'Serial' Producer Julie Snyder on the Freedom and Power of Podcasting

She's the woman responsible for the most popular podcast on earth. We called her up to ask what's next, and what role the genre could play in the so-called New America.

by Emma Watts
Dec 18 2016, 8:15pm

Photo by Kirsten Luce

Her name may not garner instant recognition, but Julie Snyder is the woman behind some of the world's most popular podcasts. With her co-creator and presenter Sarah Koenig, she developed Serial, the groundbreaking program that surpassed 250 million downloads and went on to win a Peabody Award for its innovation in long-form audio storytelling.

Serial took podcasting to the mainstream. Many of us spent the latter half of 2014 listening to this absurdly addictive series, impatiently waiting for new episodes or discussing (read: arguing) with friends over Adnan's suspected guilt or innocence.

Julie's success comes after more than 18 years experience on This American Life, where she saw it morph from a Chicago-based radio show to a genre-defining media behemoth. She has two new programs to feed your podcast habit next year. Broadly caught her in a rare moment of downtime.

BROADLY: What do you think it is that draws you to podcasting as a genre?
Julie Snyder: I think the fact we can do whatever the hell we want. There are no rules we have to follow—it can be however long we want it to be. If we wanted to do a series of Serial and we wanted it to be two episodes, that's okay, we can do that. It's that freedom; that's what's so exciting.

I think because it felt like we weren't sure exactly what was going to happen with it, it made the show feel different.

What podcasts do you personally listen to?
Right now it's Gimlet's new scripted podcast Homecoming, which is fiction. I feel like by far it is the most exciting podcast I've heard in a while. The acting is great and it features real celebrities like Catherine Keener, Oscar Isaac, and David Schwimmer.

I also have very "vanilla" taste as well, so I've been listening to every episode of Fresh Air in podcast form. I just finished Heavy Weight which is also from Gimlet. It's eight episodes and so funny and inventive—it basically tells the stories [of] people's emotional scars.

You're working on a couple of new shows, one of which launches in March 2017. What can you tell us about it?
Well, I can't say too much, but what I can say is that it's recorded by Brian Reed [This American Life's Current senior producer], and it's Serial's first spin-off. It's currently in seven parts—it takes place in rural Alabama and it's kind of arty and novelistic, and it's one of my favourite things I've ever done.

I've also heard whispers about Serial Season 3...
I'm not allowed to say anything yet, but I can tell you we are working on it.

Serial was a hit with audiences everywhere. Why do you think people found it so compelling?
We were really just experimenting at the time with the idea of a serialized podcast—a story people would listen to over many episodes. We didn't set out to make a "hit". I think because it felt like we weren't sure exactly what was going to happen with it, it made the show feel different, spontaneous and really exciting to listen to.

What first attracted you to Adnan's story?
When I first spoke to Sarah Koenig about [the idea], I was really interested in the criminal justice system. I had heard a lot of stories where there had been failings in the criminal justice system, and they were starting to feel a little similar—cases where the jury were obviously racially biased or the defence attorney was so drunk he was drooling at the table. So it was like, "Oh, ah-ha, there's the really obvious reason that case went wrong."

But Adnan's case felt quite different. It was like everyone had performed their role competently and with the best intentions, but even so, the system still had flaws. I also liked the world where it was set—that it was about high school students, immigrant families, detective work, and the universally human themes of love and loyalty and friendship.

Do you think Serial made a difference to his case?
It's hard to say. I think the attention and the press and just the numbers of people who were aware of Serial put more pressure on the courts to take a second look at the case. Right now he is still in prison, but his conviction was overturned and he was ordered back for a new trial.

Read more: Why You're So Obsessed with 'Law & Order: SUV'

Serial clearly didn't overturn his decision—it's not the judges [were] saying, "Oh yes, I really found episode six compelling." When you read the legal documents they are citing a lot of evidence and case law. But just the fact that a judge would take such a long and carefully studied look does have something to do with all of the attention from the show.

What was the hardest part about making the program?
The turnaround time was hard. By the eighth week we were making the episodes week-to-week. Making an hour-long radio story would usually take you five weeks. So to do it in one week—we were not sleeping. The audience came as a real surprise. We thought we'd get just that grad school crowd and not really anyone else, and then all of a sudden to have all that attention on us was great... but with our tight deadlines it was also really stressful.

What's the future for podcasting?
There are so many podcasts, and a part of me likes that, but a part of me is worried and freaked out that we are going to crash the system. Podcasts are currently mostly ad-supported, so I start to worry that with the next recession we're all going down the tube. At the same time, I feel people are doing really exciting things with podcasting—like Homecoming and Heavy Weight—so I can't wait to see where that goes.

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Within this 'New America', particularly with Trump as the President-elect, many people are experiencing fear and trepidation about the future. Do you think podcasting could provide an outlet for this?
I think what is going to be really interesting in terms of podcasting is our audiences. I think there has been so much discussion around partisan listening and echo chambers and people living in bubbles. Weirdly, I think podcasting might be able to break through that bubble because people don't access these shows through traditional distribution networks.

So my hope is that podcasts can expand audiences, and there could be more cross-genre listening. I think we see that with This American Life and with Serial listeners: they are often a diverse mix of public radio fans and people from very different walks of life, who might not necessarily be the kind [of people] to tune into public radio.

This made working on Serial really exciting. I felt that for the first time we were broadcasting to a truly broad audience, and that's rewarding.