Julie Snyder: Serially great journalism

UC Santa Cruz alumna, who will receive this year’s Alumni Achievement Award, talks about the making of the record-breaking hit podcast Serial and how her college years laid the foundation for a career in broadcast journalism

Listen to a mini "podcast" in which Julie Snyder talks about how her time at UC Santa Cruz helped inspire her career in broadcasting. Snyder is returning to UC Santa Cruz to be awarded the Alumni Achievement Award at the campus's Founders Celebration 2016.
Julie Snyder (Kresge '95, politics), of This American Life and Serial
Julie Snyder (Kresge '95, politics), former senior producer of popular radio show This American Life and co-creator of the runaway podcast hit Serial

If you, like millions of others, became hooked on the podcast Serial when the first season came out in 2014, the opening music alone was enough to get your spine tingling with excitement.

Serial became the most addictive, impactful, and popular American podcast of all time, but the stakes seemed awfully low when UC Santa Cruz graduate Julie Snyder (Kresge '95, politics) and co-creator Sarah Koenig launched it with a first season that investigated the 1999 murder of Hae Min Lee, an 18-year-old student at Woodlawn High School in Baltimore.

After all, it was merely a podcast, a relatively low-profile medium until recently. If the show belly-flopped and sank, who would know or care? “It’s not like a movie where they need to have this incredible opening weekend, otherwise the whole thing tanks,” Snyder noted.

Eighty million downloads later, Serial was well-established as a monster hit, sparking passionate debates in cubicles, on street corners, and within the rabbit holes of Reddit, and spawning a peculiar cultural obsession with one of the show’s sponsors, the email marketing service MailChimp.

Snyder will soon return to UC Santa Cruz, where she is set to receive the Alumni Achievement Award and give the keynote presentation at this year’s Founder’s Celebration on October 22 at the UC Santa Cruz Science & Engineering Library.

Her trip to campus will be a sort of career homecoming.

Though she’s a high-profile journalist who produced a podcast that changed the way millions of people think about the American judicial system, Snyder’s career has its roots in the creative, informal, low-key atmosphere of UC Santa Cruz’s own KZSC-FM, where the “sink or swim” format of the daily news show forced her to thrive and improvise—or else.

Taking a brief break in her busy schedule, Snyder talked about the way she discovered her life’s calling while at the radio station—and how she has kept that experimental spirit alive while working for This American Life.

Flirting with disaster

The public voice of Serial has always been Sarah Koenig (pronounced Kay-nig), who does the reporting and broadcasting. But Snyder has a decisive behind-the-scenes role. Aside from being the co-creator, she is also the editor and executive producer of Serial.

If Snyder and Koenig had known the world would scrutinize their show with such care, they might have had a bit of creative block. “I was a little freaked out by the response,” she concedes. “It was almost like being caught naked.”

Then again, Snyder has plenty of experience with taking risks and following her own best instincts while hoping the audience would follow along with her.

This started at UC Santa Cruz, where she was a broadcaster. On-air mishaps were common.

“We were flirting with disaster, constantly,” Snyder recalled. “At the time, I think we did a 15-minute newscast every night before the hour-long (KPFA-FM) news feed, and it was awful. We basically stole the stories out of the (Santa Cruz) Sentinel, but the fact is, I never thought anyone was listening and it didn’t even really matter. Then I met someone who said she listened to it all the time because it was really funny. She waited to see when and how we were going to mess it up.”

Aside from showing her that “the listening audience’’ was more than just an abstraction, her years on campus opened up the possibilities of storytelling. In a documentary class, she was exposed to the groundbreaking work of The Kitchen Sisters—innovative public radio producers (and alumnae) Nikki Silva (Porter '73, aesthetic studies) and Davia Nelson (Stevenson '75, politics).

“They played us their pieces, and that kind of blew my mind,” Snyder said. “I wanted to see if I could make something that was sort of a rip off of that or try to be as good as that.”

Serial—in the beginning

This American Life had been on the air for only six months when Snyder started out there 17 years ago. The show was on 40 stations nationwide. These days, it is on 450 stations. “It was all very much ‘make it up as we went along,’’’ Snyder recalls. “And I was so green. The fact that I didn’t know what the rules were, or what we were or weren’t supposed to do, was probably helpful for me.”

But Snyder’s famous boss, Ira Glass, host and creator of This American Life, always had a clear vision of what he wanted the show to be. The show became more topical, more focused on the human element in big news stories, following the 9/11 terror attacks and the wars that followed.

While tackling such heady subjects, Snyder developed her “voice” and honed her reporting skills with a strong emphasis on human stories and broadcasts that felt warm and familiar to listeners, with long snippets of conversation.

But she and Koenig opted out of the radio-show format when they decided to launch Serial largely for practical reasons. Creating a public radio show would have required Snyder and Koenig to approach individual member stations, convince them to carry the show, and work it into their broadcast schedules.

By allowing listeners to play the show at will, at any time they wished, the creative team could have an ultra-minimalist approach; considering the show’s massive impact, it is humbling to realize that only three people were working on the first season: Snyder, Koenig, and producer Dana Chivvis.

The first season explored “love and death and justice and truth,” in the words of the show’s creators, by delving deeply into the 1999 murder of Hae Min Lee and the subsequent arrest of her ex-boyfriend Adnan Syed, who professed his innocence but was handed a life sentence.

Serial’s huge success was cause for celebration, but the deluge of publicity had its downside as well.

“There was a lot of audience engagement that in some ways was really wonderful; you want to encourage people to discuss all the issues that are brought up in the show,” Snyder said. But on online Reddit forums and elsewhere, Snyder also learned that “a small amount of people … can really wreak a lot of damage” with “irresponsible assumptions, name-calling, and outing people’s personal information … it just felt disrespectful.”

For good and not so good, the experience certainly proved that podcasting, once a “fringe” form of broadcasting, could resonate in unexpected ways. This summer came the startling news that a Baltimore judge had ordered a new trial for Syed.

Snyder was circumspect when asked about cause and effect. “People have asked, ‘Do you think it is because of the podcast?’ she said. “When you read the (60-page) ruling, it’s not like it has anything to do with Serial. It’s not like the judge said, ‘I found episode seven compelling.’” Then again, the Serial podcast created a high level of scrutiny for the case, she acknowledges. “It totally makes sense that it is probably the result of the public attention on the case.”

For the second season, the producers changed focus dramatically, with an in-depth series on Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, who walked away from his Army post in Afghanistan and was taken captive by the Taliban.

What’s next?

These days, Snyder is hard at work on a new batch of Serial episodes, but it’s no use asking her for specifics. For the time being, she won’t even offer teasing hints about the topic at hand.

She is just as cautious if you quiz her about her brand-new non-Serial show. She will only say that the format will be that of an audiobook—a true-life story told in a novelistic fashion. She would only reveal that all the episodes will be released at once, instead of parceled out one by one like Serial.

Asked if Serial elevated podcasting as a medium, Snyder initially resisted the question. “‘Elevated’ makes it seem like I’m too big for my britches,” she said. “But maybe (Serial) showed what was possible with podcasting. I love the fact that there is a lot of focus on podcasts and it seems to be taken seriously. There seems to be a lot of funding for podcasts.”

Then again, the barrier of entry is low for beginning podcasters, Snyder said.

“A lot of people can access it, and it still feels a little Wild West. You can do whatever you want. It still feels experimental. I am curious about what people will explore and experiment with podcasting. I am curious to see it go places.”