapers including The Concord Monitor, a small but well-known newspaper in New Hampshire where she covered local politics and the New Hampshire primary and worked for the Baltimore Sun. She eventually moved to NPR and the radio show This American Life, where she launched her famous podcast, Serial

Although it seems that Koenig’s podcasting journey began at This American Life, she discovered her love for podcasts and radio shows far before then. Back when Koenig was working for The Concord Monitor, she was driving around for a story while This American Life was playing on the radio. 

Koenig said, “It was one of those things where I was like, ‘What is this?’ I have never heard anything that sounded like it on the radio; it sounded so different from everything else.” Koenig became interested in the show and contacted an employee working at This American Life through her boss at The Concord Monitor at the time. 

Koenig eventually worked on freelance stories for This American Life while writing for other publications throughout her career, but made the ultimate decision to work as a producer for This American Life in 2004. 

Producing these radio shows was a different experience than what Koenig was used to having worked at newspapers for most of her career. She said news writing is like “covering a beat and it’s very quick and you’re fast, fast, fast, and there’s a bit of a formula to writing those stories. They can be very artful, but it’s a pretty traditional way of storytelling.” 

In comparison, Koenig said the process of creating radio shows was more “communal” where “everyone was coming together.” She added, “The people were really smart and really interested in trying to find the most interesting way to tell the story we were working on.”

She said it was similar to her time doing theater in college. “It felt like you were putting on a show and like everyone was coming together to put on the show. And I love that aspect of it.”

After working at This American Life for years, Koenig and her producer partner, Julie Snyder, decided that they wanted to start a radio show, and Snyder suggested making this show a podcast. She said they wanted to make a podcast because “it didn’t have to be an hour long; we could use swear words; It was just a looser medium and it felt like the stakes were lower.” 

Koenig added, “​​The words she said to me were, ‘If it’s terrible, no one will notice, right?’ Because no one listened to podcasts at the time.” Little did Koenig and Snyder know, their podcast in 2014 would take off with over 500 million international listeners and change the podcast game forever. 

The podcast that changed the game was the case of Adnan Syed. When Syed was in highschool, he was accused of murdering Hae Min Lee, however when the trial happened, the case lacked crucial evidence. Despite the ambiguity of the situation, Syed was convicted of the murder. When the case reached Koenig years later, she became fascinated by the crime and season one of Serial began. 

Koenig said, “I think I was just like, What the hell happened here? Yeah, like if this kid didn’t do this, then why did he end up with the life sentence? And if it’s as simple as just a giant screw up, shouldn’t we be able to undo that screw up?”

While reflecting on all of the interviews she did for that season, Koenig said that the conversations she had with those involved in the case were powerful, especially those between her and Syed. “It is unusual to have that kind of access to somebody in prison. And so that felt unusual and kind of special. And yeah, I think that’s what kept me with it,” said Koenig. 

Overall, Koenig felt that the process of producing Serial was very exciting, almost like “trying an experiment.” She said “the reporting was sometimes hard or frustrating or really, really sad. But I didn’t ever want to quit.”

Once Serial was released, the public reaction was intense. Millions of people were downloading Serial, much to the surprise of Koenig and her team. Still, Koenig said that she didn’t fully process what was happening until after the fact. “I was in my basement, just with my head down, freaking out trying to meet my deadlines and I couldn’t engage with any of it at the time,” said Koenig. 

Now, Koenig has released four seasons of the Serial podcast and achieved many things throughout the process. When Koenig talked about what is next for her, she said it is hard for her to know what will happen. She said this could be the last season of Serial and she will move on, or maybe she will decide to do another season. 

Koenig does not know what the future holds for her, but regardless of what she chooses, it is safe to say she will have an audience ready to listen. 

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    CelesteJun 4, 2024 at 3:48 pm

    Fascinating article