DevLearn 2018 | Day 1 Keynote: Julie Snyder

Today is the first official day of DevLearn 2018 in terms of sessions, and I am super excited about the Julie Snyder keynote!

Julie Snyder is the co-creator and executive producer of the podcasts Serial and S-Town. As a huge Serial fan, I have to say that I’m fan-girling pretty hard about having the opportunity to listen to Snyder tell us all about storytelling and what makes a captivating story. EEEEE!

Julie Snyder – What Makes a Captivating Story?


Julie Snyder begins her keynote by discussing the production elements of Serial…basement recordings and waiting for your kids to flush a toilet. She then goes on to discuss how Serial came to be. In the first episode of Serial, the host uses a quote directly from Snyder. She explains how Serial needed buy in from This American Life to get up and running. They had a very cold team meeting, and Serial was pitched as the “This Week” show. They wanted to identify how they could make the “This Week” show a weekly thing.

Ira Glass finally explained they had his buy in…but they asked whether they had any other ideas. That’s when a serialized documentary was pitched. A weekly documentary show that would follow one story each week. Julie thought at that point…that was a good concept. It made sense. She hadn’t heard of this format done before in radio, so it was a cool and exciting idea.

This American Life is very open to experimentation and failing. She indicated that 40-50% of stories done for This American Life end up getting killed, but it provides them with a lot of freedom to trial.

Their first story for Serial fell into place with minimal discussion. They didn’t need a large exploration to find the story – it was an investigation of a missing high school girl. Snyder loved the idea of exploring all of the concepts, especially the criminal justice system. Releasing the episodes weekly allowed for feedback and/or questions across the week that could be addressed in the next week’s episode.

The storytelling problem began with how to make listeners understand the significance of the details contained within dense and complicated content. They wanted to know what Sarah thought. Sarah was very honest about how she felt about what she didn’t know re: whether the information was solid. For someone without a background in crime reporting, Sarah does a great job with her investigations and reporting. Snyder thinks it’s very important to be able to check yourself on things you don’t know.

They had a lot of challenges with Serial, including being able to get access to speak with individuals (e.g., Jay, Adnan’s defence attorney, etc.). Much of the investigation came from a giant PDF of public information that the police deemed appropriate to release. The PDF was really disorganized, redacted, poorly scanned, and very disjointed. They were initially defeated in terms of “what are we going to do with all of this information?”. Once they befriended it, it became the backbone of the entire series (moreso than the trial transcript).

How were they supposed to figure out the importance of the early suspects if they couldn’t communicate with them? The giant PDF of public information!

They explored whether it was okay to make a nonfiction story as entertaining as TV…Serial reminded Julie of a lot of the elements you see in TV (e.g., episodic development). They borrowed elements from TV production, like ‘previously on’ intros and cliffhangers for episodes to come. Julie puts forth a hypothesis about the zeitgeist of Serial. She thinks that when people listened, the part of their brain that lit up when they watched escapist entertainment lit up when they listened to Serial and triggered new interest. What are the ethics? Is it journalism? Is it responsible? Snyder says “Yes!” she believes that artistry is alright in reporting so long as you stick to the truth!

Snyder gives Ira Glass major props for his influence in public radio. She explains that he has trained all of the radio producers, and it allowed them to go out in the world and take lessons learned from Ira. She explains that we should always be looking for the details and the moments in stories. We should try to reflect the world as it is in all the funny and bizarre and upsetting ways that it is. Reporting as artistry creates empathy and moves a story from what it is to something more meaningful.

She discusses Reddit and how the rules of reporting on Reddit are very different from their rules of reporting. They always had to weigh the value of disclosing something that might be damaging to someone…things would be left out, and then pop culture criticized Serial for missing information…information that may actually be there, but that they consciously decided to leave out. On Reddit, a lot of damaging information about real people was dug up that may have damaged individuals….because the Internet has very little rules. Snyder explains that they didn’t see this type of response coming because nothing similar had ever happened with This American Life.

They felt they were losing control and the frenzy of attention and scrutiny was consuming them. When the final episode dropped, they shut down the commenting on the Serial Facebook page. They had been hyper-vigilant about moderating the comments, removing inflammatory posts, etc. They then learned they cannot shut down commenting on Facebook; they can only block information containing various key words. A filter was created and tested…during the testing he discovered that the filter did not work…and “Adnan did it” was posted from the official Serial account. He thought “maybe no one saw it”…and then it was on Twitter and Reddit. The creator felt it was the worst work-related thing he ever did. He couldn’t even bring himself to look at the Reddit thread and found out that everyone thought it was a hack.

Ira came to the team to provide thoughts about how to end the story. He thought it would be great if the team solved the crime. Of course they wanted to solve the case! But as they neared the end of the show, they realized it wasn’t going to happen. However, it provided a question: Were they okay with the fact that someone is facing the rest of their life in prison and the state’s case is still incredibly flawed?

Julie finishes by discussing the relationship between Sarah and Adnan. Her relationship with Adnan was personal that was always evolving. A large component of this type of investigative journalism is psychological and emotional. It takes a toll! Serial felt different because instead of hiding the confusion of the reporting, it was often part of the narrative.

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