Sarah Koenig didn't expect her new podcast, Serial, to get so much press, but she says the attention helped keep her on her toes: "It was just a constant reminder of how careful we needed to be," Koenig tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross.
Serial is Koenig's reinvestigation of the murder of Hae Min Lee, a Maryland high school student who was strangled in 1999. Her body was discovered buried in a park in Baltimore. Her schoolmate and ex-boyfriend Adnan Syed was convicted of the murder and is serving a life sentence. Nearly 16 years later, he continues to maintain his innocence. Syed's conviction was based on testimony from his friend, Jay — identified only by first name in the podcast — who said he helped Syed bury the body.
Since its launch in October, Serial has become the most popular podcast in history. Online the story took on a life of its own, as podcast listeners — wrapped up in the "whodunit" aspect of the case — began tracking and discussing the evidence presented in each episode. Serial is a spinoff of This American Life, where Koenig was a producer for 10 years. The first season of 12 episodes ended on Thursday.
Serial presents detective interviews and excerpts of the trial, along with new interviews Koenig conducted with Syed, who spoke with her by phone from prison. Koenig guides the audience through the story, uncovering information that apparently neither the defense nor the prosecution had been aware of at the time of the trial.
"We wanted it to feel like a live thing ... a vital thing in the sense of the word of being a living thing — as we went," Koenig says. "And we were still reporting last week for the final episode."
Koenig says classmates of Lee and Syed have been in touch with her throughout the podcast and since it ended. It helped her to know that so many people had the same questions she had.
One person, she says, told her, "At least I know it wasn't just me being a teenager not understanding the world. ... There are a lot of people still who don't understand this — and I'm not alone in feeling this way."
Koenig also says she wasn't trying to rouse painful memories for those involved in the story — she was trying to get to the bottom of a case that seemed to have holes in it.
"I wasn't — and we weren't — trying to create problems where there were none," Koenig says. " ... Obviously I don't want anyone to suffer because of the work I'm doing, but I also feel like there's a strong tradition of doing these kinds of investigative stories. And we weren't doing anything differently than we would do in any other story."
This American Life has raised money for a second season of Serial, but the show hasn't announced what the focus will be.
On whether she felt she needed to provide closure
It's funny, I did not fret about the ending that much. I really didn't. ... So many people were asking me [about that] and I was like, "Wait, should I be more worried about this? Should I be more freaked out? Should I be thinking about this in a different way?" But I always just felt like I'm just going to keep my head down and keep reporting and keep reporting and keep reporting, and it will come to an end, as all stories do. The reporting is going to take me there. I can't pre-engineer this, right? So I just have to keep going with it.
I can't remember when it was, but maybe after Episode 3 or 4 ... I was having a meeting with Julie Snyder, the executive producer, and I think Dana [Chivvis], who is also a producer, and Ira Glass came in, who's like, our boss, and Julie said, "Ira says he has some ideas about the ending." We were like, "Oh! Great. Let's hear it." He came in and more or less said, "So I think it would be great if you guys, like, solved it." We were like, "Wait, that's your idea? Uh, OK, we'll do our best."
That was a little disconcerting. ... I have great faith in the people I work with to help me get there [and] we know how to make stories on This American Life. We all have been doing it for a really long time, and it just felt like, we'll get somewhere and it's not going to please everyone, but tough luck.
On finding the right tone in her conversations with Syed
It was very complicated. A lot is going on in any one conversation with Adnan, which is ... he might be innocent and he might be guilty. It's zero sum, a little bit, right? Both things are happening, and I, meanwhile, want him to talk to me, and I want him to stay on the phone and I'm totally aware that he can hang up at any time and cease communicating at any time, and I don't want him to do that. So for all the accusations that Adnan is manipulating me: Hello, I'm also manipulating him. I'm using all the tricks. "Tricks" sound ... sneaky, but you know what I mean, [I'm using tricks] that you do in any interview, that you do with anybody or any conversation, frankly, with another person where you are playing the angles to a certain extent.
I was definitely never lying to Adnan about anything and certainly not about my intentions, but there would be no point in trying to create a relationship with this person and be antagonistic. That would be ridiculous. ... But by the same token, you don't want to be all suck-up-y and fake and pretend you're their best friend. ... This communication that we have is — there's only one way it can be, and this is the way it can be, which is, neither you nor I trust each other fully, but we proceed as if we do. That's the only way you could have this. I've been open about that. He knows, we both know that there's, like, two other conversations happening on top of the conversation we're actually having, which is: "Do you believe me? Do I believe you? Are you trying to get me to say something? Are you trying to get me to repeat that so I'll say something different?" We both know what's happening.
On Syed reading transcripts of the podcast while in prison
I don't know how many transcripts he's read and I don't know who is sending them the transcripts, because we're not, but I think he's read a bunch of them. ... He doesn't have Internet. ... He has an Xbox, one of those game things for the TV, and apparently you can play a CD on it, so at one point I said, "I can burn them onto CDs for you and send you those." I think he has to get special permission to receive a CD in prison, and he said, "Yeah, yeah, yeah. I'll let you know when I get the permission." ...
