Serial season 2: Sarah Koenig, Julie Snyder interview before Bowe Bergdahl finale
Serial concludes its deep dive of Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl on Thursday with its season 2 finale.
This season was a shift for the award-winning podcast from the makers of This American Life. Instead of digging up clues from a murder mystery unknown to most, host Sarah Koenig and company turned their lens to an incredibly high-profile situation pertinent to national security.
Unlike the case of Adnan Syed in season 1, there isn’t a clear-cut question to be answered with Bergdahl. But the minds behind Serial promise to address a handful of questions around the soldier leaving his base in Afghanistan in 2009, resulting in his capture by the Taliban.
Public discourse in season 2 might not be at levels of season 1, but the downloads are there: According to the show’s reps, the Bergdahl story is far ahead of the download pace of Syed.
“I think the one thing that I am heartened by is we’re hearing — maybe people are just telling me what I want to hear, or that they’re hoping I’ll want to hear — that we have different listeners for this one, but also return listeners who are liking it more than season 2,” Koenig tells EW. “The headline has been like, ‘A lot of people liked season 1 better,’ but I feel like there’s also a headline that’s like, ‘Well, there’s a lot of people who seem to like season 2 a whole lot and even better.'”
“People are talking about the stuff that we were hoping they would talk about, which are these broader questions of, wait, what is this war again?” she continues. “Why are we there? How are we prosecuting this war? What does it mean to be a solider now? How does our politics bleeding into these conflicts? That’s great. That makes me so happy.”
EW chatted with Koenig and executive producer Julie Snyder ahead of the finale, discussing season 2 and the criticisms of Serial it ushered in, season 3, and potential new projects.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Overall, how do you think this season has fared compared to season 1?
JULIE SNYDER: With the audience, it’s been great. Our numbers are even stronger for season 2 than season 1, which I think surprises a lot of people, because we’re not having 5 million think pieces written about us every week [laughs], which we started feeling a little bit of the experience of season 1. There were a lot of, “Here’s how Serial is racist,” and “Here’s how Serial is unethical,” and, “Here’s how Serial‘s wrong.”
SARAH KOENIG: Some of them were like, “What is this work? Behold! What is it?”
SNYDER: You’re right. I’m just surprised; I’ve never been in that situation before. Because we’re not getting that stuff, I think people are surprised. I just found out [Friday] we have 50 million downloads on season 2, which puts us miles ahead of when we were at the end of season 1. Hopefully, a lot of people who haven’t listened yet — I can understand that some people maybe got a little exasperated with our release schedule this season — will listen all at once when we’re done, for people who didn’t want to wait the two-week breaks in between. The vast amount of our downloads from season 1 came when we were finished with season 1.
KOENIG: I’ve been hearing from a lot of people who are training for marathons, and they’re waiting for the whole thing to be ready. A lot of people, it turns out, in this country train for marathons and listen to podcasts.
Before you started the season, you teased it wouldn’t be similar to the Adnan Syed case and said you would be fine with it not catching on as much. Now that season 2 is almost over, how do you respond to critique of going a different way into something that’s less high-concept, and may be harder to get into?
SNYDER: That’s not even to say the Adnan Syed story would have been easier to grasp, and this is more difficult; I don’t know what’s easy and what’s difficult. Yet, on the other hand, I see the difference especially in terms of the world of the story that we’re doing this season.
The story is about Bowe Bergdahl, but it’s also about both Bowe Bergdahl’s decision, then the consequences of his decision, and the search for him, the negotiations to get him back. It then starts going into the war in Afghanistan, it starts going into foreign policy and the U.S. role in the region. In terms of a cast of characters, it’s sort of infinite. You’re not really returning back to the same people over and over again. That is a very different story to tell, and it’s a different kind of story — certainly for us — to produce and report. I think that might be the difference in this kind of story than the one we had last time.
In terms of the audience response for it… We’ve had great download numbers and a great response, [but] we don’t focus group our stories. We don’t go out there and test it with a test audience, and then if they like it way better, then we’ll change the ending or something. We tend to basically more follow kind of a golden rule type of thing: if we like it, we think that other people will like it. I like to produce the kinds of stories that I would be willing to listen to and that I want to hear. That is where we followed our interests on this one.
