During the year Sarah Koenig spent embedded in Cleveland’s Justice Center Complex for the upcoming season of “Serial,” a few employees on separate occasions mistook her for a student journalist and asked what school she attended.
“School? I’m pushing 50 — I barely remember where I went to school,” the host recalls thinking. And then: “Oh, I look sloppy. I’m by myself. I’m this random creature walking around your place of work.”
Even the bellwether of the criminal-justice podcasting world doesn’t get recognized in a courthouse. But maybe a close listener would have recognized Koenig by her voice. After all, “Serial” has been downloaded more than 340 million times since it launched in late 2014 with Koenig and her steady inflection leading its serialized exploration of whether Baltimore County high-schooler Adnan Syed was rightfully convicted of murdering his ex-girlfriend. The podcast electrified the medium and ushered it into the mainstream, becoming the first to win a Peabody Award.
Perhaps just as important, it also exposed an appetite for true crime stories that has since been satiated by a growing number of podcasts: “S-Town” and “Crimetown,” “Missing and Murdered” and “My Favorite Murder,” “Wine and Crime” and “White Wine True Crime!” The craze even stretches across media, to which those who have binged HBO’s “The Jinx” or Netflix’s “Making a Murderer” can attest.
“Serial’s” second season, while still popular, didn’t generate nearly as much buzz as the first. And, on Thursday, it is in this saturated true-crime environment — partially of “Serial’s” own making — that the show releases Season 3, which heads in a decidedly different direction than its predecessors. Koenig and fellow reporter Emmanuel Dzotsi tackle the criminal justice system as a whole by presenting Cleveland cases, each allotted one to three episodes.
But will the podcast’s newest endeavor be heard above the noise?
“There are a lot of reporters, there are a lot of researchers, there are a lot of people who have been banging this drum for a while, wanting to talk about the criminal justice system,” co-creator Julie Snyder says. “I felt, like, let’s talk about that.”
Nicholas Quah, who monitors the podcast industry through his trade newsletter Hot Pod, isn’t too worried about the future of “Serial.” The team operates at a level that Quah says few have been able to match — “It’s night and day” — as Koenig and Snyder spent decades fine-tuning their catchy, empathetic brand of storytelling on public radio programs such as “This American Life.”
“I’m excited to see how they challenge themselves,” Quah says of the third season. “Even if it doesn’t rise up to the pop culture phenomenon of the first season, it feels like David Simon coming back with a new show to HBO.”
Before “Serial” launched, podcasts were such a niche interest that Snyder once spent a family wedding trying to explain what they were to her relatives. After its launch, they infiltrated water-cooler chat. Phoebe Judge, host and co-creator of “Criminal,” says that as a curious person drawn to the taboo nature of crime stories, her head gets “flipped around” by everything she wants to listen to.
True-crime festivals have popped up around the country, including Washington’s upcoming Death Becomes Us on Nov. 3 and 4. Jenn Tisdale, co-producing it through the company Brightest Young Things, wants it to be a haven for fanatics who, like her, often find themselves in spaces where people “don’t want to talk about murder.”
The deluge of true-crime programming parallels the recent spike in the number of TV series that led FX chief John Landgraf to coin the term “Peak TV” a few years ago. It brought on an existential crisis of sorts: Is it humanly possible to keep up with this much television? Will quantity mean a sacrifice in quality?
Marc Smerling and Zac Stuart-Pontier are familiar with these concerns, having made the switch from television to podcasting after working together on “The Jinx.” That HBO miniseries, along with Netflix’s “Making a Murderer,” generated such fervent conversation that the streaming service eventually satirized the genre with “American Vandal” (which released its second season on Friday). The duo launched their Gimlet podcast “Crimetown” in 2016, examining how organized crime shapes American cities.
Podcasting won them over with the promise of creative freedom — no studio executives — and the ability to transport listeners to “wherever the person is telling you about,” Stuart-Pontier says. “Serial’s” acclaim convinced them to adopt a serialized approach, and Smerling adds that “crime stories are heightened drama, so there’s a sort of natural place for people to go as storytellers.”
But even “Serial” will have to work harder. Its 2016 second season — about Bowe Bergdahl, a U.S. soldier imprisoned by the Taliban and later charged with deserting his base in Afghanistan — attracted an average of 10.6 million listeners per episode versus the first season’s 17.3 million.
Koenig says she doesn’t worry about that. Instead, she works to ensure that the end result captures what she cares about, what her team has questions about — what can be revealed by cases as sensational as Syed’s murder conviction or as small as marijuana possession (or as strange as the death in “S-Town,” which the “Serial” team helped produce). This season promises to take readers into every corner of the courthouse, from one attorney seeking advice from another in the middle of a hallway to Koenig’s conference-room tete-a-tetes with the defense.
Snyder adds that “Serial” might benefit from the fact that its focus is quite different from other true-crime shows. Especially in this third season, the show is more concerned with the aftermath and implications of crimes than the actual actions: “A lot of times, you need to move past the idea of innocent and guilt and who did it,” Snyder says. “I want to talk about the people who are actually affected by it.”
Koenig notes that one of the “magical things about podcasting” is its ability to form a unique connection between the storytellers and listeners — especially when it involves a podcast as intimately narrated as this one. Despite the meticulous reporting process and its prestigious standing, “Serial” is quite informal — Koenig frequently articulates her uncertainties and anxieties.
“We did not invent murder stories or crime stories or true crime, obviously,” Koenig says. “People feel like they know me, and they want me to tell them a story, which is a weird thing for me, but there is definitely a segment of our audience that will just tune in for that . . . because it’s ‘Serial.’ ”