I don't know if part of him doesn't want to hear it, that he'd rather read it on the page. I don't know. We've argued about that, actually. ... I'm like, "It's meant to be heard." And he's like, "No, I want to see it in its purest form, on paper." And I'm like, "No, no, no. You're missing a ton. You're missing all kind of nuance that is happening in people's voices." Or he's taking stuff at face value that I say, that I'm like, "No! If you heard the way I say it, you'd hear that it's like in passing or it's like I'm being ironic, or whatever!" And he's just like, "No, YOU don't get it, the real version is on paper!" And then I was like, "You don't understand radio!"
On advantages and disadvantages of producing episodes week by week
The disadvantages were that it was kind of a ridiculous production trap we encased ourselves in by the end. Julie and I were making changes to the final episode the morning that it ran, like at 1 in the morning, to be released at 6 a.m. So, that's a kind of down-to-the-wire stress that I frankly feel too old to be engaging in at this point. That was just hard in terms of the workflow of it; [it] was hard on everybody.
Then the other hard part — or sort of the downside, which I think also partly is an upside ... is that there was this ... big public response. And at times it made me feel very vulnerable about my reporting or it felt like I had people looking over my shoulder into my notebook before I was ready to tell people what was in my notebook, but that's also what was good. We did that ourselves. Obviously, that's the structure we created, so I just didn't know how that would feel as a reporter. I didn't think twice about it before it happened. Yeah, it feels a little weird, you know? But the great part was that it made us able to be really responsive to new information — and that's what we wanted.
On whether she worried people treated the podcast like entertainment rather than investigative reporting
We worried about that a lot and we talked about it a lot. We didn't know that was going to happen at all, which, again, [to] our surprise, maybe it was naive, maybe it was shortsightedness, I don't know. I was talking to Julie Snyder about this recently ... she was saying this thing like, "There's this Internet world, which can get ... out of control and just throwing stuff around and interacting with this material that's incredibly serious to all of us. ... We need to treat [it] with the utmost professionalism and care. ... They're interacting with it as entertainment."
So that was the first thing we weren't totally prepared for, I think. Then just the larger fact that a public radio podcast would intersect with that world, with that Internet world of armchair sleuthers and people who throw out accusations. Never in our wildest — it's not the usual combination. It was worrisome. I fretted a lot about it, about this stuff flying around. ... At the end of the day, we couldn't control it. It was silly to think we could control it, but we certainly tried, and even up to last week, we were still trying when we saw stuff out there to just say, "Please, can you respect this and that."
On whether the podcast's popularity affected her personally and professionally
Yes, it did. ... It was stressful and I also tend to focus on the negative, as my colleagues can attest — so in the beginning, when ... there started to be press about it, I was reading a lot and Googling it several times a day, like, "What's new? What are people saying?" And it just started to be bad for me. So I kind of stopped, honestly. ... I'm thin-skinned in a way that's just dumb. I mean, doing this work, you would think that I should be able to get as good as I give, but ... I take criticism personally, and so that was sometimes hard.
On Syed saying he didn't know if Koenig is his "savior" or his "executioner"
I think all of us like the idea of, "Maybe we could right a wrong, and wouldn't that be great?" That faded pretty fast. ...
The way that I dealt with it with Adnan and with his family and his advocates was kind of twofold: It was never totally addressing it head-on because we all knew it could go either way — they knew and I knew. And then also just being as upfront with them as I could from the very start of saying, "I don't know where I'm going to end, just so we're all clear — I'm not here to exonerate Adnan. I'm here to report this story. I don't know what I'm going to find, and I might find evidence that he's guilty, and we should all be prepared for that."
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest Sarah Koenig is the executive producer and host of Serial, the most popular podcast in the history of podcasts. It isn't just popular, it became a phenomenon. It's a spinoff of This American Life, where Sarah was a producer. The 12-episode-long season one ended last week, leaving a void in the lives of listeners who waited each week in anticipation of the next installment.
Serial is Sarah's reinvestigation of the murder of a Maryland high school student - Hae Min Lee - who was strangled to death in 1999. Her body was discovered buried in a park. Her schoolmate and ex-boyfriend, Adnan Syed was convicted of the murder and is serving a life sentence. Nearly 16 years later, he continues to maintain his innocence. His conviction was based on testimony from his schoolmate Jay, who said Adnan asked for his help after committing the murder. Here's Jay responding to a police detective's questions after the body was found. Jay has just told the detective that he picked up Adnan after the murder. Then they got some shovels, drove to the park, where Adnan proceeded to bury Hae.
(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "SERIAL")
JAY: He asked me if I was going to help. And then I told him [bleep] him, and he just starts shoveling dirt on top of her. And after we leave there...
UNIDENTIFIED DETECTIVE: Let me stop you there.
DETECTIVE: You helped him dig the hole.
DETECTIVE: How long did it take you both to dig the hole?
JAY: Twenty, 25 minutes.
DETECTIVE: How deep did you make the hole?
JAY: Oh, maybe six inches at the most. It wasn't very deep at all.
DETECTIVE: Who did most of the digging?
JAY: It was...
DETECTIVE: Both of you?
DETECTIVE: Equal work?
JAY: I wouldn't say that, but yeah.
SARAH KOENIG: So those are the key points. Adnan told Jay in advance he was going to do it; he did it; they buried her. Jay's story wasn't just the foundation of the state's case against Adnan, it was the state's case against Adnan. And the picture Jay drew, it's cold. I mean, he's not describing a crime of passion here. This is something much darker. To methodically map out the death of your friend, to strangle her with your own hands so close up like that, that would mean Adnan wasn't just a killer, but a master liar and manipulator, a psychopath probably.
