Behind the scenes of Serial

So Jay did an interview.

Who's Jay?

What?! Have you been living under a rock? Jay is one of the main people mentioned in the uber successful podcast by This American Life, called Serial. The thing is, Jay never agreed to be interviewed for the series. 

I've already written a mammoth article breaking down the lessons us radio makers can learn from Serial so I promise, it'll be the last on Serial for a little while. 

Jay's interview- a behind the scenes look at Serial

Surprisingly in Jay's interview, he details how he was approached and his interactions with Sarah Koenig (host/narrator/reporter of Serial) and also, how she made him feel and the impact the podcast has had on his life.

So rarely do we get this type of insight from the interviewee's perspective.

The only behind the scenes we're usually is given is from the journalist's mouth e.g. they talk about their process, how they found the story, why they chose the story, what they included and what they left out etc....

This interview is different.

JAY: When I was there I heard from a few people that [Koenig] was harassing people at their jobs, making countless phone calls [to people] who kept saying they did not want to speak with her.
— The Intercept (Part 2)

I both cringed and leaned in when I first read the article.

I cringed when I read about Sarah Koenig and Julie Snyder from Serial not having a business card with their names on it to give to Jay on their first meeting because I STILL don't have a business card so I'd be in the same position as them.

JAY: I was downstairs and asked them if they had any business cards that said who they were. They said didn’t have any on them, and that she had to go out to her car and get one. When she came back with a card that didn’t even have her name on it,
— The Intercept (Part 2)

New Year's Resolution 1: get business cards with own name printed on them! 

I leaned in to read more of the article when the actual emails Sarah Koenig sent to Jay to try and get him to agree to doing an interview were published. Although these emails were unsuccessful (Jay never agreed to do an interview) it's very interesting to see how Koenig worded these emails. 

One of Koenig's emails to Jay:

Email from: “Sarah Koenig” <Sarah>
Date: Aug 9, 2014 6:11 AM
Subject: Yesterday
To: <Jay>

Hello Jay,

I promise I won’t use this email address to badger you. But I did want to thank you so much for talking to us yesterday and for letting us into your house. I know it wasn’t an easy visit for you or your family. Both Julie and I felt pretty terrible that we caused such upheaval. We didn’t want or mean for that to happen, but I completely understand why it did. I thought it would be important for you to meet me in person, so you could get a sense of who I am and what my intentions are. But I also recognize what a jarring intrusion it was, and I’m sorry about that.

I also wanted to thank you for taking the time to think it over. I get that it’s a big decision. Of course we’d be more than happy to have coffee or a drink with you and [Jay's wife] today (Saturday) or tomorrow, to answer your questions and to try our best to ease any fears you might have. Again, I’m not out to vilify anyone – no one’s talking about revenge or retribution here. That’s not what this is about. I’m not on anyone’s side. I’m a reporter, and I’m trying to figure this case out. I know you and your wife were concerned that we found you. Alas, it wasn’t difficult at all. So I can’t protect you from that, obviously. But I can do my best to make you hard to identify in the story, so that if someone googled your name, for instance, my story wouldn’t come up. I’m not using your last name, and I won’t say where you live – or anything about your family.

When you ask what’s the benefit to you, it’s a little hard for me to answer, because it’s kind of a personal question specific to you, and I don’t know you enough to know the answer. But what I can tell you with confidence is that I think in the end, you’ll feel better with the end result if you’re an active voice in the story — rather than someone who’s being talked about, you get to do the talking.

I think the simplest pitch I can make to you is: You have a story about what happened to you, and you should be the one to tell it. That’s why I came to [location redacted], to ask you to tell your story. You’re in the documentary either way, so it just seems more respectful and fair to you to let you tell what happened, rather then having me piece it together from whatever I can glean from the record. On paper, in the trial transcript, you’re two-dimensional. But in real life, of course you’re more than just a state’s witness. You’re a person who went through a traumatic thing. To hear you call yourself a “scoundrel with scruples” – that made me want to understand who you were then, and who you are now. And also, even just meeting you yesterday for that short time, hearing you talk so forcefully about what you saw, and about Adnan’s guilt – for both Julie and me, that was powerful and clarifying. No one else knows what you know about this whole case, and so even just the few things you said – it’s exactly what I’ve been waiting to hear. . . .

From: The Intercept (Part 2).

So dang interesting! I've always wondered how other radio producers approach guests. More of Koenig's emails to Jay can be seen here.

On a side note: if you want to see another example of how other radio producers email their guests, the StartUp podcast (by Alex Blumberg a former This American Life producer coincidentally enough) recently had a misunderstanding with one of their guests over email (the email was published online).

