There’s a moment early in the third season premiere of Serial that perfectly encapsulates why listeners feel such a strong personal connection with host Sarah Koenig.
Koenig is riding up the elevator of the Justice Center in Cleveland, Ohio, one morning. A young black woman is playing hip-hop from a portable speaker. “The white people in the elevator give each other looks,” the host tells us. “I don’t want to reciprocate their looks. Instead, I decide it’s my duty to break the tension by saying the lamest thing I possibly can. To be clear, that wasn’t my plan, it’s just what came naturally to me apparently.”
At that point, we cut to Koenig in the elevator, saying to no one in particular, “It’s like a soundtrack for the elevator.”
“Mm-hmm,” the woman replies, to which Koenig adds, “Not like your muzak you usually get.”
“She doesn’t even bother with an ‘mm-hmm’ this time,” Koenig, back in voiceover mode, adds. “Now I keep my head down to avoid the looks the black people are probably giving each other.”
The scene is awkward enough to be something out of a Curb Your Enthusiasm episode and one that doesn’t reflect particularly well on Koenig. But there it is within the first three minutes of the highly anticipated new season of her wildly popular podcast. It’s there because, as Koenig tells me by phone ahead of Thursday’s premiere, she wants to “acknowledge that I’m a white person coming into this world with my own set of biases and prejudices, like we all do, and sort of get in front of it a little bit.”
That world is the Cuyahoga County court system in Cleveland, where the entire third season will take place. Instead of telling one story over several episodes, Koenig is using season three to tell several stories that she hopes help listeners better understand the criminal justice system as a whole, including the institutional racism that plays into nearly every case.
“You walk in that courthouse and it’s instant,” Koenig, who will be joined by reporter Emmanuel Dzotsi this season, says. “You’re like, oh my God, look at how many of these defendants are black. Look how almost all of the judges are white. It’s very stark. This is something we know about our system. We know about the inequities, we know that it discriminates, we know that if you are black or Latino your chances of having a worse outcome are definitely greater at every phase. All of this has been reported, and reported well in a lot of cases, so I didn’t want to pretend that we didn’t know that.”
It’s been four years since far more listeners than anyone could have anticipated became seriously obsessed with the murder trial of Adnan Syed, a young Muslim man from Baltimore who had allegedly killed his high school girlfriend Hae Min Lee. Serial’s second season, which focused on the capture of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl by the Taliban, failed to seize the country’s imagination the way Syed’s case did. “I don’t know that there was pressure to pick something people would like,” Koenig says of her two follow-ups to that initial success. But, as always, she did feel pressure to “execute it in a way that’s good.”
Koenig’s co-producer and fellow This American Life alum Julie Snyder came up with the idea to focus on one city’s court system after reading Courtroom 302, in which author Steve Bogira spent one year reporting from Chicago's Cook County Criminal Courthouse. “Wouldn’t it be cool if we could try to do something like that for the radio?” Snyder asked Koenig.
They originally thought about reporting their version of this idea from Chicago or Baltimore, but ended up settling on Cleveland because it was one of the only cities that gave them permission to record audio in the building. “That was huge for us,” Koenig says, “because obviously if you’re trying to do a documentary in a courthouse it really helps if you can have sound from that courthouse.”
“When you go to a place and then try to work backwards to figure out what the stories are, that’s always harder,” she says. “So that was stressful for a while.” But once they started following the people and cases that were “personally compelling” to them, the season started to take shape. “The wonderful surprise of it to me, and this was not planned, is that each of those cases ended up showcasing a different part of the system.”
“My hope is that at the end, it’s kind of this mosaic, and you’ve heard it all in pieces but then you step back and say, I’m understanding more about this system than I did at the beginning,” Koenig says. “And I think that’s what we have here.”
The premise of the new season rests on a question Koenig would often hear from people in response to the Adnan Syed story: “What does this case tell us about the American justice system?” She ultimately determined the answer to that inquiry was very little.
The twists and turns of Syed’s case were so atypical—and in turn so compelling to the podcast’s ardent fans—but they did not accurately reflect the everyday justice system that impacts the lives of so many people. Koenig wanted to focus on “ordinary” cases this time. For instance, episode one centers on a young woman who is arrested for punching a police officer. The only real mystery is whether or not she did so on purpose.
“I’m not worried about people not coming along because it’s not one spectacular criminal case,” Koenig says. “I’m more worried about getting people to come along with me on anything I make. I’m always worried about that, regardless of the topic.” She always asks herself, “Is anyone going to give a shit besides me?” Answering her own question, she says, “I don’t know, maybe! I hope so, we’ll see.”
That’s the same way Koenig felt leading up to the launch of Serial’s first season four years ago. “Yes, I absolutely had that same feeling,” she says. She compared her own obsession with Adnan Syed’s case before the series debuted to someone getting “really into their own family tree—all you can do is think about it and then you tell someone and they’re like, ‘Yeah, I’ve got a grandpa too.’”
She asked herself, “Have I totally gone over the deep end and just gotten so inside of this one case and no one else is going to give a shit?” Leading up to the original debut, the team felt like, “if this thing sucks or nobody listens, who cares, nobody listens to podcasts.”
Of course, that’s not what happened. Serial was seemingly all anyone could talk about in the fall of 2014. The 12 episodes that made up the first season have been downloaded more than 200 million times, making it one of the most popular podcasts of all time.
At the time, serialized podcasts that told one story over the course of several episodes were more or less unheard of. Now, thanks to Serial, they have become a major genre. “I think it’s great,” Koenig says of the way the format she pioneered has proliferated. “In some ways, the more the merrier. I don’t like all of them, but I’m a podcast listener, so when there is new, good material out there I’m as excited as the next guy.”
In addition to the straight imitators, the past few years have also seen a number of Serial parodies, from Cecily Strong as Koenig on Saturday Night Live to the mockumentary American Vandal, which just premiered its second season on Netflix last week.
“Our biggest reference is Serial. The way that Sarah Koenig was this unreliable narrator,” American Vandal creator Tony Yacenda told Vulture last year. His co-creator Dan Perrault added, “We knew that we needed a similarly committed borderline-obsessed documentarian narrator.”
Koenig says she did watch “some of” American Vandal’s first season and “really liked it.”
“I thought it was clever and smart and well-done,” she adds, noting that she actually met the creators when they won a Peabody Award this past year. She was accepting an award for the Serial spin-off S-Town and says “they were so nice.”
Watching someone parody her work has also made Koenig more aware of the “tropes” she is always trying her best to avoid. “That’s my motto, avoid the tropes,” she says with a laugh. “We’re aware of the tropes.”
Koenig and her team actually dipped back into the Syed case in early 2016 as a possible retrial loomed. As that story continues to progress, she remains “aware” of the developments but feels that since it’s “very heavily covered” by other outlets—due to the original Serial spotlight—she doesn’t feel the need to dive back in fully. “I hear about it probably at the same time you hear about it,” she tells me.
“I think there really is a segment of our listeners who want more of season one,” she admits. “They want me to take one case and just sort of do the same thing. I’m not particularly interested in that.” She’ll “never say never” and says “if there were some case that came up and I became very interested in it, I’m not saying I wouldn’t do it, but imagine what that will sound like now.”
“You guys are going to be like, wait, I already heard this,” she says. “I’m gonna hate doing it and you guys are going to hate it as well. Are you sure that’s what you want?”