GROSS: But Sarah finds no evidence that Adnan is a psychopath. This gives you some idea of what makes Serial so gripping. You hear actual detective interviews and audio excerpts of the trial, along with many new interviews Sarah conducted, including with Adnan, who spoke to her frequently by phone from prison and was adamant he did not kill Hae.
(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "SERIAL")
ADNAN SYED: No one could ever come with any type of proof or anecdote or anything to ever say that I was ever mad at her, that I was ever angry with her, that I ever threatened her. You know, that's the only thing I can really hold onto, that is, like, the only firm hand in this whole thing is that no one's ever been able to prove it. No one has ever been able to provide any shred of evidence that I had anything but friendship towards her - like, love and respect for her. That's - at the end of the day, man, the only thing I can ever say is that I had no reason to kill her.
GROSS: Sarah guides us through the story, reporting new information she uncovers that neither the defense nor prosecution seem to have been aware of, information that keeps upending her own assumptions about the case and Adnan's guilt or innocence.
In the process, we learn things about the criminal justice system that we - or at least I - didn't know. And through Sarah, we reflect on the nature of reasonable doubt and questions like, how can you really know if someone like Adnan, who was popular, smart and articulate, is capable of murder?
Since Sarah raised so many doubts about at Adnan's guilt, and since it was such a messy case, listeners caught up in the whodunit aspect of the story speculated somewhat obsessively about what conclusions she would reach. What kept me listening through all 12 episodes wasn't just the case. It was Sarah and her team's extraordinary reporting and storytelling.
Sarah Koenig, welcome to FRESH AIR, and congratulations on Serial. It's really just an extraordinary series. So radio has a bigger than podcasts do. Nobody expected Serial to have this phenomenal audience that it's attracted. And why do the podcast about a murder, and more specifically about this murder? On the face of it, the murder that you chose to reinvestigate is kind of like your typical case where, you know, maybe the person was wrongfully committed - wrongfully convicted. My guess is there are a lot of cases like that. This wasn't a celebrated case. It was - the case is from 1999; that's a long time ago. So of all the stories in the world that you could have devoted a year of reporting on, why did you choose this one?
KOENIG: This woman had come to me - Rabia Chaudry had come to me two summers ago now - you know, contacted me. She didn't know me, just, you know, had found my name in the Baltimore Sun clips, and said, you know, could you take a look? I started to look into it just kind of slowly - in other words, it's not like I went out looking for a problematic murder case at all.
This came to me. I started looking. I became very interested in it pretty quickly. And I started reporting it just sort of in between other things for This American Life, for the radio show. And so I was - that reporting was already underway. And then sort of simultaneously with that, Julie Snyder and I had started talking about, like, what's some other thing we could - some other podcast, some other radio show, some project? And we eventually sort of settled on this idea of Serial, which is what I had wanted to do.
So what story would we do first? There were a few ideas that popped up. And, you know, I said, well, I've got this one I'm already working on. It seems like it's complicated. It seems like it's held my interest in big ways over these many weeks and months I'd already been working on it. So we sort of thought OK, let's do it.
GROSS: Adnan, who's serving the life sentence for murder, says to you at some point he's not sure if you're his savior or his executioner. Did you want to be seen as either, and what did you do to try to make it clear that you're a reporter and neither a savior nor executioner?
KOENIG: I think that the way that I dealt with it with Adnan and with his family and his advocates, you know, being as upfront with them as I could from the very start of saying, I don't know where I'm going to end - like just so we're all clear, like, I'm not here to exonerate Adnan. I'm here to report this story. And I don't know what I'm going to find. And I might find evidence that he's guilty, and, like, we should all be prepared for that. You know what I mean? Like, I've had some form of that conversation with everyone on both sides.
GROSS: So you have really been shouldering an enormous responsibility to the people whose lives you're investigating by investigating this story of an actual murder. Adnan Syed, the person who's serving a life sentence now for a murder he says he didn't commit, he has the most to gain from this because now doubt is being raised in a way that it wasn't even raised at the trial about his guilt. You know, maybe he's really not guilty.
But at some point, he tells you the downside of your reporting. And in this excerpt from the next-to-last episode, you read portions of an 18-page, single-spaced typed letter that Adnan sent you from prison. And so part of this is you talking to us, the audience, and part of it is you quoting from the letter. So let's hear this excerpt.
(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "SERIAL")
KOENIG: Adnan is obviously aware of this podcast, that it's out in the world. And I can tell that my story had messed with his equilibrium. When he was convicted of murder, he said, the biggest shock for him was that people thought he was capable of this hideous thing, that people didn't believe him. As I look back now, he wrote, I realize there were only three things I wanted after I was convicted - to stay close to my family, prove my innocence and to be seen as a person again, not a monster. The third one he says he's managed inside prison. Quote, "people in here know me as a standup guy - guards, inmates, staff, people I've been around for 15 years, have seen me every day - recognize me as someone whose word can be trusted. I guess what I'm trying to say is that I was able to find the peace of mind in prison that I lost at my trial," unquote.
And now I come along - at Rabia's behest, not his - and yank this door open again to the outside world and to all its doubts about Adnan's integrity, stirring up the most painful possible questions about whether he's a monster. It's his nightmare, basically - to be accused of manipulating everyone around him.
