The Jewish roots of podcast sensation 'Serial'

Behind every great ‘Serial’ podcast host, a Jewish studies professor.

December 20, 2014 19:04
2 minute read.

'Serial' podcast logo. (photo credit: NPR)

No spoilers here about the “Serial” season finale, but I will say this much: The episode ends with … a special thanks to a certain Jewish studies professor.

That would be Benjamin Schreier, the interim director of the Jewish studies program at Penn State and the husband of “Serial” host Sarah Koenig.

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With “Serial,” Koenig has achieved something akin to superstardom. Her “This American Life” spinoff, in which she reexamines a 15-year-old murder case, has topped iTunes charts — with a reported 31 million downloads as of earlier this week.

“Fame hasn’t changed her. She’s been too busy working on the story to pay attention” to all of the buzz surrounding the podcast sensation, said Schreier, an associate professor of English and Jewish studies at the State College, Pa., university.

For “Serial,” Koenig spent some 15 months trying to figure out whether or not Adnan Syed — a former honor student convicted in the 1999 murder of his ex-girlfriend, Hae Min Lee — is guilty of the crime for which he is serving a life sentence. In 12 weekly installments, the veteran radio producer chronicled her findings and her many ruminations along the way. The final episode of the first season (and we’re told there will be a second season, thanks to listener support, but on a different topic) was released on Thursday.

Testaments to the podcast’s cultural impact include the show’s own subreddit, a Slate podcast devoted to analyzing each installment, a feature in The New York Times Magazine, multiple parody podcasts and a spot-on Funny or Die sketch starring the actress Michaela Watkins.

But not much has changed in the Koenig-Schreier household, her husband said.

While Koenig was reporting “Serial,” Schreier stayed focused on his academic career. At Penn State, he teaches courses on topics such as post-Holocaust literature and Jewish American film. His second book on “the concept of identity in Jewish American literature” will be published next year, he said.

In recent months, Schreier has also spent a fair amount of time solo parenting the couple’s two children while Koenig was hard at work on the series. He noted that Koenig, in turn, has stepped up over the years when he’s had to travel for work. “We both support each other,” he said.

He called the finale “fantastic,” and noted that the fascination with “Serial” has even filtered into his professional life. He recalled how at a recent conference on Jewish literature, a graduate student “flipped out” when she heard he was married to Koenig.

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