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This American Crime: Sarah Koenig on Her Hit Podcast ‘Serial’

The host of this compelling, addictive nonfiction murder-mystery talks about the show’s origins and why it’s okay to ‘like’ her interviewees

Who killed Hae Min Lee? On January 13, 1999, Lee, a high school student in Baltimore County, Maryland, was murdered sometime between 2:15 p.m. and 2:36 p.m. Over the past 15 years, accounts of what happened in those 21 minutes have grown more and more unclear. None of which stopped the courts from using one shaky testimony to convict her ex-boyfriend and fellow student, Adnan Syed, of the murder and sentenced him to life in prison.

What really happened is the question at the heart of Serial, a new documentary podcast series hosted by This American Life producer Sarah Koenig. Every Thursday, listeners learn more about Lee’s murder, which includes details from her diary, an overlooked alibi witness, and information about the convicted streaker who found her body. Listeners also hear Syed’s regular, affable voice on every episode, over the phone from jail. “I am asking people to recall stuff that happened 15 years ago,” Koenig says. “I’m asking people to tell me their feelings now about it, which are completely colored by the intervening 15 years. That’s how our memories work.”

How did Lee’s murder and Syed’s case end up becoming the focus for Serial‘s first “season”? 
I learned about Adnan’s story well before we came up with the show. A friend of the Syed family, Rabia Chaudry, came to me because I had been at the Baltimore Sun and had written about this attorney who had been disbarred — the same lawyer who represented Adnan. The notion was that his defense had screwed up the case, and would I look into this? It wasn’t ‘Oh, I want to do a criminal justice story,’ or ‘I want to do a murder story.’ I was already working on this story as a possibility for This American Life, and had been talking about what kind of other project I could do. This was already underway and I knew these characters were compelling, so it won by default.

The show is structured in chapters, so that more details about the cases are revealed with each episode. What do you have planned for the way you want it to come together in the end?
I hope that people who are listening will feel like they’re learning the particulars of the case in the same manner that I am learning them, so that by the end, it feels like we have all kind of drawn a conclusion together. It’s like you had come along with me on that ride. But I don’t have a particular ending in mind, like: “Well, I hope we bust him out of jail,” or “I hope we keep him locked up forever.” It’s not even so much that I have a legal verdict in mind; it’s more like how I would want to feel after reading a book. The sensation of thinking, “Wow, I got deep inside this thing, and I learned everything I could about it” — there’s a satisfaction to that.

You mentioned how your goal wasn’t to get him out of jail, but your reporting could be used in his appeal. Does that affect your approach as the show continues?
I don’t think that affects my approach. And I’m not sure that’s necessarily true — that something that I report could somehow be introduced. I mean, if we found some incredible piece of evidence that has never been uncovered, which is possible, then I suppose that someone could file a petition in court. But I’m not sure that what I’m doing would translate into some sort of legal remedy for Adnan. And even if it did, I don’t worry about that anyway. The only thing I really, really worry about is: Am I being fair at every step of the way? Because I’m still reporting it as it’s unfolding, there is a different kind of pressure. If I learn something three weeks from now that really changes my view of things, I don’t want to have to worry that, “Oh, no, I got it wrong in episode two.”

How do you balance that need to report the facts you find with your commitment to tell the stories of all these people involved?
I have found that I really like a lot of these people on both sides — even the ones who may have done terrible things. So, if I’m enjoying talking to them, then that’s going to come through in the reporting, naturally. That’s the pleasure of radio: You get to hear these people and decide whether you like them as well. So, it’s not that I’m having to make an effort to portray an interest. I think it’s OK to like them. And it’s OK to dislike them, and sometimes that comes through. There was a group of kids who knew about this who didn’t go to the cops right away, and it’s easy to be judgmental about that, especially as an adult. I went in thinking, “Ah, these kids. They’ve got no morals. What is this?”

But why do you like these characters? Specifically, why do you like Adnan, and why do you think that he’s someone that people should definitely want to know more about?
[Pause] I’m deciding how much to tell you now. Rather than get specific, which I’d rather not do at this point, I’ll say I have been sort of pleasantly surprised that so many people I’ve talked to seem really smart and really complicated. I like that in a story. I like being in a position where I need to figure out that complication and what’s really going on. I sort of have that in spades here. I think that’s all I want to say about that.

How does your approach to telling the story take into account that memories are subjective — and in some instances, could be faulty?
Luckily, I have so much documentation for this case — huge stacks of police notes, interview tapes, all of that stuff. That’s incredibly valuable. But some people are being questioned two or three months after she’s disappeared, and you can already see testimonies contradicting each other, contradicting themselves. Even then, their memories have started shifting.

For example, the day that the kids find out that Hae’s body has been found, a bunch of things happened. The school brought in a grief counseling team. Then, just trying to figure out, well, where did that core group of friends all go? What’d you guys do that day? Something happened. It’s a super significant, traumatic memory. They’re just the wildly divergent stories about what exactly happened, which is amazing to me. You need a clean narrative in court. You’re presenting a story to a jury, so you need a coherent story. And, often, the truth is, you’re pretty far from a coherent story with what you actually know.

What’s it like working on a show where, at any second, you could stumble upon something that could shift the entire story?
That just happened to me this week, a couple of days ago, and I’m still catching my breath and not sleeping. It’s incredibly nerve-racking, and, again, this is why I say I have to be so careful all the way through. You may stumble across some piece of information where you’re just left going, “Oh my god. Okay. Okay. We’re fine.” You have no idea how seat-of-our-pants this is right now. So, it’s stressful, but the good part is I can be very responsive to new information.

You’ve said that Serial won’t always been investigating crimes or different closed cases, so where do you see this podcast going?
I love serialized stories of any kind. I’m a huge sucker for any kind of series. My hope is just that we can keep making them, and that even if it’s not life or death, or something with the stakes quite as dark as this one, that it will be just as compelling and people will get just as hooked in because we’re doing it right. We’ve chosen a story that has compelling characters, a plot that we want to get to the end of, and we’re using all the storytelling skills that we have to tell it in the right way. That’s my hope for it.