GROSS: So that's an excerpt of Serial. Sarah, were you surprised by that reaction that there was going to be this downside that he described to you that people would start thinking, well, maybe he's a monster? People who didn't even know him, who didn't know about the murder, now they know his story, and some of them think he's guilty. Some of them think that he's not. But were you expecting that downside to be expressed?
KOENIG: For him to express it or...
GROSS: For him, yeah. That now people might...
GROSS: ...Think I'm a monster again. I thought I'd put that behind me.
KOENIG: Right, yeah...
GROSS: And now these doubts are being raised again.
KOENIG: Yeah. No, I wasn't - I could tell something was affecting him a little bit, I think, before this. It's - so I knew something was up a little bit. And then - and then I got that letter, and it was little disjointed, which is unlike him, you know? I could tell he was upset. I could tell he was upset. And it was a really long letter, and it's sort of what I was saying earlier, where it was sort of like when I realized how many people were listening and how carefully people were listening. And Adnan had started to get lots of letters from people - you know, from strangers - some people he knew, but from strangers, you know? And, you know, the guards - some of the guards are listening and talking to him. I mean, he can't hear it, but the guards are hearing it and talking to him about it. And so I think he just - it overcame him a little bit.
And to me, what was interesting about the letter was that it explained - there's another part in the podcast that happens before this, where he asked me, like, why are you doing this story - this is before it had started to air - and he was like, can you just explain to me again, like, what we're doing and why? And I wasn't totally prepared for that question. And so I sort of explained, you know, my interest and also said - and also just because, like, I started talking to you and, like, I like talking to you. And you seem like a good guy and stuff. And his reaction was so surprising - like, it took me aback so much, where has was just like, you don't even know me...
GROSS: Oh, we have that clip ready.
KOENIG: What do you mean?
GROSS: Let me play that...
GROSS: ...Let me play that because I think it would be very dramatic to hear it. So here's Adnan reacting to you telling him that you think he's a nice guy who isn't the type who would commit a murder.
(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "SERIAL")
SYED: Yeah, oh - I mean, you don't even really know me, though, Koenig. You don't - maybe you do. We only talk the phone. I don't understand what you mean. I'm not - I mean, it's just weird to hear you say that because I don't even really know you.
KOENIG: But wait, are you saying you don't think that I know you at all?
SYED: I mean, for you to say that I'm a great person - I mean, like a nice person, you know what I'm saying? I mean, I don't know. Like, I've only talked to you on the phone a few times. I mean, I guess you've investigated me back then.
GROSS: OK, so to prove how much you don't know each other, he calls you Kownig (ph) when your name is Koenig, so he doesn't even know how to pronounce your name. But...
GROSS: ...But he kind of proves a point in that - that you make throughout Serial, which is it's hard to judge a person and whether they're capable of murder based on what you know of them. People are surprising, especially if you don't know somebody well, and you didn't know him that well.
KOENIG: Yeah - I mean, so can I just sort of connect this back to the thing I was saying before...
GROSS: Yes, please.
KOENIG: ...About the letter? So I was really taken aback when he said that. You can hear me sort of laugh for a second, which is totally nervous laughter on my part, where I'm just like, what's happening, you know? And so when I got the letter, which was months later, you know, after the podcast had started coming, that's when I understood what had happened in that moment that you just played, which is he had made all of this effort - he's so scared of being labeled a manipulator that he felt like - he's savvy, he's smart. So he knew that every interaction with me would be viewed in the same way, not only by me but by anybody hearing it. So he tried so, so hard to not - to have it just be about the case and just be about what happened and sort of the facts of the case. And he felt like as long as I stick to the facts of the case, I'm safe because these are things that are showable and provable one way or the other, so I won't be accused of being a manipulator.
GROSS: And I should mention, the judge accused him of being a manipulator...
KOENIG: Totally, yes...
GROSS: ...So was he especially sensitive about that.
KOENIG: In strong terms, and so when I said that him, like, you see like a nice guy, he was just like, oh, God, you know, here we go again.
KOENIG: Here we go again. All this has been - is going to end up in the same place where people are just going to say, oh, he manipulated you.
GROSS: My guest is Sarah Koenig, the executive producer and host of the podcast Serial. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. My guest is Sarah Koenig the host and executive producer of the podcast Serial, in which she re-investigates a 1999 murder of a high school student. Her ex-boyfriend, Adnan Syed, was convicted of murder and is serving a life sentence. Serial includes recorded excerpts of Adnan's phone calls to Sarah from prison.
So Adnan was not able to hear the podcast in prison. I think he was able to read transcripts. Do I have that right?
KOENIG: Yeah, he's read - I don't know many transcripts he's read, and I don't totally know who's sending him the transcripts - we're not - but I think he's read a bunch of them. I don't know how many.
GROSS: Why can't he listen to the podcast? Is that his choice, or is he not allowed to?
KOENIG: They don't have Internet. They can't - he doesn't have Internet so...
GROSS: And no one can, like, download it from the outside and bring it to him?
KOENIG: Well, we - he has nothing - he has - what does he have? - an Xbox. He has, like, one of those game things for the TV and apparently you can play like, a CD on it? So at one point, I said, you know, I can burn them onto CDs for you and send you those. I think he has to get special permission to receive a CD. And he said, yeah, yeah, I'll let you know when I get the permission. But he's never done that, and I don't know - I don't know - I don't know if part of him doesn't want to hear it, that he'd rather read it on the page. I don't know. We've argued about that, actually (laughter).
