‘Serial’ Producers To Speak At Beth El

The podcast “Serial” was a juggernaut from the time it launched in 2014. Its first season generated record listenership and download numbers on iTunes and helped generate support for a potentially wrongly accused man who is in prison for killing his high school girlfriend in 1999.

The show’s creators, host and executive producer Sarah Koenig and executive producer Julie Snyder will be at Beth El Synagogue as the next speakers in their Inspiring Minds series on Wednesday, May 10. It became a phenomenon that Snyder never saw coming.

“No, no, no, no, no, no. Not in any way. No,” said Snyder. “We had always thought we’d get the grad-school crowd: A very small sliver of people in their late 20s/early 30s who knew how to use their phones. I thought that would be our demo right there. We thought it would be pretty under the radar.”

“Serial” was anything but that. It became the fastest podcast to reach 5 million downloads in iTunes history. The first season of the podcast presented a 12-part series on the legal case of Adnan Syed, captivating an audience that downloaded the episodes more than 100 million times (and counting).

Since the case aired, a judge has ordered a new trial that has yet to start. But far outside of the pop culture world that the show lives in, its success has been a huge help in the legal world right here in Minnesota.

“The success of ‘Serial,’ together with (Netflix show) ‘Making a Murderer,’ had an enormous effect, nationally in terms of bringing the issues of wrongful conviction to the national forefront in a popular-culture way,” said Heather Ring, the executive director of the Innocence Project Minnesota. ” In terms of Innocence [Project] in general, there are quite a few books and movies out there, but we’ve rarely seen such an extreme response.”

“Making a Murderer,” a documentary produced by Netflix about an allegedly wrongly convicted murderer, had an audience of 19.3 million viewers in the first 35 days it was available to be watched, per industry estimates. Snyder said the fact that it takes something like “Serial” to help draw attention to the parts of the criminal justice system that don’t work is unfortunate.

“You don’t want to think that there are, potentially, injustices going on that people aren’t paying attention to,” she said. “While I feel like we played a good role and we uncovered a good story, that was a solid year of reporting and 6 months of even part-time reporting involving not just Sarah, but me and [producer] Dana Chivvis. The resources we were able to spend looking back into Adnan’s case, and then resources spent afterward by other journalistic outlets and his defense team. It’s unrealistic that almost anybody can marshal that kind of investigation or defense of their case. I wish it weren’t the case. I wish things were different.”

Ring said the issues that affect many clients that the Innocence Project takes on tend to elicit a “gasp” reply from people. For example, the recently exonerated individual that spent 41 of 43 years in prison in solitary confinement.

“It’s unfortunate that unless that one person gets the attention, then we’re forced to hope that some case will capture the nation’s attention in an area and that we are able to use that as a springboard,” said Ring. “More importantly, these people represent our best opportunity to get really meaningful reform in criminal justice because they are the cause celebre.”

Snyder said that the driving force before season one of “Serial” was looking at the way the criminal justice system works.

“The way you can have a case that looks like it’s how it’s supposed to work in peak form, and when you break it out, wonder if it is [working],” she said. “We were really interested in everyone’s personal experiences of the trial, of the crime, of the investigation and how it affected their lives. Those were the things we were interested in exploring rather than a who-done-it.”

Snyder said that while Syed’s case is being retried, it’s hard to talk about it being a triumph – either for journalism or the criminal justice system.

“It’s a sad story. It’s sad all around. I don’t think there’s any triumph,” she said. “The murder is so upsetting and the trial is so upsetting. I came to really believe that the story told at trial, Sarah basically proved that it could not have been what happened that day. It felt disheartening that this was a case that held up at the time of the system working.”

Snyder, Koenig and the “Serial” team are starting to ramp up on season three, but won’t talk about what it is. Because Snyder doesn’t know.

“We’re still in the reporting phase. With these type of projects where we’re working on something for a year or two years; ‘S-Town’ was three years,” Snyder said. “It’s not me being coy as much as it’s me being practical that we don’t fully know what the story is yet.”

“S-Town” was a story produced by Serial Productions and Snyder served as the executive producer. Both it and the first two seasons of “Serial” told stories that were as much about the human condition as anything else.

“We never thought of the first season of ‘Serial’ as true crime, but now we’re kind of lumped into that. I was worried about ‘S-Town,’ because it’s not really that in the least, they would complain and say it’s lame true crime,” Snyder said. “I was really happy that I felt what came across and what listeners got out of it was exactly what I got out: That it’s a different kind of story and a non-fiction novel about the human experience.”