Image courtesy Sydney Opera House/Prudence Upton
I have an admission to make: I went Julie Snyder’s talk on Serial having only listened to two episodes.
Granted, I was among the very few in the crowd who weren’t major fans – a direct question from Serial’s co-creator and producer Julie Snyder revealed there was maybe 10 of us rookies in the sold-out event.
It speaks volumes about a speaker when even the least informed audience members enjoy themselves. Not that Snyder’s talk at Bingefest had to work hard to create hype. First recorded in a Sarah Koenig’s (Serial’s host) cold and self-soundproofed basement, the 2014 podcast became the fastest to reach 5 million downloads in iTunes history. It’s been downloaded in every country apart from North Korea and Eritrea, and even parodied on Saturday Night Live.
For those not familiar with the podcast (why are you here?!), Serial is a non-fiction narrative told episodically over several weeks. The first series focused on the 1999 murder of Maryland schoolgirl Hae Min Lee, and set out to discover whether it really was her boyfriend, Adnan Syed, who murdered her. Adnan has always maintained his innocence, but is currently serving a life sentence.
But Snyder wasn’t at Bingefest to repeat what fans already knew. Starting from the podcast’s beginnings as an attempt to create a weekly spin-off of This American Life, Snyder talked the audience through what was going on behind the scenes of Serial’s production.
There were revelations about the podcast’s infamous MailChimp advertisement that ran at the start of each episode. Or rather the infamous “Mail Kimp” advertisement. The idea to keep the mispronunciation came after one of Snyder’s first assignments at This American Life, where she as to create a advert for PRI. While she edited out the goofs on the tape, her producer, Ira Glass, added them back in to reflect on the reality of life.
Snyder explained how the simple error lead to Mail Kimp t-shirts, mugs and even twitter handles. For those of you wondering who was the person behind the meme, the mispronunciation came from a 14 year old Norwegian tourist who was waiting at an Apple store to buy a new iPhone.
The talk also covered audience participation, which has (to put it lightly) always been a massive part of Serial. Within weeks there were podcasts about the podcast, and of course Reddit.
“Over 44,000 people subscribed to the serial discussion board nand those people debated and parsed ever single goddamn thing,” Snyder said.
“Really for us, Reddit and other online discussions about the case – they just filled us with anxiety. The rules of Reddit – they are not our rules.”
Snyder spoke about her attempts to get the Reddit moderators to impose some rules on the boards, to protect people involved in the case. After a while however, the frenzied public involvement just got out of hand, with Snyder and the team deciding to shut down the commenting system on the Serial Facebook page after finishing the first season. So Snyder had their website developer create a filter to block out key phrase.
“The filter did not work. ‘Adnan did it’ was posted,” Snyder said.
“To make matters worse, Rich [the developer] just thought he was logged in on his personal Facebook account…but he was logged in as serial. The official Serial account.”
“It’s funny to me now but it wasn’t so funny then.”
On a more serious note, Snyder’s discussion on the relationship between reporter Sarah Koenig and the imprisoned Adnan, revealed the complicated nature of journalism. Snyder revealed how just as Koenig was calculating her every word to Adnan to ensure he would continue to talk to her, Adnan was also calculating his every word to try and get his story told how he wanted it.
For those of you thinking of turning your hand to podcasting, Snyder has some advice:
“Just start thinking about what they could do where it’s not just like every other podcast.”
“You want to think about the kinds of things that I haven’t heard that I want to hear.”
And if like me you haven’t finished (or started) Serial, go get it now. It’s some seriously binge-worthy listening.