GROSS: What, about whether he should hear it or not?
KOENIG: Yeah. Yeah, because I'm like, you don't - it's meant to be heard, and he's like, no I want to see it in its purest form, on paper. And I'm like, no, no, no. You're missing a ton. You're missing all kinds of nuance that is happening in people's voices, or he's taking stuff at face-value that I say that I'm like, no, if you heard the way I say it you'd hear that it's like, in passing or it's like, I'm being ironic or whatever. And he's just like, no, no, no - you don't get it. You don't get it that the real version is on paper. Like, we got in a total (laughing). And I was like, you don't understand radio. And he was like, you don't understand science - you know? I don't know. So we've actually argued about that.
GROSS: You brought in a couple of experts to be consultants on the series. One was a detective, Jim Trainum, and one was somebody who heads the Innocence Project at the University of Virginia Law School, Deirdre Enright. And I learned things from them that I never - I'm not sure I ever would've known this. That for instance - and this is from the Innocence Project - that most people who are wrongfully convicted aren't very helpful in proving their innocence because they weren't there. They don't know what happened. And it's sometimes hard to prove where you actually were. And so the Innocence Project person didn't think that Adnan was going to necessarily be very helpful in helping you prove his innocence if you were trying to prove that.
KOENIG: Right, or just get to the bottom of...
GROSS: Well, get to the bottom of it, yeah.
KOENIG: What did happen that day then - well, what happened, and what happened? You know?
I know, I know, that actually surprised me a lot as well because - I mean, this is the problem, right? There are two ways to think about it in this story, right? Like, if Adnan is telling the truth, that he didn't do it, well, then of course he doesn't know what happened. And my frustration, and no matter how many ways I try to ask and how many tricks I try to pull out of the hat to like, get him off-guard or ask in a different way or come at it like - you know, like, it's never going to help. You know? And then the other way is maybe he's - doesn't want to say, you know what I mean? Like, you don't know.
GROSS: Right. Now, something else I learned that I found very interesting - one of the theories about Adnan was that even though he was like, a good student and he was a good athlete and he was like - what? - the prince of the prom, and he's gotten these like, positive citations in prison for good behavior and all of that, like, maybe he's really, like, a sociopath. But he had this, like - he had this one moment where that sociopathic self came forward, and he committed a murder. And all of the other good-guy stuff, that's just a cover for the sociopathic behavior that's always lurking beneath. And so you posed this, you know, I think it was to the detective who you hired for the series, and he says, there are really so few sociopaths who commit murder and so few murderers who are sociopaths. You should be so lucky that you have that one charming sociopath who's kind of charming - you know, conning you into thinking he's a smart, normal guy.
KOENIG: That was actually - yeah, that was actually a forensic psychologist named Charles Ewing.
KOENIG: So it was not Trainum. It was a different guy. And I think you're sort of collapsing two things, so it was actually Deirdre Enright who said, you didn't get that lucky.
GROSS: Oh, OK.
KOENIG: Yeah, so Ewing did say, like, it's not that common and then Deirdre was like, and you're not that lucky. Yeah. Yeah, I know, I know. It's the first place I think, like, laypeople go, including me, of just like, maybe he's a psycho. You know, maybe he's a sociopath. And then to realize like, oh - it's not as common as we think in murder cases.
GROSS: Sarah Koenig will be back in the second half of the show. She's the host and executive producer of the podcast Serial, which is a spinoff of This American Life.
I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Sarah Koenig, the executive producer and host of the phenomenally popular podcast Serial, which is the first spinoff show of This American Life, where Sarah worked as a producer. The 12-episode-long season one ended last week.
The series is the result of a year's reporting reinvestigating the 1999 murder of a Baltimore County high school student, Hae Min Lee. Hae's ex-boyfriend, Adnan Syed, was convicted of the murder but continues to maintain his innocence. It was a very messy case. Adnan's lawyer was later disbarred. Sarah uncovered important facts that were never introduced in court and she raises many questions about whether Adnan committed the murder.
I'm sure part of what was really weighing on you during the time you were reporting this story on "Serial" was that you had people's lives in your hands, I mean, in some ways. You know, like, you're discussing Adnan's guilt or innocence. He's serving a life sentence in prison after being convicted of murder, but the person who convicted him, Jay - you really throw a lot of doubt on his story. Jay's story got Adnan convicted because Jay says Adnan called him and said, I'm going to murder my ex-girlfriend, Hae, and asked Jay to help him bury the body. Jay says he did. Jay took the police to where the car was.
So I wouldn't want to be Jay right now, you know, like, I wouldn't want to be Jay listening to this podcast because a lot of people think, well, maybe Jay did it, and maybe he's just trying to put the blame on Adnan. And I guess I'm wondering what you felt your responsibility to Jay was while reporting the piece.
KOENIG: You know, obviously we thought a lot about that. And I want to be clear, like, we're never saying Jay did it or maybe Jay did it. And I don't believe that, so I think - but I think what's - it's hard. I don't think it's any different from any other story like this where you're re-investigating a case. You know, it's not sort of groundbreaking in some way that we're sort of bringing up, you know, like, look, there may have been problems with this case.
