David Carr, Sarah Koenig on ‘Serial’ and Podcasting

A discussion on Serial's massive appeal and the future of podcasts

Photo: Kasia Broussalian / The New School

At an event last night at The New School, New York Times columnist David Carr moderated a panel on podcasting’s resurgence. The discussion featured Sarah Koenig, whose wildly popular “Serial” podcast, exploring the true story of a 1999 murder of an 18-year-old student in Baltimore, has to date reached 65 million total downloads.

Alongside Koenig were Alex Blumberg, creator of the podcast “StartUp” on Gimlet Media and founder of NPR’s “Planet Money”; Alix Spiegel, co-host of NPR’s new series “Invisibilia”; and Benjamen Walker, a founding member of Public Radio Exchange’s Radiotopia and host of the podcast “Theory of Everything.”

All of the guests, except Walker, were current (Koenig) or former producers of public radio program “This American Life,” hosted by the formidable Ira Glass. Primarily, panelists discussed what the podcast boom might mean for the future of public radio.

Koenig, who admitted to being a podcast virgin before “Serial,” said she was “shocked” by the response to the series and soon realized the platform was “an intimate experience” unlike that of “This American Life.” Since “Serial” took off, she said she frequently gets phone calls and actual snail mail from listeners who “assume we’re friends.”

Spiegel added there were “opportunities for depth” that existed with podcasts versus public radio. “You can do a three-hour story [via a podcast],” she said. “It’s like a blank slate.”

A former reporter for ABC News and The New York Times, Koenig compared the process of creating “Serial” to investigative reporting. For example, she described how her team attempted to recreate events documented in police reports from the 1999 murder investigation in order to prove their plausibility.

The flexibility of the medium was described as another appeal. Said Blumberg: “Anybody can listen anywhere at any time. It creates freedom.”

When Carr asked what the “secret sauce” was to a compelling narrative, Koenig said she learned “there has to be something at stake, tension” and “an element of surprise.” Blumberg said his two building blocks were incorporating anecdotes and “moments of authentic emotion.”

The discussion can be viewed in its entirety here.

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