So it was different, and it feels like a different thing to be doing and something that we certainly hadn’t tried before, because taking on a story that was a national story — it’s a topical story — and we’re going to go in to talking about — especially when you say, “Let’s go talk about the war,” but let’s try and do it through characters and people, and not just through news reports — it’s a totally different challenge.
KOENIG: Julie and I think alike on these matters. We started to have questions. When we came upon this story — this story came to us, to tell you the truth — we started thinking about it, and we started to have questions about it, and those questions led to other questions, which led to other questions, which led to more reporting, which led to a bigger and bigger and bigger picture. That, as reporters and producers, is what you want: When you’re just completely absorbed in the thing. I think people don’t believe us when we say this, but that is how we choose to do our work. If we come on something, and we’re all absorbed in it, that’s it: that’s what we’re doing, because it’s, “Of course that’s what you do.” … I feel like our hearts are in this one, and we can do no other. We put our heads down and did it as best we could. That’s what you hope, [that] the audience will respond to the same thing we responded to. This notion that somehow, “Oh, we hit on a formula and we got to keep doing it” — no, that would be horrible. That would be terrible for us as reporters.
If you’re dispassionate about something, it might not breed as good of work.
SNYDER: I think so much of it in the Adnan Syed story was that Sarah, herself, had a lot of questions, not just about that case, but then also along the way of how a case is investigated, how it’s prosecuted in trial. We learned a lot going along the way; you can only learn it once. I think it would be really weird to go into a similar kind of story. I’m not sure Sarah, yet again, being so surprised that the State’s case doesn’t look like it was entirely true or something. There’s only so many times you make that same discovery.
What are the things you thought you did well in the totality of season 2? And what are some things you thought you could have improved on?
SNYDER: Right now, I have a lot more things to talk about things that we didn’t do well and the things that I would hope to improve upon in the future. We didn’t plan so well. I would have given us more time. I felt a lot of pressure on this one, because we had raised money, as well, from listeners — which was great and really, really helpful. But it felt like a lot of pressure of, “We can’t dawdle, we can’t dawdle, we can’t dawdle, we can’t dawdle.”
When we had to switch to every other week, that’s not ideal for us. I know that. I don’t want to watch TV that way; I get it. In the future, I would try and make that not… It’s awesome we had the ability to do it. What would have happened had we not had the ability, that would have been awful. Hopefully, in the future, we won’t do that, then we’ll give ourselves a little more time.
KOENIG: In the ramp up, yeah.
SNYDER: Yeah, exactly. In the ramp up.
The biggest overall revelation from season 2 was Bergdahl’s conversations with Mark Boal. How did you balance using clips of this gold mine of unknown information with your own reporting?
KOENIG: Those conversations with Mark are why we chose this story. We wouldn’t be doing it absent those. We wanted to be able to bring something to it, and those conversations were super interesting to us, to hear them. And they seemed special in this way: You don’t ever get to hear those kinds of conversations, which are not a pure reporter interviewing a subject. It’s a completely different kind of vibe and atmosphere to those conversations, which made them really nice. They are sort of the heart of the story, for me, and then we built out from there.
Initially, we weren’t planning on getting as ambitious as we did, because we thought, “Well, we got these conversations, and we can mostly present those.” Then it became clear, “Oh wait, but I have all these questions about what he’s saying.”
It wasn’t like we had to establish some sort of formal balance between, “We need this much of this and we need this percentage of this.” It just was dictated by which chapter of Bowe’s story are we telling right now. If we’re telling the chapter about what it’s like to be held for five years with the Taliban, then yeah, you’re going to hear a lot from Bowe — that makes sense. But then, if we want to talk about what was the State Department doing to try to get him back, well, Bowe doesn’t know that: He was locked in a cage.
SNYDER: Or who were the people holding him?
KOENIG: He doesn’t even totally know that. Then you’ve got to go outside of those phone calls and figure it out. It was completely dictated by which chapter of the story are we going to tell. You want him present throughout, because it’s his story. But sometimes it wasn’t appropriate. We used it where it made sense.
In the middle of producing season 2, there were big hearings for season 1’s subject Adnan Syed. There were three standalone recaps of his hearings. Do you regret doing those standalone episodes, given that it underscored the critique of season 2, that it wasn’t a whodunit?