So I think - I just felt like - I think we all felt like it's worth asking these questions, you know? It's worth - these are important questions. And this is - this is - there seemed to be problems with this case, and the alternative is to not ask these questions and do nothing. And that didn't seem right, so it just was a matter of, you know, trying as hard as we could to get everyone to participate, including Jay. And, you know, I understand why he didn't. I totally understand why he didn't. But that doesn't mean if he doesn't then we can't do the story - you know, we're still going to do the story because the questions are still there.
And so it was just a matter of being as respectful as we could and as accurate as we could. And, you know, we certainly didn't bring up anything that we didn't think was necessary in order to tell the story. We didn't bring up extraneous stuff that seemed like why, you know? It was everything that was already there in court - in open court - and in fact, you know, in a harsher way than we were presenting it, frankly. So obviously, I don't want anyone to suffer because of the work I'm doing, but I also feel like, you know, there's a strong tradition of doing these kinds of investigative stories, and we weren't doing anything differently than we would do in any other story.
GROSS: The young woman who was murdered - the high school student who was murdered, Hae Min Lee - is a central part of the story. But her family didn't want to talk with you because, I guess, it was - tell us why.
KOENIG: I don't know why. I never spoke to any of them or communicated with any...
KOENIG: ...So I don't know why. All I know is that we made efforts on many, many fronts over many, many months. And so, you know, my best guess by the end was, like, they had to know and chose not to communicate. Her brother - Hae Min Lee's - did go on Reddit and say, you know, we were contacted and we - I ignored it or something. And I don't know for sure that that was him, but I'm assuming that it was him. But we never - so I don't know - I don't want to presume in any way why, why not.
GROSS: One of the things that - I forget how her mother says that - but her mother says - was this at the trial? I can't remember. Her mother is Korean, from South Korea. And her mother says - and I think I have this right one - when a mother is buried, she's buried in the ground. When a child is buried, she's buried in her mother's heart.
KOENIG: Yeah, yeah.
GROSS: We all found that very moving, and I'm sure you did, too, as a mother.
KOENIG: Of course, of course. I mean, and that's why I didn't want to write anything about it beyond that because it just felt it's so private. It's so personal.
KOENIG: It's so overwhelming. And what more can you say? I mean, it's hideous.
GROSS: Memory is so important in the whole story because in the very first episode, you point out how difficult it was to - I mean, how unlikely it was that these high school students would be able to accurately remember where they were six weeks ago when they're questioned initially about where they were at the time of the murder. And you start asking your nephew and some of his friends if they remember what they were doing six weeks ago, and either they don't remember or they're contradicting each other. It's clearly - it's clear that their memories about this aren't great.
KOENIG: It really made - like, doing this story really made me think about people's memories and relying on people's memories and how ridiculously tenuous that is.
I mean, I was doing one interview where this guy was in the same class Adnan and Hae at Woodlawn and was a friend of Adnan's and knew Hae and was in that whole group. And I went to interview him, and I wanted him - I knew, like, one thing I wanted him to tell me about was this one event that had happened at his house where Adnan had come to his house after the whole event had gone down and everything. He said he had no memory of that at all - like zero, first of all. And then he said, you know, remember - I just remember, like, people - the detectives were around, but my parents really shielded me from that. They didn't want me talking to the detective, so I never did an interview. I never did a detective's interview.
And I was like, well, OK, here are the notes from your detective's interview on March whatever in 19 - and he just had no memory he had even spoken to - and he was not lying to me at all. I mean, it was clear. And he was just like, what? Oh, let me see that, you know what I mean? He just didn't remember. Like, a whole thing that you would think - I don't think he'd ever spoken to a detective before then. I doubt he's spoken to one since, you know, it was like a one of - and he just - it was gone. And so it was just a real reminder of, like, everything people are telling me is fallible.
GROSS: My guest is Sarah Koenig, the executive producer and host of the podcast Serial. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. My guest is Sarah Koenig, the host and executive producer of the podcast "Serial," in which she reinvestigates the 1999 murder of a high school student. The girl's ex-boyfriend, Adnan Syed, was convicted of murder and is serving a life sentence. But he continues to maintain his innocence. Listeners caught up in the whodunit aspect of the story speculated somewhat obsessively about what conclusions Sarah would reach. The person with the most at stake, Adnan, was wondering too. In the final installment, Adnan offered Sarah some advice about how to end "Serial."
(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "SERIAL")
SYED: I was just thinking it the other day. I was like, I'm pretty sure she probably has people telling her, like, look. You know, you know this could - you know, this case may - he's probably guilty. You're going crazy trying to find out if he's innocent, which you're not going to find 'cause he's guilty. I mean, I don't think you'll ever have a hundred percent or - or, you know what I'm saying, any type of certainty about it. The only person in the whole world who could have that is me. And, I mean, for what it's worth, whoever did it. You'll never have that. I don't think you will.
KOENIG: Adnan told me all he wanted was to take the narrative back from the prosecution, just as an exercise so people could see his case without makeup on, look at it in the eye, up close, and make their own judgments. He told me he doesn't think I should weigh in.
SYED: I think you should just go down the middle. I think you shouldn't really take a side. I mean, I mean, it's not - you know, obviously - you know what I'm saying? - my decision or whatever. Obviously, it's yours. But I'm saying if I was to be you, just go down the middle. Hey, you know, obviously you know how to narrate it. But I checked these things out. These things - these are the things that look bad against him. These are the things that, you know, the state doesn't really have an answer for. You know what I mean? And I think, in a way, you could even go point for point. And in a sense, you leave it up to the - to the audience to determine.
