Brow Beat

Serial Might Have Been Better if Sarah Koenig Had Been Less Likable

Sarah Koenig.

Courtesy of This American Life

Many listeners tuned in to the 12th and final episode of Serial yesterday looking for an answer to the podcast’s central mystery: Who killed Baltimore high school student Hae Min Lee? I was listening to see if Sarah Koenig would finally ask a tough question.

Instead, she offered a plea: “I still want to know what you were doing that afternoon,” Koenig said on her final late-night prison call with Adnan Syed—the man the state of Maryland convicted of killing Lee, and the subject Koenig had been conversing with for a year in an attempt to divine whether he really did it. Koenig’s vowels stretched into a whimper: “I want to know who had your phone, and I want to know what you were doing.” Syed’s response to this not-a-question was: “So you don’t really have—if you don’t mind me asking—you don’t really have no ending?” In reply, Koenig questioned herself: “I mean, do I have an ending? Umm.”

When Serial first debuted, I hung on Koenig’s every umm. The set-up hit all of my personal pop-cultural indulgences—a true crime story with a narrative treatment and a strong female protagonist. And in the beginning, as Koenig sifted through trial records and hunted down dusty leads offered up by longtime Syed champion Rabia Chaudry, I eagerly followed her at every twist. But soon, the established trail of the case dried up, and the direction of Serial leaned more and more on Koenig’s own detective skills. Her investigative method took the form of searching conversations, not hard-nosed interrogations. I want to know. I want to know. I want to know. Do I have an ending?

The results were introspective, chatty, sometimes brazenly naive. In Episode 1, after Koenig discovered that Syed’s defense attorneys hadn’t interviewed a potential alibi witness, she asked Chaudry how she had felt when she discovered the oversight. Or as Koenig put it: “Were you like, floored, like wha wha wha wha what?” (“I wasn’t floored,” Chaudry replied.) But as the weeks ticked on, I wondered why Koenig’s soft approach wasn’t advancing to tougher questions as her sources warmed up. In Episode 2, Koenig notes that three people—including, initially, Syed himself—told police that Syed had asked Lee for an after-school ride on the day of the murder. This detail was, as Koenig liked to contextualize such things, “bad for Adnan,” because it placed him with the murder victim, at the likely time of her murder, at the likely scene of her murder, and also contradicted his own stated alibi—that he had stayed on campus all afternoon. Syed later changed his story, and denied that he’d asked for the ride. At the end of the episode, Koenig affronts her audience with questions about the turn:

So, he reverses himself. Why would he do that? Why would he tell the first cop he’s expecting a ride and then once it’s clear Hae is missing change his story? Maybe the girl’s thinking of a different day. Or maybe Adnan misspoke when he talked to that first cop. Or maybe he did ask Hae for a ride at some point that day, but he’s forgotten. Or maybe he’s lying. I’m not a detective but I consider this a red flag. What I don’t know is: Is this a teeny tiny red flag, like, he just got confused, and so what? Or is this, like, a great big flapping in the breeze red flag? Like maybe he’s hiding something? More next week.

The ride situation came up again in Episodes 3, 6, 9, 11, and 12—it was clearly one of those big flapping in the breeze red flags—but if Koenig ever posed these questions to Syed himself, she never aired them.

The hedge would prove to be a running theme. Here’s one question Koenig posed to Adnan in Episode 6, concerning the fact that he never called Lee after she disappeared: “You know, it just seems that, I know Krista was trying to page her, I know Aisha was trying to page her, during this time, to just be like ‘where are you, where are you, where are you?’ And I was wondering if you had—were in the group of like ‘where are you?’ ” After a long pause, Syed replied, “What, are you asking me a question?” Koenig sighed and said, “I don’t know.” Then, she turned back to her listeners to introduce “some stray things that, eh, I don’t know what they mean. Or if they mean much of anything.” The first item was an aggrieved letter that Lee had given to Syed shortly after their breakup. In it, she wrote: “people break up all the time. Your life is not going to end. You’ll move on and I’ll move on. But apparently you don’t respect me enough to accept my decision.” The note itself countered Syed’s narrative that his breakup with Lee was just peachy, but there was more: In a search of Syed’s house, police found the note with a fresh piece of commentary scrawled across the top: “I’m going to kill.” This time, Koenig didn’t even pose questions to the audience, much less Syed. Instead, she brushes it off: “Who knows about that one, right? Seems like a detail you’d find in a cheesy detective novel.” But red herrings only work in stories where the true facts of the crime ultimately reveal themselves. We now know that Koenig didn’t find a smoking gun in this case, so why not follow this lead? Because it seems too perfect? Or because asking the question seems rude? Or because the exchange didn’t make for good radio?

