Sarah Koenig on the Popularity of Serial and the ‘Dark’ Reaction of Some of Its Fanatic Fans

Now she has to prepare her subjects for what might happen to them

Koenig is almost done with the third season of Serial.
Sandy Honig

“Hold on. I walked down a noisy road. Let me turn around,” said Sarah Koenig, ever-aware of the audio quality of an interview.

Adweek caught up with Koenig this week during a break between traveling for work and various speaking engagements to discuss what it’s like to accidentally create a podcast phenomenon.

The first season of Serial, a deep dive into a cold case, was released in regular installments in 2014 and ended up taking the podcast world by storm. That’s partly because few podcasts at the time were using storytelling and journalistic techniques so effectively, NPR’s This American Life being a notable exception. Koenig was a producer on that show when she created Serial.

“We thought it would be less pressure that way,” she said, “and that if it was bad, no one would hear it.”

Koenig and fellow producer Julie Snyder were used to working in public radio. Once they realized they could bypass the time limitations and other restrictions of that world, they decided to turn their reporting into a podcast.

“The only thing we took into Serial was the same quality and rigor and skill we brought to This American Life but put it toward a podcast,” she said.

Koenig and Snyder went for the same qualities that make good journalism, regardless what medium they were working in. There wasn’t anything “magical” about applying those qualities to a podcast, she said, but it was new for the space.

As of February 2016, episodes of Serial’s first season had been downloaded over 80 million times. When it was new, fans took to Reddit and other online forums to try and crack the sloppily solved murder case upon which the podcast centered. The response was a shock to Koenig and her team.

"Honestly, I'm a grownup, and people will listen to this. So maybe be careful. … Google me. It's for your own safety."
-Sarah Koenig

“There was no preparing for it,” she said. “Because I was working on both the first and second season of Serial at basically the same time, I wasn’t even paying attention to it at first.”

Rabid fans tracked down the personal information of some of the people from the story and made other potentially dangerous discoveries that blurred the lines of journalism, entertainment and privacy.

“To me, it was dark,” Koenig said.

Despite hardships and unexpected pitfalls, Serial was lauded in the press and by crime journalists across the country. This week, Serial’s second season won two Edward R. Murrow awards for its reporting on the U.S. military’s decision to charge Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl with desertion.

By the time Serial’s second season came around and subsequently S-Town, Koenig was more prepared for listeners’ reactions.

Reporting for S-Town, which was created by Brian Reed, another This American Life producer, started before Serial was even released. For that project, a complex and nuanced narrative about the rural South that introduced the world to the fascinating John B. McLemore and Woodstock, Ala., Reed embedded in the town on and off for years.

“I worry about getting the story right for the people that live there and that I speak with,” Koenig said. “I’m less concerned about what the audience thinks and more worried about being fair to my subjects.”

The story of #STown begins with an email sent to This American Life.

A post shared by S-Town Podcast (@stownpodcast) on

Nowadays, as she’s conducting interviews and gathering information for Serial’s third season, the subject of which is still under wraps, Koenig has to warn her subjects what might happen to them.

“I dress pretty sloppy, and people ask where I went to school,” she said, “which means I have to tell people, ‘Honestly, I’m a grownup, and people will listen to this. So maybe be careful.’ Like, ‘Google me. It’s for your own safety.'”

Koenig hopes Season 3 will be released in the spring but, she said honestly, “Who knows?”

“Over the next few weeks, we’ll figure out the structure and what it’ll look like and then be able to shout, ‘Eureka!'” she said.