KOENIG: While I appreciate Adnan's blessing to take a powder, I'm not going to.
GROSS: You know, I think there was such a burden on you from the audience. You - so many people in the audience were like, what's the ending of "Serial" going to be? Is she going to say who really did it? Is she going to give us her opinion of who really did it? And some people were, like, demanding closure. Like, I want an ending.
KOENIG: Right. (Laughter).
GROSS: I want a satisfying ending. (Laughter). And your responsibility, of course, is to the truth that you were capable of reporting. What kind of burden did you feel about having an ending and what the implications of an ending could be for people who are alive now?
KOENIG: I mean, it's funny. I did not fret about the ending that much. I always just felt like, I'm just going to keep my head down and keep reporting and keep reporting and keep reporting. And it'll come to an end as all stories do. And the reporting's going to take me there. It's like, I don't - I can't pre-engineer this, right? So - (laughter) - it was funny. Like, I think - I can't remember where it - when it was. But it was, like, after maybe episode three or four. We were having a meeting. I was having a meeting with Julie Snyder, the executive producer. And I think Dana was there too, Dana Chivvis, who's also a producer. And Ira Glass came in, who's, like, our boss, you know. And Julie said, oh, Ira - Ira says he has some ideas about the ending. And we were like, oh, great, like, let's hear it. So he sort of came in and more or less said, like, so I think it'd be great if you guys, like, solved it.
KOENIG: We were like, wait. That's your idea for the - OK. OK, we'll do our best, you know.
KOENIG: But - so that was a little disconcerting. But, you know, we know how to make stories on This American Life. You know, we've all been doing it for a really long time. And it just felt like, we'll get somewhere. And it's not going to please everyone, but that's too - you know, tough luck. I can't - you know what I mean? - like, we couldn't make something that - just 'cause people wanted to hear that something.
GROSS: And I'll say, for people who are still listening to the series and haven't finished yet, we're giving away information about the ending. I don't think that will really ruin anyone's interest in the series because it's - the way you tell the story and how the information unfolds is just so gripping. So in a way, I'd say don't even worry about the spoilers here, for those of you who are listening. But now I'm going to mention the conclusion that you do come to. You say, as a juror, I'd have to acquit Adnan Syed. As a human being walking down the street next week, what do I think? If you asked me to swear that Adnan Syed is innocent, I couldn't do that. I nurse doubt. And I was really glad you made that distinction between the legal definition of not guilty and the doubts that you have as just a person. And I thought that was a wonderful way to end because you're - you're kind of I think implicitly condemning, or at least criticizing, the criminal justice system's functioning for this trial because there are so many reasonable doubts.
KOENIG: Yeah. To me, there certainly were. To me, there were. And I think we all found that frustrating, you know. All of us who were working on it found it - you know, people are like, what's the most surprising thing, you know, you found out as you went along? Like, a couple people asked me that. And I'm - and, like, so far, my answer has been, you know, this kind of boring thing - like this boring, technical thing. But it was so fundamental to me, which is, like, when we realized that the way that, you know, the star witness's testimony was being corroborated, like, the main way was with these cell records. And when we realized, like, the phone records of the day of the crime don't actually support the story that he's telling in any solid way. That, to me, was like, what? Wait... Whoa. You know? And so yeah, it just - and I felt like that that really didn't come through at trial, that the cell records - they were really presented as this bedrock thing that was - that was, like, this, you know, rock underneath the story that completely held it up. And we just found that that was not true.
GROSS: Because the case, as you present it, is really gripping, I think a lot of people had the expectations while - like, wow, what a great murder mystery. Let's - maybe next week we'll find out who did it. Like...
GROSS: Let's try to solve the crime. And there were - on social media there were people trying to solve the crime and everything. But it's not a TV series. It's not a whodunit. It's not a detective novel. It's a - it's a real story with real lives on the line here. And you treated it very much as the reporter you are, even though you managed to tell the story in such an engrossing way, that we became totally caught up in the plot. But did you ever worry that people were kind of treating it as if it was, like, "CSI" or "Law & Order," and forgetting, no, this is real? These are real people. There can be a lot of pain here in addition to whatever pain was already inflicted.
KOENIG: We worried about that a lot. We worried about it a lot. And we talked about it a lot. You know, we didn't know that was going to happen at all, which again, our surprised - maybe it was naive. Maybe it was short - I don't know. But, you know, I was talking to Julie Snyder about it recently, who's the executive producer. And she was saying this thing of, like, there's this Internet world, which can get - (laughter) how to put it politely? - out of control. And - you know what I mean? - and just throwing stuff around and interacting with this material that's incredibly serious to all of us and that we need to treat with, like, the utmost professionalism and care, that they're interacting with it as entertainment. So that was the first thing we weren't totally prepared for, I think. And then, just the larger fact that, like, a public radio podcast would intersect with that world, with that Internet world of, you know, kind of armchair sleuth-ers and, I don't know, people who throw out accusations. You know, it just, like, never in our wildest - you know what I mean?
KOENIG: Like, it's just not - it's not the usual combination. And it was worrisome. You know, I mean, I think - and we really just - you know, I fretted a lot about it, about the stuff flying around. And, you know, it was like we sort of did our best. And we still, like, any time we saw someone's, you know, privacy be invaded, I guess - not invaded - but you know what I mean? Like, stuff that we were trying to keep - not using people's last names. Whenever we saw...