KOENIG: There was no way I wasn’t going to go to that hearing. … I don’t regret that. It felt like, “Oh, we can just recap it, it’ll be easy.” Then it turns out it wasn’t so easy, and it’s also not our forte to produce something overnight like that. We just are not daily people — that’s not what we do. We have marvelous other skills, we just aren’t good at those skills necessarily.
I feel like I could sort of take or leave those. I don’t think it’s some terrible grave error. This whole idea of doing a Serial was an experiment, is an experiment. And it’s an experiment that worked. So the danger is that you say, “Well, this one thing worked, so let’s not try anything else, because we might screw it up. Let’s not mess with success.” That would be a horrible shame.
We have such great freedom; we’re in such a privileged situation in so many ways. We have this big audience, we are in this format where you can do whatever you want for how long you want. You can tell people, “We’re going to have two episodes this week;” you can tell people, “We’re not going to have an episode this week,” and it won’t break the podcast. Yeah, let’s experiment! Some things are going to work better than others, and we’re going to learn as we go along, but I don’t want to stop experimenting.
In the future, do you anticipate further check-ins with Bergdahl and Syed as you move on to other stories?
KOENIG: I do. I don’t know what will become of that checking in. I will certainly check in as a reporter. What that will turn into, whether it’s something written, or something we put in the podcast feed, or something we put onto This American Life, I don’t know. We’ll know when we get there. I’m certainly going to follow them — just as a reporter.
We briefly touched on you wishing there was more time, which is why the shift to biweekly release happened after episode 4. Did that extra week allow you to synthesize and work with the new information better to the degree you wanted?
KOENIG: No question. … Unfortunately, I feel like my shortcoming as a reporter is I will fill the time with whatever. If you had given me three weeks, I probably would have sponged up all that and done it. I’m not good at limiting.
SNYDER: It’d be a bad show.
KOENIG: That was our fear: that we might mess it up. We wanted to do right by this story. It’s a really delicate and important story. You don’t mess with that, just because you’re like, “Well, I’m just going to rush it.” You don’t rush that; that would be crazy. Especially when you don’t have to.
What was your biggest surprise in the reporting?
KOENIG: Two things come to mind, but I’m not even sure this is true, that they’re the biggest surprises, these are just the two things that are coming into my head.
One is that a lot of what happened in this story, with the trade and all those things, there’s lot of “what if?” moments where decisions happened — small or big — or mistakes happened. The human-scale decision-making that went on. That it’s not some big geopolitical machine that kicked in to solve this problem of getting back a POW. That it was a lot of individual people trying to figure out a situation that we had never been in before as a country. We didn’t do it perfectly, we really didn’t.
Talking to all the soldiers was a surprise to me: how they are, and who they are, and how different they all are. I think a lot of the reporting that I’d seen — and I’m not someone who knows much about the military at all. Now I know a lot, but I didn’t when I started — felt like, “The Army says this, or the platoon mates are like this, or they feel this way,” as if they were one block of this monolithic group.
Just to get to know some of them and realize they’re all complicated in their own way. They all have complicated, different feelings about what happened. They see it differently from each other. That shouldn’t have been a surprise, but somehow it was. And the degree to which I sympathized with their feelings, even when they were different from my own, I wasn’t expecting that. I really wasn’t expecting that.
Are there any updates about season 3? Last fall, you announced season 2 and season 3 were in your crosshairs. Spring 2016 was labeled as the start for season 3, but we’re here, and season 2 is just finishing up. I figured that might have changed.
SNYDER: What if we came out with [season] 3 next week [laughs]? We would be such geniuses. No, I don’t think we have anything on that front. We’re not being coy; we don’t know yet. We have to get back where everything is. We are also looking into other projects, and other shows that are not Serial, but Serial-adjacent. We have a lot on our plate.
SNYDER: Like new podcasts, basically, that would be coming as co-productions. I think it’ll be exciting. We’re going to keep riding this podcast wave. We’re just going to take over.
So is there a story for season 3? Or is still in nascent stages?
KOENIG: There is, but we just are not… It’s an experiment! We’re not boxing ourselves into anything. Yeah, there is a story that we were working on, [and] we are now going to see where that is to see what’s what.
Portions of this interview have been edited and condensed.