Does Sarah Koenig Talk About Herself Too Much?: A Conversation Between Amateur Student Journalists
ABBY LEE // OCTOBER 12, 2018
The third season of the critically-acclaimed NPR podcast Serial premiered on September 20th, focusing on none other than the city of Cleveland. Serial’s format— part of what made it such a widespread success— is that of narrating a detailed investigation, week by week, into a captivating criminal case. This season, however, has assumed a different structure: every episode focuses on a completely different case being tried at the Cuyahoga County Justice Center. As fans of the podcast, myself and The Grape’s co-editor-in-chief, Sophie Jones felt inclined to discuss this new season, and what it says about podcasts as a contemporary medium. Here is our (edited) conversation:
It was a regular Wednesday night in Oberlin. As the locals headed to Long Island night at The Feve, I made my way to Sophie’s house.
Abby Lee: So, how long have you been listening to Serial?
Sophie Jones: I’ll tell you about my start on the Serial train; I refused to listen initially because I was like, this is so mainstream. And then when I was farming one summer I listened to the entire thing in probably like, 24 hours, but nobody wanted to talk to me about it because they’d all listened to it six months earlier.
AL: I had a similar experience, except that it was this summer that I listened to the first season, so it was four years later. But I think this time around, when I heard the third season was about Cleveland, I was intrigued, not only as an Oberlin student, because that’s literally where we are, but as a person from the West Coast, instead of the Midwest, it’s really interesting to me.
There was a stillness in the room. Our conversation developed from swapping stories to the heart of the matter: is listening to Serial, and other NPR podcasts, simply indulging in bi-coastal voyeurism?
SJ: That’s like all these shows, people from New York City just saying, “Let’s go to Alabama,” and then doing exactly that.
AL: It’s a form of othering, but it’s also under the guise of like, “We’re all Americans and we need to relate and we need to know about each other,” which has value. But I think that similarly to Oberlin, or your Facebook feed, Serial and NPR listenership is an echo chamber. Podcasts are a pretty strong example of a newer form of media—
I subconsciously symboled scare quotes when I said the word media.
...where the concept of form, a.k.a. media, influences content and vice versa. I feel like with podcasts, we tend to separate form and function, because we’re not always thinking about the ways it might be problematic because it’s done well.
SJ: High production value! And I feel like they also present themselves, maybe S-Town (a 2017 longform podcast from the producers of Serial and This American Life) more than Serial, as an alternative to the fast pace at which we read news.
AL: A response to the 24-hour news cycle.
SJ: And they can just get away with saying sentences that you could never really print. She’ll just place herself so intensely in the story, describe stuff with, like, five adjectives because they’re focused on painting the visual picture. But it’s also so ridiculous.
I sensed from Sophie a moment of journalistic reverie.
AL: I read one review, from Vanity Fair, that didn’t find this new season and it’s new structure engaging, and was saying there’s way too much Sarah Koenig. At times where it would be the most valuable to hear the subject saying their story in their words, she’ll just end up describing and paraphrasing it.
SJ: The form of Serial and podcasts really normalizes journalists inserting themselves and their commentary into the story… And that’s tricky territory because Sarah Koenig and Brian Reed are basically narrating black or rural or queer lives.
At this point, I referred to the people in podcasts like these as “characters.” Sophie’s eyes lit up.
AL: In another review from Vulture, the first sentence was: “it’s such a pleasure to listen to Serial again,” which I found very disturbing. I wouldn’t use the word pleasurable to describe the experience of listening to stories of murder or injustice.
SJ: But it’s so funny because you hear a sentence like that, and you’re like, that’s so fucked up, but then, it’s like, yeah… I’m a white “coastal elite” working at a frickin’ sustainable farm listening to this story about criminal justice and, yeah, I was getting a lot of pleasure out of it.
Now I’m wondering, are podcasts, and the true crime genre in general, ultimately going to turn us all into sadists? Are we pretending like we’re not getting pleasure out of it because the form makes us feel like we know these people?