These are the dark thoughts that wormed into my brain as the series marched on. Other Serial gawkers may have been consumed with the question of whether Syed was guilty of murder, but I became more and more obsessed with what Koenig was trying to get away with. My breaking point came in Episode 7, when Koenig traveled to visit the Innocence Project at the University of Virginia to use its lawyers and law students as a sounding board for her own thoughts about the murder. When Koenig returned to chart their progress four weeks later, she asked Enright and her students: “Do you guys, do any of you guys, think Adnan’s guilty?” Nah, they all replied. Koenig said she was “surprised” by their answers, but why would she have been? Of course a group of Innocence Project defense attorneys would decline to declare a potential client “guilty” on a podcast. Asking them how confident they were in his innocence, on the other hand, might have extracted an actual reveal.   

Perhaps Koenig’s meandering style was a strategic move aimed at extracting the most and best information from her sources—you catch more flies with honey, etc. “I don’t mean to sound judgy or something,” she tells one interview subject before she asks whether he considered calling the cops after a coworker hinted that he had buried a murdered teenager. (Not a bad idea to soften that particular blow.) Or perhaps Syed proved to be such a difficult interview subject—nice guy, just can’t remember much—that Koenig had no choice but to keep talking. Either way, our host has been lauded for her transparency in making these raw recordings public, even if they sometimes come off as embarrassing—as most journalists’ interviews would, if anyone had the chance to hear them. (You can pry my interview tapes from my clammy, cowardly hands.)

But I have to think that Koenig’s interview tone was not just a brave reveal of her private demeanor. It was a calculated choice, one perfectly calibrated for her audience. Koenig is an experienced radio reporter, and unlike the police interrogations Koenig aired on the podcast, she crafted her own conversations knowing that she’d mine them for clips. When she introduced herself to listeners as “not even a crime reporter” in Episode 1, she was demurring deliberately: Syed’s case came to her attention after Chaudry read Koenig’s reporting for the Baltimore Sun on Syed’s defense attorney in the case. By downplaying her credentials, Koenig framed herself as just-like-us, heightening the appeal for all the armchair detectives who would be following the case along with her. On Reddit, Serial obsessives ate it up, taking breaks from arguing over Syed’s guilt or innocence to fawn over Koenig’s voice. Wrote one poster: “Sarah Koenig is typically the last voice I hear at night, wooing me to sleep with her quirky questions and inquisitiveness regarding this murder mystery. Her voice is actually quite soothing to doze off to. Am I alone here?” He was not. “The clarity, warmth, and tone of Sarah Koenig’s voice is one of my favorite things about Serial,” another wrote. “Her voice is dynamic… real… creamy… easy to listen to.” As one Redditor characterized it: “her voice is as soothing as a mom wrapped in an angel wrapped in butter.”

Compare Koenig’s dulcet tones to another prominent female voice aired on the podcast: that of Cristina Gutierrez, Syed’s defense attorney in his initial trials, who appeared in the podcast in the form of taped trial hearings. One listener noted that Gutierrez’s agitated drawl recalled the voice of Nancy Grace—a most damning comparison for the NPR contingent. “I’m an atheist but if you can convince me Hell is real and Cristina Gutierrez’s voice is piped in 24/7 I’ll see you [at] church in the morning,” one Redditor wrote. Gutierrez “could just be a shitty attorney whose nail-on-chalkboard voice leads people to do heinous acts,” another argued. One Redditor argued that Gutierrez’s voice is so grating that it is responsible for the conviction of a possibly innocent man: “The biggest factor in Adnan’s conviction become glaringly obvious as soon as I heard the defense attorney speak. God, that voice. … I’ve never heard a less likable voice in my life.”  And it wasn’t just Gutierrez’s voice that put the podcast’s most dedicated listeners on edge. In recordings of cross-examinations, Gutierrez phrased every statement in the form of a question, because that’s what you do. And yet her construction—“Is it not?”—raised hackles across the subreddit. Gutierrez’s persistent questioning was a source of derision, not respect.

In Serial, Koenig—so reluctant to pry, so happy to chat—played the good cop to Gutierrez’s bad one. Perhaps some listeners were correct in suggesting that Gutierrez’s screeching played a part in Syed’s conviction. After all, real jurors surely have many of the same biases as some of the people on Reddit do. But it’s also true that in storytelling, as in the criminal justice system, it’s not easy to strike just the right tone: You can’t always find the truth while giving the people what they want. In the podcast’s final moments, Koenig revealed that after a year of talking with Syed, she’d come to feel that “most of the time, I think he didn’t do it.” But she still lacked the facts to prove it, and so “now, more than a year later, I feel like shaking everyone by the shoulders like an aggravated cop.” I wish Koenig had indulged that feeling when she actually had her sources on the line. It might have made us like her a little less, and learn a little more.