Sarah Koenig’s Make-Believe Inexperience

Sarah Koenig has a beautiful voice. So much so that I suspect she may have voiced over her original dialogue afterwards in a studio, adding minute inflections and vocal theatrics. Her thoughts are transparent, and intentionally so. Throughout the podcast she assumes the role of the listener. She shares our skepticism and empathy for Adnon, and when we feel indignant hearing about the banal mechanics of our justice system, Koenig is right there with us raising her voice in protest. This makes her incredibly likable, her feelings so openly displayed for her interviewee and audience makes Koenig seem almost childlike. Like she says, she isn’t even a crime reporter, this case just fell in her lap.

But Koenig is not childlike, and Serial’s appeal is no coincidence. Koenig has been a producer of This American Life, one of the most popular contemporary radio shows in America for over ten years. She has a long background in journalism, and though she plays a bashful role in Serial, in creative broadcast journalism, Koenig is at the top of her field.

 

In a silent film, actors “over act” to broadcast their emotions to the audience without the help of dialogue. Likewise on the radio, a successful personality “over-inflects”. When she explains her interest in Adnon, Koenig sounds smitten, like she is talking to a middle school crush rather than someone accused of murder. But then again, aren’t we all a little charmed by Adnon?

 

More than just mirroring the audience’s emotions, Koenig’s vocal theatrics manipulate them as well. A confused or disinterested listener can feel comfortable trashing a piece of evidence as long as Koenig feels comfortable with it, and the opposite is true as well. Why is Adnon’s phone call to Nisha so crucial? Because Koenig says it is. Without Koenig’s insistence, we might be more inclined to chalk “The Nisha Call” up to a butt dial and faulty testimony. But Koenig’s manipulation of narrative doesn’t stop with her voice. The sound production on Serial is excellent. The minimalist string score reflects the pace of the story, and when appropriate, provides for a super dramatic pause.

 

The dramatic pause is borrowed from written text, but works just as well over the radio. Sometimes it even feels cheap, or maybe too easy. But we can forgive that. Though dialogue that is recorded is perhaps more lively, it is less readily parsed through and manipulated to fit a narrative than is dialogue that we read. Whenever we hear from a character, it would feel odd to not hear a string of sentences at once. Were Koenig writing this story, she would have greater editorial discretion over what sentences or words to include.

 

Serial’s success is exciting for anyone in creative nonfiction. Blogs, columns, and even the A.V. club’s meta podcast about the creation of Serial have sprung up in its wake. Though WBEZ Chicago might get funding through donations and evaporating government support, big fancy radio capitalists (do these still exist?) and desperate television executives have no doubt taken note of Serial’s massive popularity. Money will begin to flow, and yes, maybe some of the productions that come out of this will be a little bit lousy, the field has nowhere to go but up. Journalists and writers of CNF will have to adapt, but in a post-Serial world, it’s hard to see them disappearing.

One thought on “Sarah Koenig’s Make-Believe Inexperience

  1. Zach Muhlbauer

    I like your emphasis on the nature of sound in Serial. It plays such a bigger role than we, the listeners, can imagine from our stance on the other end of the recording studio. All of the manipulation—from the score to the quick narrative rehashing at the beginning of each episode to Koenig’s calming yet authoritative voice—comes together in a deliberate fashion in swaying its listeners toward the general atmosphere of the show. It’s all pretty masterful, I have to say. Listening to each episode and being aware of these narrative techniques, I still felt pulled in by Koenig’s skill as a journalist—another point I agree with in regards to your post. She and her crew are no amateurs. All of Serial has been planned out, edited, revised, revised again, and revised once more for good measure, I’m sure. As listeners we don’t know what we don’t know. There is so much damn data with respect to this case, and across twelve episodes a very finite portion of that data is included—for good reason, too. Koenig knows what she wants us to see and feel and interpret. In conjunction, a great deal of these strategies are simply to draw us in and allow her to serve as our personal, investigative extension once we’re there. It’s pretty powerful, and she wholly succeeds in this pursuit. I personally have to admit that along the way her disposition toward the case tentatively mirrored my own, and I know that’s no coincidence.

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