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Serial’ Podcast Creators To Take San Diego Audience Behind The Scenes

 A portrait of

Photo by Elise Bergerson

Above: A portrait of "Serial" co-creators Julie Snyder and Sarah Koenig at work.

Television and streaming services like Netflix have mastered binge-worthy storytelling in shows like "House of Cards" and "Orange Is the New Black."

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The creators of the popular podcast "Serial" will be in San Diego Wednesday to give a live performance at downtown's Balboa Theatre.

The creators of the most popular podcast in history want to make journalism binge-worthy.

Sarah Koenig and Julie Snyder, both veterans of the groundbreaking radio show "This American Life," created the podcast "Serial" as a way to engage listeners in long-form journalistic story-telling. And by most measures, they've succeeded.

The first 12-episode season of "Serial" launched in 2014, focusing on a 1999 murder case in Baltimore. It was reportedly downloaded more than 100 million times. The second season, which is currently being produced and uploaded every other week, moved from true crime to focus on Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl and his decision to walk away from his base in Afghanistan in 2009. He was captured by the Taliban and held hostage for five years in Pakistan.

Koenig, who serves as "Serial's" host, and Snyder, the executive producer, will be in San Diego Wednesday, offering a behind-the-scenes look at how the podcast gets made. The title of the talk is "Binge-Worthy Jounalism." The live presentation takes place at 7 p.m. at the Balboa Theatre downtown. They'll talk about how they structure episodes and play some of their favorite tape from the reporting process.

Koenig and the "Serial" team do not present their reporting as straight investigative journalism. During any given episode, Koenig might express her doubts about a finding or crack a joke. Koenig says the team could never get away with that if their reporting was sloppy. "You know the baseline for everything we do is just really rigorous reporting and fact checking," Koenig said by phone from her office in State College, Pa.

"And I think once you have that, then you have the freedom to have fun or be experimental or just try things."

Koenig says they want to be both informative and entertaining. "So that it doesn’t feel like a chore to get through," Koenig said. "So that you can take in this information and not feel like you’re taking your medicine."

The story landscape of the first season was contained to one relatively unknown legal case, that of Adnan Syed, who was convicted of killing his former girlfriend, Hae Min Lee, during their senior year in high school.

Photo credit: Associated Press

Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl arrives for a pretrial hearing at Fort Bragg, N.C., Jan. 12, 2016.

The scope of the second and current season about Bergdahl is sprawling.

"So when I first started working on the story, my question was really basic. I saw the video of him (Bergdahl) getting rescued and I thought 'what happened to that guy?'" Koenig said. "But then like what happens with these projects you start reporting and it's like wait, now I need to talk to some soldiers and now I want to talk to some officers and people at the state department," Koenig said.

Soon she realized how little she understood about the war in Afghanistan, which added a whole new layer of reporting. Now Koenig wants to know more.

"I'm very interested in Bowe as a person and what he did and why he did it, but also the enormous repercussions of what he did," she said.

During season one, Koenig's recorded conversations with Syed from jail were a regular feature of each episode. They provided a compelling portrait of a journalist and her subject and how that relationship was managed over time. In "Serial" season two, Koenig is working from 25 hours of recorded conversations between Mark Boal, a film producer and "Serial's" partner for this season, and Bergdahl. Koenig says this concerned her at first.

"I thought, how am I going to find my way in this material and care about it if I'm not doing it myself," Koenig said. The more interviews she conducted and conversations she had with Boal, the more invested she became.

Koenig also found the taped conversations between Boal and Bergdahl unique because they are not conversations between a journalist and her subject.

"It feels like something slightly different is happening because they were not originally planned for broadcast so they feel more intimate," Koenig said. "I find Bowe so compelling in the tape because he's trying so hard to explain something that at times is inexplicable."

Only eight episodes have been uploaded in the second season. Koenig and the "Serial" team are reluctant to say how many episodes they plan to produce. The next one will be available Thursday, March 3.

Sarah Koenig and Julie Synder will give their live presentation "Binge-Worthy Journalism" Wednesday, March 2, at 7 p.m. at the Balboa Theatre in downtown San Diego.


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