“Serial,” the wildly popular podcast that investigated a murder, may have been released almost three years ago, but its creators are still riding the wave.
They’ve been so inundated with appearance requests that they’re still making the rounds to talk about the intricacies they uncovered in the mysterious 1999 murder of a high school girl in Baltimore — even as their latest venture, the buzzy new “S-Town” podcast, is beginning to eclipse their earlier work in the zeitgeist.
For Sarah Koenig, the “Serial” host, and Julie Snyder, her co-producer, it’s all part of a baffling induction into a specific kind of fame that has been exhilarating (and sometimes painful) for its creators.
“Julie and I kind of had this moment where we were like, ‘Wait, what just happened?’ ” said Koenig, who, with Snyder, will appear May 10 at Beth El Synagogue in St. Louis Park to talk about “Serial,” narrative storytelling and wrongful conviction.
“We thought we were doing this little experiment, and it became this huge thing.”
“Serial’s” first two seasons have garnered a combined 267 million episode downloads. And “S-Town,” the first series to be released under the new Serial Productions banner, is quickly rising to the top of iTunes podcast charts.
“For people who discover ‘S-Town,’ that’s been great for ‘Serial,’ too,” said Koenig, who served only as an adviser for “S-Town” during the editing process.
But when listeners and critics say the newer show’s twisty tale of a steamy Alabama town and the people who live there might be even better than Koenig’s genre-defining “Serial,” Koenig is listening.
“Oh, I feel a bunch of ways. Whatever — I have an ego and I have cried. But it’s a different beast, a totally different kind of story. And I feel like it’s all of us.”
Sprung from public radio stalwart “This American Life,” “Serial” popularized a style that harks back to old-time serial radio mysteries, yet brings a modern-day, meta edge in which the journalists uncovering the story also play a part in the narrative drama.
By being an emotional player rather than just a dispassionate narrator, Koenig gained a fame she never expected as a journalist. At one point, she was even parodied on “Saturday Night Live.”
Having always had a theatrical streak, she liked some of the attention, but not the criticism that came with it.
“I’m thin-skinned. It hurts my feelings to see the mean things people say about me personally,” she said. “But I put myself out there, so them’s the breaks.”
Because Koenig was reporting “Serial” as it was being released, her every utterance was analyzed by fans of the show, who meticulously dissected the case on Reddit and other internet forums in real time. Having previously worked on stand-alone “This American Life” episodes, that kind of intense, ongoing engagement with an audience was new to her.
“We learned a ton about how an audience can and will respond — in ways good and horrible,” she said. “It made us realize you can be on the brink of feeling as if you are losing control of your own story.”
For that and other reasons, “S-Town” was released in its entirety, much like a bingeable Netflix series, or a southern Gothic story.
“There’s a reason the different parts of ‘S-Town’ are called chapters and not episodes,” Koenig said. “It’s a book, and the model for it is a novel.”
Yet, it’s more than a novel. Hearing the voices of the characters does more to transport a listener than any written work could, Koenig said.
“Something different happens” with audio storytelling, she said. “Ninety-nine percent of people listen through earbuds, so it’s very one-on-one. It’s like I’m talking to you.”
There’s a sensory power in the message that introduces a prison call from “Serial”s protagonist Adnan Syed, or the thick, Alabama drawl of “S-Town” hero John B. McLemore. “It’s a shortcut,” Koenig said. “It’s not that print can’t capture that, but it’s easier in radio.”
In a way, that audio magic has something to do with why listeners have such strong opinions about Koenig herself.
“People feel that they know me, through the way I talk,” she said. “And in a certain way, they do.”