At this year’s DevLearn Conference and Expo, we’re excited to welcome Julie Snyder who will share her experiences creating some of the most popular podcasts of all time, and what she has learned about storytelling in the process.
I had the pleasure of chatting with Julie and exploring her work, and how she approaches creating stories that engage and educate her audience.
Here’s our conversation.
DK: We’re really excited to be welcoming you for DevLearn this fall. Can you tell me a little bit about your background and what got you interested in this world of podcasting?
Julie: I started as a producer for the public radio show, ‘This American Life’ in the late 90’s, in 1997; so it was about six months after ‘This American Life’ went on the air. And I didn’t really have any idea what I was doing and I didn’t know how to do long-form radio documentaries. But I knew I liked them and I knew that I liked telling stories. I do think that I’m a pretty good storyteller and I like hearing other people’s stories, and so we started as a very small staff and I really got trained on the job.
I had been at ‘This American Life’ for about, I think, eighteen years and I had kind of risen up through the ranks, and then I was a senior producer. And we got to a point in 2013-2014 where Sarah Koenig and I had worked together; she was also a producer at ‘This American Life’, at that point we’ve worked together for about 10 or 12 years.
I think both of us, we were happy with our jobs; but we were also feeling a little bit bored; we wanted to try something new and the wonderful thing about podcasts was that, it was just kind of becoming something that was easier to do in terms of listening to podcasts; it felt like the technology had sort of gotten to a point where some people were actually listening to podcasts. And what was nice about that was that it offered us an opportunity to try something out without having to make a new show or something and then sell it to public radio stations or anything. It felt like a place where we could experiment with and follow some of our interests.
And so we have been talking for a while about what we should do next and what kind of show we should do and we actually had an idea for about a year that we had worked on and it just kept not coming together. Nobody had a ton of excitement about it, and to be totally honest neither did Sarah nor I… it was more of the excitement to just to do something new and not so much to do the thing we were thinking of.
At the last minute, Sarah said, well what about this one, other idea that I had. And she had started working on the Adnan Syed story that we did for season one; she had started at that point, it was just at the very beginning stages of looking into it for possibly for a story for this American Life. And that’s when we were like; well maybe we could try this thing.
That’s really how I got into it. And we had both figured we’d just go back to our job, ‘This American Life,’ once it was done. But it seemed so viable all of a sudden, you know; so then we’re like, well let’s keep going as long as somebody will pay us; let’s keep going and see what else we can do.
DK: You mentioned that when you were putting the idea of serial together that it was an ‘experiment’ and that’s an interesting word for me, when I think of what a phenomenon it’s become and it’s probably, one of the, if not the most mainstream podcasts that are out there; it seems surprising to use that term in hindsight. Can you tell me a little bit about what made that podcast an experiment for you?
Julie: Primarily we had never done a serialized story before and we hadn’t heard it being done. Maybe, we had occasionally done kind of a two-parter on ‘This American Life’ but even then not in a way of where you had one narrative thread going. You know, for broadcast radio, a serialized story is difficult and the station’s don’t like it because everybody’s got to tune in every week and if you happen to come in the middle now, you don’t know what’s going on.
So it’s very hard to catch up, but we realized with podcasting it would actually be possible, since it’s an on-demand listening, and that to us is what felt like an experiment; we’d never even attempted something like that before and we hadn’t heard other people do it. And so it just felt like well, sure it’s worth it; it’s worth trying; we’ll kind of see how it goes and if it’s not that great we’ll figure it out. I have to say my initial idea of what Serial was going to be was actually a little looser than what it ended up being; and it’s something I still think about a little bit but maybe we should try at some point, someday I would like to try a bit of a looser approach.
But I kind of figured it would be a little less produced and less scripted; but I think once we started getting into it and really just Sarah’s style and where she’s comfortable and in terms of storytelling – it was also a pretty complicated story – we kind of realized we needed to be a little bit more controlling on basically when information was relevant and when it wasn’t; so it became a lot more produced than I thought it was going to be.
We’d never seen it done before; we were sort of making it up as we went along. There’s a documentary that had come out; they’ve just released it now I think possibly because of kind of the true crime wave, but there was a documentary called The Staircase that had run on Sundance and that was I think, a five-part documentary about a murder trial.
