When Sarah Koenig released the first two episodes of “Serial,” she never anticipated her work-in-progress would become a worldwide sensation.
The series, released in October 2014 by “This American Life,” caught the host off-guard with its success.
“I never meant to create a fever,” said Koenig. “It’s hard for me to answer why (it went viral.) I didn’t know if it was even going to work. People just like a good crime story; they want to know who did it.”
Koenig presented an open lecture and question-and-answer session at Penn State’s Schwab Auditorium Tuesday night. The auditorium had a full house, with 900 people in attendance. More than 50 attendees were turned away.
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Serial recounts the case of Adnan Syed, who at 17-years-old was sentenced to life in prison in 1999 for the murder of his ex-girlfriend, Hae Min Lee. In the first season of the podcast, Koenig reopens and investigates the case.
Koenig has worked as a producer for This American Life for more than ten years. She created the series with fellow executive producer Julie Snyder. Following the first two episodes, listeners tuned in every Thursday as Koenig investigated Syed’s story.
“Of course we wanted it to be compelling,” said Koenig. “Every reporter wants to read or listen to or watch their work. What was different was we didn’t know how much it would change as we got going.”
As of late December, Serial has amassed more than 40 million downloads — earning the title of the most popular podcast in history, according to CNN. However, the question has arisen if Koenig’s reporting borders on entertainment rather than traditional journalism.
“To me it was never entertainment,” said Keonig. “That’s a judgment call you make as a reporter. I wasn’t ever going to do this stuff just for the fun of it.”
Koenig also stated she almost felt like a character in the series due to the nature of how she presented the story. Not only did she report facts about the case, but she provided commentary — a taboo method in modern journalism.
In response to Koenig’s approach as the podcast’s host, Anthony Barbieri, Koenig’s former editor at The Baltimore Sun, recounted how influential her story has become.
“She’s opened up new vistas,” said Barbieri. “I think a lot of people, especially young people, are going to be attracted by the opportunity to do different kinds of stories in different ways.”