SJ: What you said earlier, when you were like, “characters... I mean people,” they literally seem like characters.
Sophie’s roommate, his name is Charlie Sherman, enters the room. He has something to share.
Charlie: [Sarah Koenig] sounds like what a white person imagines themself sounding like when they’re a “fly on the wall.”
We all chuckle. We try to coax more commentary out of him, but he’s reluctant— perhaps because of the presence of an iPhone recording our every breath.
Charlie: I was just gonna ask if I could shower.
SJ (in a Koenig-style cadence): He was crusty… something seemed, off.
Charlie: That’s not… none of that is true, what? I came to check my phone.
AL: Ah, the mundane activities of everyday life.
SJ: He eats some Lucky Charms, standing dejected and alone, a tissue sticking out of his front pocket.
At this point, we’d all rather be eating cereal than talking about Serial. We start talking about a Portlandia sketch from this past year— Sophie sent it to me prior to this completely scheduled and non-candid conversation. Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein portray Ira Glass and Sarah Koenig-type radio hosts. Their fake show is called “Forgotten American: Rural Footprints.” If Sophie and I had a podcast, perhaps it would be called “Do You Really Care About Our Hot Take?”
SJ: Something crazy about S-Town — and they parody this so well in a Portlandia sketch — was the fact that the story was maybe going nowhere, and then they kind of get a whiff that he’s gay, and then they pretty much out him and now the story is gripping. And I listened to it, and it was a pleasure, but man, it was so fucked up.
AL: It points to the muddy ethics of podcasting in this way, but we needed a satirical TV show to make us aware of that. Thank god for satire!
The sound of Charlie running the shower creeps into the room, just like the chill that creeps down my spine when a media frenzied conversation becomes almost too much to handle.
SJ: I think that when first season came out, and the reaction was really unprecedented, Sarah Koenig noticed that and was like “Woah, I just created this really weird powerful thing with a following, so I’ll try to use it to highlight these cases that aren’t so unique.”
AL: In theory, that makes a lot of sense. It’s a very 2018 move, that times have changed so much since this first came out, so we have to change with it.
SJ: It does literally feel like something that’s like, Trump’s president now.
AL: Yeah. And here’s what we’re doing.
SJ: We’re going to Cleveland!
AL: In her words, “The least exceptional, most middle-of-the-road, most middle-of-the-country place.”
SJ: She says, “We’re not gonna shit on the mistake by the lake,” but she just did. But we’re Oberlin students and all we do is shit on Cleveland!
AL: What I think is missing, is if we’re talking about Cleveland, and talking about Ohio as a swing state, socially and culturally mysterious, super diverse but also segregated, they haven’t talked about why that is.
SJ: Cleveland and Ohio become, kind of, buzzwords, for a wealthy audience, they hear that and they’re like, “Oh, Cleveland, we know what that means.” But they don’t. And neither do we?
AL: They’re clearly giving us a sense, with these stories, of the political climate of this city — that cops are corrupt, there’s a lack of accountability — but it’s totally unrooted in why it is like that and what made that happen.
SJ: I was about to say something about Tamir Rice, because I feel like when they were introducing Cleveland as a case study, at least to me it felt glaring that they didn’t bring him up.
AL: Until episode three.
SJ: There’s a lot of cool things happening in journalism right now, and journalism taking creative forms is the only way that you’re gonna get people to listen who don’t have to, about stuff like that. But this kind of trend of super voyeuristic, super one-and-done podcasts, you have to interrogate the form. When does some fucked up event just become an episode of a podcast?
I’m sensing an overarching theme of conflict here. We’re stuck between feeling annoyed at the way in which stories are being told in Serial, but at the same time, there is value in having it be out there. Our brains, like the confused rhetoric of investigative podcasting, are a bit blurry at this point. The clock strikes 10:30 PM. Much like the first season of Serial, we’re leaving this conversation unresolved, with no tidy conclusion.