The Stream

Koenig: ‘I don’t think the state’s story is the correct story’

Serial’s Sarah Koenig talks to Wajahat Ali.

Note: The second season of Serial premiered on December 10 and focuses on Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl. This interview was recorded on July 3, 2015. Listen:



“My life sort of sucks right now,” writes Sarah Koenig in an email before our interview earlier this summer.

This is an odd declaration considering Koenig is the co-creator and host of the wildly popular Serial, the most downloaded podcast in history. Over a course of twelve episodes last year, the series re-examined the 2000 conviction of Baltimore teenager Adnan Syed for the murder of his girlfriend Hae Min Lee. Koenig won a special Peabody award, was cited as one of Time’s most influential people, and even entered the pop culture pantheon with her very own SNL parody sketch.

“Obviously, my life is wonderful,” Koenig later admits, but the show’s juggernaut success has been overwhelming. “There’s too much happening,” she says. This includes an upcoming Serial TV series, being a parent, picking weeds from her garden, and finishing up the highly anticipated second and third seasons of Serial that she’s concurrently producing.

Just don’t ask her to tell you anything about the upcoming episodes.

“It could be about puppies, community gardens; it can be anything,” Koenig says. “I can tell you… no, I really can’t tell you much. I can tell you there are very different kind of stories from Season 1. Not totally unrelated thematically; it’s just a very different kind of story.”

The New York Times says Season 2 will focus on the case of Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, who was charged with deserting his troops in Afghanistan and “misbehaving before the enemy”, but Koenig won’t confirm any details.

“I don’t mean to be coy about it, I know it’s annoying… I don’t want to get into, like, a 21 questions thing about it because we’re not ready to talk about it.”

Keonig says she made peace with the fact that Season 2 is likely to be “a lot less popular” than Season 1, but she’s confident it won’t be a colossal disappointment like Star Wars: The Phantom Menace. “We learned a big lesson from Star Wars. We’ve struck Jar Jar Binks from our cast of characters So, like, you’re halfway there [to success].”

She says she doesn’t worry about the “haters,” because her job remains the same, which is to tell stories she cares about. Except this time, she has a much bigger megaphone.

“Yeah, we might not get the audience for Season 1, but a lot of those people will at least tune in for the beginning and we can talk about stuff that is really important to us and that we think deserves a lot of attention and that is a big privilege…I hope, maybe, you know, we can make a difference.”

The first season of Serial already made a profound impact. In November, a Baltimore judge granted Adnan Syed’s request to reopen his case, citing new evidence. Asia McClain, a high school classmate of Syed’s, provided an affidavit and testimony earlier this year that provided an alibi for Syed during the murder.

“I believe Asia, assuming she has the right day,” says Koenig. “I totally believe Asia. She has no reason to make anything up… she has been really consistent. When I talked to her, she didn’t understand in any way why her memories were crucial. She didn’t doctor her story to reflect the state’s timeline. She didn’t even know the state’s timeline.”

Evidence regarding the reliability of the cell phone towers will also be introduced at the new hearing. “The core of the case are cell phone records, really”, says Koenig. “It’s cell towers, which cell towers ping at what time and where, and a cell phone log.”

Koenig says she could have skipped this technical information, at the risk of boring the audience, and focused more on the testimony, but that would have been “terrible journalism.”

Instead, she embraced it as a challenge. “Let’s figure out a way to make it palatable and make it listenable. I was really proud of that. We got people interested in who called and what time and that’s really hard to do.”

The cell phone towers were further investigated in the podcast Undisclosed that continued after Serial ended. It was created by Rabia Chaudry, an attorney and Syed’s childhood friend, who initially pitched the case to Koenig and remains convinced of his innocence.  She’s releasing a book, with Syed’s cooperation, about the case and the recent court successes.

Have these developments changed Koenig’s mind about Adnan’s guilt or innocence?

“The short answer is I feel the same way I felt on December 18 when we aired the last episode,” says Koenig. “I think it’s really possible he didn’t do it, but I don’t know for sure… I don’t take that extra step because I don’t have conclusive evidence to go all the way there.”

However, Koenig is sure of one thing: “I don’t think the state’s story is the correct story.”

Supporters of Syed have established #FreeAdnan on Twitter and criticise the prosecution for being, at best, incompetent and, at worst, deliberately malicious.

Koenig disagrees. “I feel like I’m going to get in trouble for this. I guess I make a distinction between unfair and ‘unkosher’, and just sort of flawed [prosecution]. I don’t think there was malintent.”

“I don’t think it was a cynical investigation or prosecution. I don’t,” she adds. “I know people disagree with me about that… I just never saw any evidence that was the case.”

For Koenig, the most interesting aspect of Syed’s prosecution was that it revealed the routine flaws and injustices prevalent in our criminal justice system. “He got sort of the best shake our system can give in a certain way, and that’s what’s disturbing – is that it’s still fucked up.”

Even though Koenig refuses to join Facebook and Twitter – “social media, I do not!” she declares in an excellent Yoda impression –  she was aware of how some listeners used social media to shame real people.

“I was horrified, yeah. I felt awful,” says Koenig after learning how some took to Reddit to publish incorrect, outlandish speculation, even sharing criminal records that were irrelevant to the story.

“Is that my direct responsibility? Well, yes and no,” says Koenig. “I can’t control what people would do in the world. I think that’s terrible behaviour. I wouldn’t do it. On the other hand, I can’t really wash my hands of it, because I brought it to the world’s attention… the alternative is I shouldn’t have done the story at all. That I don’t think I agree with.”

She admits the experience caused an enormous amount of anxiety that people don’t know.

“I don’t think I can do it again with the Reddit. I cannot stand it,” says Koenig. “I can’t knowingly inflict that on people – real people – I’m reporting about… for us, it was deeply, deeply upsetting.”

The toxicity of trolls and irresponsible social media postings forced Koenig and her team to drop another questionable murder case as a potential story for Season 2. She says she “can’t stomach doing another story like that” because she has no control over how people will misuse the information.

As she finishes up Season 2 and Season 3, which might or might not be about puppies and community gardens, there are already talks of future movie adaptations.

This begs the natural question: what celebrity should play Koenig?

Koenig already has an ideal cast in mind.

“I mean I look exactly like Rachel Weisz. That would just be natural. People wouldn’t even know the difference. We look so alike,” she jokes.  

In case Weisz is busy, Koenig offers an alternative. “I really like Bradley Cooper. That’d be good. He can do a little drag. It’d be fine. You wouldn’t even know.”

Until then, Koenig is content enjoying what she refers to as her “15 minutes” of fame. “It’s been thrilling, but I’m very cognizant this is, you know, ethereal. It will go away. That’s more than fine with me.”