Sarah Koenig and Julie Snyder never knew they’d make radio cool again.
In an appearance at Boston’s Symphony Hall on Wednesday evening, the two journalists behind the worldwide phenomenon known as Serial told an audience the backstory of how the podcast was created, and they didn’t disappoint. They hit the stage as part of the Celebrity Series of Boston for “Binge-Worthy Journalism: Behind the Scenes with the Creators of SERIAL: Sarah Koenig and Julie Snyder.”
Here’s ten facts we learned from the talk — and you can quote us on it.
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1. When Serial first debuted in 2014, their goal was to get to 300,000 listeners. They ended up reaching that number in five days. In total, the number of downloads went on to skyrocket to more than 500,000,000. Julie and Sarah never had any idea how popular Serial would be. “I thought we’d get the grad school crowd,” Julie told the audience.
2. Sarah and Julie originally started working on Serial in Sarah’s crowded basement. It was far from an NPR studio; every time one of the kids flushed the toilet, they’d have to stop recording because of the noise.
3. Serial has been downloaded in ever country in the world, except North Korea and Eritrea.
4. Sarah Koenig had, in total, 42 hours of taped phone calls with Adnan Syed from prison.
5. Adnan would occasionally misdial Sarah’s number from prison, and random people would accept the collect call. A smooth conversationalist, Adnan would just continue chatting with them for a while until they got tired of listening.
6. Adnan once called Sarah from prison after eating an entire box of Krispy Kreme donuts. Clearly riding a major sugar high and speaking very fast, Sarah wondered if she was finally meeting the real Adnan. “Is this the Krispy Kreme talking?” Sarah asked herself. By the end of the conversation, Adnan had returned to his normal self because the sugar was wearing off.
7. While the evening pretty much focused on season one, there were occasional touches into the much less-popular season 2, which focuses on the story of Army Sergeant BoweBergdahl. One question from the audience was something most of us had wondered as we started season two: What goes into calling the Taliban? Not that much, Koenig claims.
“It’s one of the easier things I’ve done. I was safe at home in Pennsylvania. You dial a number,” said Koenig, who went on the point that that "there are many brave reporters who go to Pakistan,” and she didn’t want to take credit for doing something brave when they were over there. “We hiredan Afghan reporter, and he knows some of the guys. It was involved, but I don’t deserve a medal for that one.”
8. Everyone knows that the ad forMailchimpbecame an internet meme and spawned merchandise. Snyder got the idea of the ad when her boss, Ira Glass, helped her create something similar for Public Radio International. Serial got lot of criticism for one of the voices in theMailchimpad —the one that accidentally said “mailkimp,” which many people assumed was an Asian person who couldn’t pronounce it, and declared it racist. It turns out the voice behind "mailkimp" is actually a Norwegian teenage girl.
9. Right after Season 1 ended, the team was attempting to control their official Serial Facebook page, which was running amok with theories on who killed Hae Min Lee. Their developer, Rick, was testing out a filter that got rid of certain phrases. Thinking he was logged into his own personal Facebook page, Rick tested the phrase “Adnan did it.” He quickly realized that he had accidentally pushed the phrase under Serial’s official page, making it look like they were officially declaring Adnan as guilty. Rick immediately deleted it and thought to himself, “Maybe no one saw it!” — but of course, it was too late.
10. Sarah is the first to admit her relationship with Adnan Syed is complicated. She refers to it as “psychological and emotional… personal, not professional.” She wouldn’t consider herself a friend to Adnan, since they had to be skeptical of everything he said, and “being a good friend is standing in someone’s corner no matter what. Adnan and I are not friends.” Regarding whether he is guilty of murder, Sarah says “I think it’s possible he could be innocent but I don’t know.