Maybe you don’t recognize Julie Snyder’s name, but you’ll almost certainly recognize her work: she’s executive producer of Serial, arguably the most popular podcast in the history of the genre, and of the new S-Town. Her approach to storytelling pushes the boundaries of the medium and challenges listeners to grapple with contradictory characters, complex narratives, and ambiguous resolutions—and all the stories she tells are true.
I spoke to Julie before her keynote at Forward 2017. Our conversation below has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Photo of Julie Snyder by Kirsten Luce
I think that there are a couple of different reasons that it took off the way it did. I do think that there’s just a desire for more complicated, emotional, and surprising stories. People really like that. I like that. I’ve always been drawn to that kind of narrative. In the last 10 years, we’ve seen a lot more of it on TV, but it hadn’t been done so much on radio. The most we could really do was an hour. It’s just the way radio was programming. I worked at This American Life for about 18 years before we started Serial, and the hour-long programs on This American Life were some of my favorites because I felt like those were the ones where you were guaranteed a pretty good story.
When we first started Serial, we knew we were going to do it as a podcast, mainly just because it was cheaper—it was cheaper, it was easier, it was a lot more flexible, [and] it was a lot more experimental. We didn’t have a lot of money; we didn’t have a lot of staff. We had talked about doing a spin-off of This American Life, and we knew whatever we did would end up being a podcast. Sarah Koenig was the one who came up with the idea of doing serialized storytelling, because for the first time, we would have the technical capability, with on-demand listening, to tell one story over the course of several episodes—not something that radio programmers generally love for you to do.
I think that part of the response to Serial was definitely that element—that you could really engage with the story, that you could really get into the world of it. It was a deeper and much more intimate understanding of all of the people in the story, including the narrator. With radio, just by its nature, usually the reporter ends up being much more intimate and they become kind of a character, too.
Part of it is something I didn’t anticipate quite so much, which is that people really love crime stories. That said, after Serial, I’ve seen a lot more stories and podcasts that have come out that are also basically about murder or true crime, and they don’t perform quite as well. I think that’s because they’re not that great: the writing’s not that great, the interviewing’s not that great, [and] they’re not going for larger ideas. I think there’s a misconception that it was basically just a murder story, and for us that was never it. Our interest is always exploring larger ideas, and so for the first season it was about the criminal justice system, but it was also about the nature of journalism itself. And so I think all of that combining together with intimacy really helped the show take off.
Yeah. It was really that we were figuring out and using the advantages of the medium in a new way that hadn’t been done before. I think we did that again with S-Town, our most recent podcast. We’re taking another way of being able to use podcasting as an audio format. That sounds sort of technical, but it was another way of using the advantages of the medium in terms of the storytelling and the journalism.
It’s kind of the only way I know how to tell a story, to be honest. Sometimes it’s a little bit hard for me to completely separate it.
For S-Town, we really felt like the structure of it was very odd. It was nothing like we’d ever really done before because it didn’t have a very clear narrative. It wasn’t a this happened, then this happened, then this happened kind of plot. We understood that really what it felt like was a more thoughtful profile, and it was much more novelistic. And we realized we could probably structure it and release it and even give it the aesthetic feel of a novel, and again we could do that with podcasting. This time we didn’t release it in a serialized format, we didn’t release it week by week. We did it all at once because we did feel like each chapter was like a chapter in a novel. It wasn’t something that is meant to stand on its own but instead was part of a larger whole. And so by releasing it all at once, calling them chapters, and also the writing and the music that we used, it was all in service of giving that more novelistic feel. Again, it was something that I don’t think would have been easy to do on the radio. There’s something really nice about podcasting because it’s so new, that there aren’t a ton of expectations on us.
I mean, we feel there are expectations on us as the creators of Serial. That’s something we’re trying to train our audience: don’t expect the same thing over and over again. I think we’ve been doing that by making the second season of Serial very different from the first season. And S-Town was very different from the first two seasons of Serial. It’s essentially like trying to say, this is a new medium, you can do lots of different things with it, and we’re going to explore all of the different aesthetic and structural and narrative things that we can possibly do with it.
I don’t think of the audience really when we’re choosing a story. We don’t think of it that way. We don’t think, oh, this’ll go over big, or, this’ll be big with pop culture, or anything like that. We’re really just looking for a good story that has emotion and surprise.
We’re also really open to ambiguity, and I think that listeners and pop culture respond to that kind of ambiguity because everybody can end up having a different feeling about it and a different takeaway, so there’s more to discuss and share with each other.
In terms of what makes something become a larger part of the zeitgeist, I don’t really know. It seems like it might be a lot of different things that come together at once. For the first season of Serial in particular, it became kind of this pop cultural touchstone because it was so new. There was an element where it was journalism, but it was also very entertaining. I think in a lot of ways, it did feel like television shows, which are normally more escapist entertainment, but then it isn’t escapist entertainment, so I think that sort of forced everyone to—their minds kind of blew up and were like, what is this?
I find it odd because it’s such a traditional form of journalism. It’s been done for ages! I think it’s a little bit of a hot take when I see it, and perhaps if there was a little bit more thoughtful engagement perhaps people might think a little differently about it. It’s a pretty traditional form of journalism—magazines have been doing it for eons, newspapers do it. These are places that tell real stories about real people and about the drama in their lives.
If anything, I think where it’s a little more surprising now—and I think that’s why it draws attention—is that unfortunately in a lot of media coverage, especially when it comes to things like murder cases, people aren’t idiosyncratic, interesting, complicated, ambiguous. There isn’t much nuance. Instead, it’s very flattened; it’s a sort of caricature. And so in a lot of ways those stories make people more fake than they really are. There are entire networks that are devoted to murder stories, talking about a beautiful girl who was killed or something, and they don’t feel real. Nobody in the story seems real. There’s no allowing for the fact that maybe two things could be true at the same time. Maybe a good person could do a bad thing. Perhaps that’s part of the response: that there’s a lot of contradiction in our stories, because people themselves are full of contradiction.
In terms of telling real stories about real people in a dramatic way, I think it’s normal. I think we all live dramatic lives, and there are larger dramas about potential wrongful convictions and murders, and there are smaller dramas that are about internal conflict and our everyday lives.
That said, for everybody in our stories, the goal for us is constant: people know what they’re getting into. We’re pretty normal journalists in that way. You identify who you are, you identify what you’re doing, you ask if they’d like to speak to you, [and] you explain the larger story that’s going on. That’s what reporters do. And so we’re going in and saying, I am trying the hardest I can to represent what it is that you’re thinking and feeling and your point of view.
Julie Snyder gives the closing keynote at Forward 2017, the premier brand storytelling conference, on June 15 in Boston, MA.
Featured image attribution: Jonathan Velasquez