Serial’s Sarah Koenig on her podcast’s message: ‘don’t judge before you try to understand’

Koenig is surprised by Serial's success

Serial podcast creator, investigative journalist Sarah Koenig, has talked of her surprise at the success of her popular series, and explained her motivations for producing the show.

Season 2 of the podcast deals with the case of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, an American soldier who was held for five years by the Taliban, and arrested for desertion on his recapture. It’s been running since the first episode arrived unannounced on December 10. Four episodes of the podcast’s second season have been posted at the time of writing (January 11).

Koenig’s approach to both the new and earlier seasons are summed up in a single quote: “don’t judge before you understand.”

Speaking to the New Yorker for their ‘Radio Hour’ podcast, Koenig said “There are shades of truth in here that are a lot subtler than we generally acknowledge in this system.” Her podcast runs with this idea, which stems from her time as a New York Times journalist, during which she said she was often “suckered” by both sides during court cases.

She continues “I was a bad fit. The stuff that was interesting to me was never quite what was interesting to my editors.”

The show maintains journalistic leanings, however, including a range of evidence alongside the podcast to help listeners make up their own mind, such as the below:

Sami Yousafzai interviewed members of the Taliban who were involved in Bergdahl’s capture. His sources said that in…

Posted by Serial on Thursday, 17 December 2015

Talking on the series, Koenig also admitted she isn’t able to pick up the phone and call Bergdahl, though her response to a follow-up questions – a reluctant “erm” – suggests that she may have ways of contacting the former soldier, whose story in the show is based largely around recordings made by a third party.

She says Bergdahl strikes her as “an unusual person, trying to explain how things felt, how he put things together in his head, and the decisions he made based on that.”

Hosted and co-created by Sarah Koenig, Serial is a spin-off from US radio show This American Life. Season One, which followed the investigation into an unsolved murder that took place in Baltimore in 1999, became a massive online hit last October.

In a statement released with the first episode of Season two, Koenig and the Serial team wrote: “This story – it spins out in so many unexpected directions. Because, yes, it’s about Bowe Bergdahl and about one strange decision he made, to leave his post. (And Bergdahl, by the way, is such an interesting and unusual guy, not like anyone I’ve encountered before.) But it’s also about all of the people affected by that decision, and the choices they made.”

“Unlike our story in Season One, this one extends far out into the world. It reaches into swaths of the military, the peace talks to end the war, attempts to rescue other hostages, our Guantanamo policy. What Bergdahl did made me wrestle with things I’d thought I more or less understood, but really didn’t: what it means to be loyal, to be resilient, to be used, to be punished.”