Sarah Koenig talks ‘Serial’ at Boston University conference

Sarah Koenig (above) and Jill Abramson were at Boston University this weekend.
Sarah Koenig (above) and Jill Abramson were at Boston University this weekend.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

Sarah Koenig, the voice and reporter behind “Serial,” told the audience at Boston University’s Power of Narrative conference Sunday that she believes the popular podcast was downloaded 6.5 million times per episode because it reminded listeners of television.

“They were enjoying it in the same way that people enjoy escapist entertainment,” she suggested. “But it wasn’t entertainment; it was journalism. Or maybe it was both.”

Using clips from various episodes and recorded conversations with her producer and colleague Ira Glass, Koenig gave a behind-the-scenes look at “Serial,” which has gained a second season. The first season focused on the 1999 killing of a high school senior in Maryland and the conviction of her ex-boyfriend, Adnan Syed , for murder. Koenig admitted that she had a complicated relationship with her subject, who is serving life in prison.


“Sometimes, as uncomfortable as it is to admit it, there’s a little bit of flirting going on,” Koenig said, of listening back on her reporting. “I’m a little cringe-y looking back. I’m laughing too much. It sounds like we’re friends.”

Koenig wasn’t the only above-the-fold byline at BU; ousted New York Times executive editor Jill Abramson, who’s now at Harvard, updated conference guests on her plans with journalist Steven Brill to start an outlet featuring longform work. During her Saturday talk, Abramson said the site would release 20,000- to 30,000-word stories once a month. She also said that writers would be paid the equivalent of a small book advance.

“I was never really a hard-news junkie,” Abramson said. “I’ve always been interested in the story behind the story.”