GROSS: Exactly. Exactly.
KOENIG: Another outlet doing that, we always said, respectfully, we would love it if you would take that down or, you know, take down these photos, take down - you know? And sometimes people did it, and sometimes they didn't. And we can't - you know, at the end of the day, like, we couldn't control it. And it was silly to think that we could control it. But we certainly tried. And, you know, even up to the last week, we're still trying, when we saw stuff out there to just say, please, you know, can you respect this and that? I mean, sometimes it did feel a little like, oh, dear, oh, dear, oh, dear. But we, you know - we could only do what we could do - you know? - and just try to keep it as responsible and respectful as we could all the time and just hope people followed that lead.
GROSS: You - the podcast ended up being so popular that there were parodies of you, including, I think, a very funny one on Funny Or Die. Then "Saturday Night Live" not only did a parody of you, you were mentioned - "Serial" was mentioned - in "Weekend Update." There were these, like, funny parodies of the story. But, you know, the story, again, it's about something really serious and really tragic, a high school girl was murdered 15 years ago. And somebody may be doing time who - the person doing time for it, a life sentence, may not be the person who actually committed the murder. That's such serious stuff. I'm not saying it isn't fair game for, you know, parodies of the series or anything. But you must - you must be thinking about that too.
KOENIG: Yeah. Right, I mean, if you - if I had my druthers, you know, I wish they didn't exist for that reason. But I know it makes me sound like a real, like, fuddy-duddy, party-pooper kind of person. But yeah, I mean, ultimately - again, it's like... It's a funny position to be in because to me, it's incredibly serious. It's not funny in any way. It's not only the subject matter, but it's my integrity as a reporter. I mean, you know, it's serious business to me. And to know that people are, again, interacting with it as entertainment or just making fun of the fact that it's popular is part of it too. I mean, I think in a way, the parody is of the popularity. You know, I can't not take responsibility for that as well. It's like, well, we brought it into the world. And so I can't complain with how the world is interacting with it. But if I could choose, you know, I wouldn't have those things happen.
GROSS: My guest is Sarah Koenig, the executive producer and host of the podcast "Serial." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Sarah Koenig who's the executive producer and host of the phenomenally-popular podcast Serial which ended its 12-week run of season one last week.
Did the popularity of Serial mess with your mind? I really doubt you expected it to be that popular. It broke all records in podcasting. It's been written up all over. It's been, like, number one, I think, in Sweden and in England in terms of podcasting. Did that affect your own equilibrium?
KOENIG: Yes, it did. It did. It did. And this is just, like, a thing of my own personality, I think, is that it affected it negatively, mostly, largely. I just - it was stressful, and I also tend to focus on the negative, as my colleagues probably can attest.
KOENIG: So I - you know, in the beginning, you know, when we were just like, well, you know, how's it going, and there started to be press about it, I was reading a lot, you know, and sort of Googling it several times a day, like what's new, what are people saying? And that just started to be bad for me, so I kind of stopped, honestly. I really stopped about halfway through...
GROSS: Well, why was it bad?
KOENIG: Oh, 'cause I'm thin-skinned, like, in a way that's just dumb, you know. I mean, you know, it's hard - doing this work, you would think that I should be able to get as good as I give, but somehow, it was a little - you know, it was just hard. You know, it's hard to - I don't, you know - I take criticism personally, and so that was sometimes hard.
I mean, in another level, it was really, I think, good for me as a reporter and good for the story, insofar as it was just a constant reminder of how careful we needed to be. And it's not as if we weren't already being extraordinarily careful, you know, but it just was a sort of constant - to have that much scrutiny on the reporting that you're doing, especially when you're not done with it yet, was really - I mean, it really makes you work harder.
GROSS: So do you think that your podcast might influence the outcome or, at least, how much attention is paid to the case?
KOENIG: It shouldn't (laughter), you know? In a perfect world, it should not or it should not even care.
GROSS: Well, let me challenge what you're saying for a second. It - maybe it should because you have information in the podcast that the defense attorney did not present. Now, that's not what's being challenged...
GROSS: ...But still, there are certain irregularities that - I don't know - might influence somebody who's deciding on this.
KOENIG: Yeah, but that's the most I can say about it, too. Like, yeah, maybe, might, if they know about it. But truly, they really should only be considering what's in front of them on paper, you know what I mean?
KOENIG: And like, nothing from my podcast on - is before the court. So, I mean, that might change. I know that Adnan's attorney is still figuring out how to get the alibi issue back before the judge as well, and I think that is partly in due to my reporting. But that gets you into the realm of, kind of, like, well, people - who knows what influences people, you know what I mean? And I just - I don't want to speculate about like, you know, who might be hearing what and what pressures they might be feeling. But technically, no, it's all - it was already before the court before my podcast began, and it's still before the court.
GROSS: Well, Sarah, I want to congratulate you on Serial, and I want to thank you so much for talking with us about it. And I look forward to season two. In the meantime, I hope you get some rest. Happy holidays, and happy New Year.
KOENIG: Thank you so much. You, too.
GROSS: Sarah Koenig is the host and executive producer of the podcast Serial which is a spinoff of This American Life. Season one ended last week, but it's a podcast, so it's available at your convenience at serialpodcast.org. "Serial" has gotten the funding to proceed with a second season. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.