A good reminder to write emails and texts to potential guests with the mindset that they could one day end up in the public domain. 

Some specifics we learn from the interview

How many times did Serial contacted Jay to do an interview:

Seven (see below).

JULIE SNYDER: On seven separate occasions over the last five months, we have requested an interview with Jay, either on the record or off. We have tried to keep the lines of communication open with him, contacting him well before the podcast began airing, during the run of the story and as recently as last week.
— Statement, The Intercept (Part 3)

Jay on their pitch and how he felt when Koenig and Snyder came to his house:

REPORTER: Did she ever say she was doing a podcast?

JAY: No, she said she was doing a radio show. They pitched it to me as an NPR radio show. I could also tell that she was uncomfortable talking to me. Her lips were quivering, and I just felt like she was lying. They were in the love seat over there [points across the room], and their body language was just making me really uncomfortable. It was confusing because they also pitched this story to me as a documentary, and they wanted to put me on video. By this time my wife was getting real upset. Our kids were crying.
REPORTER: Was the name ‘Serial’ ever used?

JAY: No. Not to my recollection. She kept saying ‘This American Life,’ ‘the radio,’ and ‘a documentary.’ There was no talk of ‘Serial’ or a podcast.
JAY: She kept saying, ‘It’s going to be in your interest to talk to me,’ and that just started to feel like a threat, like if I didn’t talk to her it was going to be bad news for me.
— The Intercept (Part 2)

What Koenig thinks about Reddit:

Phone messages between Sarah Koenig and Rabia&nbsp;Chaudry (Friend of Adnan's family and an attorney) from Rabia's blog (

Phone messages between Sarah Koenig and Rabia Chaudry (Friend of Adnan's family and an attorney) from Rabia's blog (

KOENIG: Neither I nor anyone I actually work with – the staff of Serial and of This American Life, has EVER given anything to Reddit. Period. Nor did we authorize or deputize someone else to do so. It would have been stupid and irresponsible for us to have given anything to Reddit. We’re not that dumb, for one thing. And anyway, I don’t believe in crowd-sourcing an investigation.
— Email to Jay, The Intercept (Part 3)


The reality of narrative journalism:

And above all, it showed me that although narrative journalism feels so transparent, it isn't transparent. From Koenig's mouth:

KOENIG: There are so, so many things I could have reported, but didn’t, because they seemed potentially damaging or unfair, and they weren’t directly related to the crime. Not just about you, but about other people involved in the case. In other words, I’m not out to get anyone, or to damage anyone’s reputation. I only reported information that we deemed relevant to understanding the case.
— Email to Jay, The Intercept (Part 2)

Both sides on their initial meeting:


KOENIG (narrating):  My producer, Julie Snyder and I, went to see Jay. We did not warn Jay we were coming, which is not the gentlest reporter move, I know. But I thought we’d have the best chance of success if we met him face to face, so we could make our case for why we wanted to talk to him and he could have a better sense of who we were and what we were about. But, because it’s also sort of a dick move to show up at someone’s door like that, Julie and I were nervous. I am so hyped up, listening back to the tape, I wanted to give myself a Xanax.

KOENIG (tape): I feel super excited to talk to him, like so excited to talk to him, I can’t tell you. Like, if this works, he knows, he knows everything we want to know, every questions we’ve had for the past eight months. Seven months, he knows it. Whether or not he tells us is a different thing but he’s a treasure chest of answers that we’ve been looking for this whole time and he has it, he’s it. But, whether or not he opens the door, or if he’s even home, we don’t even know if he’s home!

From: Transcript of Episode 8 of Serial: The Deal with Jay


JAY: There was a knock on my door in late August or early September, I can’t remember exactly when, but I remember I was changing my clothes. As soon as I opened that door I knew that it was her, the woman who was harassing my friends in Baltimore.

REPORTER: Was she alone?

JAY: No, it was her and another woman ['Serial' producer Julie Snyder]. She said that she was a reporter from New York, and that she worked on a show called ‘This American Life.’ And I knew there was only one thing that anyone would want to come and talk to me about as a reporter, you know?


JAY: Her lips were quivering, and I just felt like she was lying. They were in the love seat over there [points across the room], and their body language was just making me really uncomfortable.

From: Jay's Interview with The Intercept (Part 1 and 2)


I'm going to leave the analysis of whether any of the actions of Serial mentioned above were right or wrong to the university journalism lecturers around the world who I'm sure are salivating over some of the ethical implications from Serial... What a case study Serial is going to be! I can't wait to read what they come up with.

It's been interesting Serial. Very interesting. Thank you. 

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