How a Podcast Creator Inspired a Podcast-Hater to Recognize Her Inner Storyteller

Friday, September 11, 2015

"No pressure: Who listens to podcasts, anyway?!"

Those were the words of NPR's Sarah Koenig, whose name may ring familiar - & whose speaking voice certainly will - if you've ever listened to the podcast Serial. As the first podcast to go viral, Serial has been downloaded by more than 99 million people in every country around the word except for North Korea & Eritrea. Its success is even more incredible, considering its creators' doubtfulness that they'd ever reach the  300,000 listener mark.

As far as who listens to podcasts, well... not me, really. Try as I might, Serial is the first & only podcast I've ever liked. But 99 million people can't be wrong.

When a friend asked if I'd be interested in seeing Koenig & Serial co-creator Julie Snyder speak at Case Western Reserve University on Wednesday, I couldn't have been more excited. As an unabashed true crime fanatic, I was positively thrilled by the prospect of hearing all the behind-the-scenes, cutting-room-floor details about the Adnan Syed case.

Except that's not what it was about at all.

Sarah & Julie (can I call them that? I feel like we're friends now) discussed the case, of course, but their talk wasn't really about Adnan or Hae or Jay or the streaking Mr. S. No, their talk was, at its core, about authentic story-telling - finding the hook, teasing out the most interesting bits, bringing the audience in. It was about two radio nerds who sometimes have bad ideas like the rest of us (they told us about the failed podcast they tried to make happen prior to Serial) & who worked really hard to do something new & different with a project in which they saw serious potential.

They talked about the intense, grueling investigatory journalism that went into gathering all of the proper pieces of this one big story. They talked about how Sarah had to become a character herself in order for her to connect with the people she interviewed, & for listeners to connect with her. They talked about how they navigated the murky moral implications of turning a real-life murder into news entertainment. They talked about how it felt to be on the receiving end of both enthusiastic obsession & heated criticism.

And through it all, they were real. They were normal. They were me, just... you know, super-successful & working for NPR. They were humble & relatable & funny, & listening to them explain how they created Serial - & what it meant to them, personally - reminded me of why I wanted to be a journalist all those years ago.

Like every high school senior of the class of 2002, I wrote my college acceptance essay about September 11th. Specifically, I wrote about how I thought I'd wanted to major in journalism but wasn't sure until that night, when I watched as reporter Ashleigh Banfield, still shouting news reports into her microphone, ran down a narrow alley as a building adjacent to the Twin Towers fell into a pile of dust & smoke & rubble on live TV.

I went to journalism school, but today, I am not a journalist. I never was, really. I worked for my (award-winning!) college newspaper, the Daily Kent Stater, & I like to think I was pretty good at it - but I wasn't really made to be a reporter. As a junior, I had a stress-related breakdown & abruptly quit my position as administration reporter, the staffer who interviewed the university president & other such difficult characters. Reporting hard news gave me hella anxiety before I even knew that anxiety was even a real thing, & I knew I didn't want to do it professionally.

I still thought I'd become a journalist, though - a features reporter, maybe, or, on the days when I dreamed big, a magazine editor. Even if I wasn't cut out for breaking news, I was still made to write. It's the only thing I've ever been good at, & it's the only thing I truly, madly, deeply love. (Except for tacos. I truly, madly, deeply love tacos.)

Some days, I get down on myself about where I ended up - or, more specifically, where I didn't end up. I'm a social media manager at a nonprofit, & although I love my job, I am decidedly not a journalist. I am not what I was supposed to be, what I promised myself on September 11, 2001, that I was going to become. The only thing I've ever really wanted to be when I grow up, even now.

But these two wildly successful NPR personalities pointed out that they never really set out to become wildly successful NPR personalities. They set out to be storytellers, because they've always been storytellers, & they happened to tap into a medium & a method that worked out really, really well.

Maybe I'm never going to be Sarah Koenig or Ashleigh Banfield. Maybe I'm never going to be a journalist or even a "real" writer. But like them, I have always been, at the very least, a storyteller, & listening to Wednesday night's talk reminded me that there are a thousand ways to tell a story well, so long as you're committed to telling it at all. And I am.

So thank you - yes, you! - for being here, for reading my stories, for making me feel like a real writer even on the days when I am, in fact, "just" a storyteller with a navel-gazing blog instead of a front-page byline or my name on a masthead. Thank you for believing in the power of my words, even when they're not changing the world. And thank you, Sarah Koenig & Julie Snyder, for reminding me that maybe they still can.

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