I was a big fan of The Staircase so we sort of had an eye toward that, sort of “they did it, and that’s sort of similar to what we’re thinking…” But really, we’re trying to make it up as we went along; I didn’t think very many people would listen, I definitely didn’t think that that was going to happen. And Sarah was working out of the basement of her house, because she lives in Pennsylvania and I’m in New York. So it was all… it was pretty janky stuff. It was all pretty DIY.
DK: When you have an experience like that, that is just such uncharted territories; it’s often one of the greatest opportunities to learn about something. Are there things that you learned in the early days of doing Serial that impacted how you did the second season or even S-Town?
Julie: Yes, definitely. I think I don’t even necessarily realize what those lessons are until kind of confronted with a new situation.
One of the things I think that we really definitely took away, as much as we loved the audience; we loved having so many people listen to the Serial; we really enjoyed hearing people’s feedback and interacting with the story. At the same time we were also a bit horrified at a lot of the response, where it became, a little whodunit, armchair detectives speculating about people saying very much an internet culture that I think we’re all very aware of now and it just grows, unkind and irresponsible; both reporting, but also speculation by people on the internet; that kind of stuff really stressed us out.
We had never experienced anything like that before; I hadn’t anticipated it. So something coming out of it was that we don’t want to do that again and we’re certainly… if we can control it, if we can do anything where we’re we pull back or somehow damp that down or anything like that we would.
That was the concern that I had on S-Town and so certain things that we did like release all the episodes at once, I thought that, that right there would help to damp down on speculation that you can’t finish an episode and then it doesn’t make sense to finish an episode and then go on Twitter and say, you know, here’s what I think and I speculate it’s going to happen next; when you know that the next episode is actually sitting right there. So just in that way I thought to release it all at once made a lot of sense; but also there were certain ways of where I think in the writing and in the presentation and in reminding listeners the approach that we were taking to this story, the way that we felt about people, the way that the people in the story are real people… Those are the kind of lessons I have taken and thought about as we move forward.
And then, a lot of sort of technical but structural thoughts about how you pace out a story and what kind of threads you need, and that while you kind of always have to have a thought about the individual chapters or episodes have their own internal structure but how are they speaking to the overall story and how are you pacing that out. I think those are things that I’ve refined a little bit more every episode or every project that we do and move forward. That said, I always feel like I don’t want to do a new project, if it feels similar to the old project.
So we also feel like we’re always kind of making something up that’s new, otherwise, I think we feel very bored.
DK: The storytelling piece is going to be really interesting to explore during your keynote later this year. The podcasting element is also something that I know a lot of people in our field are interested in. Podcasts in general as a medium is a thing that a lot of trainers and educators are looking at as a possible tool to add to their belt as a medium for learning and education programs. You went down this path as a new podcaster yourself. If someone was considering launching a podcast are there one or two important things you think they should keep in mind?
Julie: Definitely, You know in podcasts it’s insane. There’s this spectrum of what is sort of an incredibly very, very produced and tightly scripted and reported podcast like Serial. And then there’s all the way down to these sort of like hour and a half to two hour; people just like kind of rambling and talking sort of podcast, which I don’t actually knock those; you’d think this wouldn’t work.
But a lot of them they’re really successful/ You think of something like, ‘Pod Save America’; something which is a new podcast that is wildly successful and doesn’t require… it’s talk radio. So there’s such a wide span, but I would say that one of the things when people are thinking about starting a new podcast, I think an important thing to keep in mind is like what is the idea that you’re trying to get across and keep that consistent. Is there a consistent idea that means something to you and that you can react to?
So it does feel like your podcast has an internal logic and a narrative that is growing as you go forward. I think that’s something that will help keep the podcast maker kind of grounded on a mission, but I think also makes it a little… it highlights the intimacy of the medium for the listener, as well; because they begin to see a growth or a journey on the podcast. So that’s the kind of thing I think, to keep in mind when making them, you know have an idea and have a point of view and stick to it.
Want to learn more about Serial, S-Town, and how to podcasting and storytelling in your work? Be sure to join us for Julie’s keynote at DevLearn this fall!