True crime podcast Serial launched into wild popularity during its 2014 debut. Co-created by Sarah Koenig and Julie Snyder, the show is cited for groundbreaking work in long-form investigative journalism. Its first story, explored throughout the entire season, follows a 15-year-old murder case. Teenager Adnan Syed was convicted of strangling his ex-girlfriend in 1999, but he maintains his innocence to this day. The uncertainty was riveting. Koenig, the host, revealed new information each week as she uncovered it. At the release of its first episode, no one, not even Koenig, knew how Serial would end. Listeners couldn’t help but speculate. Did Adnan really do it? Where was he in those 21 minutes after school? What about the mystery of the Best Buy phone booth? Who lied, and why?
With all these questions floating around, I was unbelievably excited to attend Serial’s live show at the Paramount Theatre on Saturday. I wish I had pictures for you all to see, but unfortunately photography is not allowed inside. The building is absolutely stunning, though. It has these wonderful high ceilings and ornate decorations and big, warm lights that make it feel like an old theater from a different time. I would highly recommend on venue alone! But back to Serial.
I don’t think it would be an exaggeration to say that Serial changed the game for podcasting, journalism, and audio entertainment. Its creators were in Seattle to discuss how they made it happen. Before the show started, the screen displayed a rotating collage of scanned documents, drawings, and notes from Adnan’s case. It was strange to see these pages — lines of scrawled handwriting, sometimes blacked out in places — after only hearing them described out loud. It was certainly an effective reminder that true crime journalism is just that: true stories that affect real people.
Koenig and Snyder made their entrance to enthusiastic applause. It brought the show to life in a completely different way, as Koenig’s already-familiar voice filled the room. The two graciously introduced themselves. They still couldn’t believe how many people came out to see them. (After all, their initial goal for the podcast had been to reach 300,000 people. To date, Serial has had 264 million downloads!) Side by side, Koenig standing and Snyder perched a stool, they began to tell the story of Serial itself. Beginning with their early hopes for the podcast, they explained how it came to be the show we know today. They talked about the development process and how they overcame the challenges that appeared along the way. This included one story about a hilarious Facebook mishap some time ago. Koenig also detailed the nature of her relationship with Adnan — calculated but personal, not quite friends but not strictly business either.
Throughout this first part of the show, it was pretty hard not to be won over by these two ladies. The pair were surprisingly funny in an honest, matter-of-fact way. Judging from the laughter I heard around me, the rest of the crowd felt the same. Koenig and Snyder also acknowledged deficits in their investigation of Adnan’s case. They seemed to invite transparency about the deliberateness of their storytelling. Although that should be a given in journalism, it was still incredibly cool to hear the thoughts of the people behind Serial. The whole thing actually felt quite intimate. Koenig called this first part of the show a “speech”, but it was much more conversational than that and more like her comfortable narration on each episode.
The second half of the show was reserved for questions. Audience members lined up at microphones placed on each end of the main floor and balcony. People raised questions about various facts of Adnan’s case. Some asked about Serial’s second season, which aired last year. Others asked about the journalism itself. The number one takeaway? Fact check, fact check, fact check. Fact check everything.
In both halves of the show, Koenig and Snyder made excellent use of episode clips, pictures, and unaired interview tapes to illustrate the creation process. We even got to see a photo of hand puppets some middle schoolers had crafted to represent each character on season two. It was adorable in a kind of unsettling way.
Overall, it was a super rad night. I laughed a lot, learned a lot, and gained even more appreciation for all the work that goes into making a top-notch podcast. If there are any hardcore Serial fans who were unable to make it, I would highly recommend seeing them next time they make it out to Seattle.