Not My Job: 'Serial' Creator Sarah Koenig Gets Quizzed On Cereal
PETER SAGAL, HOST:
And now the game where we invite on people who've done unbelievable things and ask them to do something they can't believe they have agreed to. So a couple of years ago, Sarah Koenig was a producer on "This American Life" and she got a phone call from a lawyer in Baltimore, which turned into the podcast "Serial," which was probably the biggest cultural sensation of 2014. Everybody listened to it. It was parodied on "Saturday Night Live." It launched a dozen podcasts that just discussed her podcast. Serial Productions now has a new podcast. It's called "S-Town." It might even be better than the original. Sarah Koenig, welcome to WAIT WAIT... DON'T TELL ME.
SARAH KOENIG: Thank you. I...
KOENIG: What do you mean better than the original?
SAGAL: I'm just saying I have been bingeing "S-Town" all week.
KOENIG: You have? Seriously?
SAGAL: I have. You are lucky that I am talking to you and not listening to the last few episodes right now 'cause it was hard to put down. It is excellent. It is really superb.
KOENIG: Thank you. I know. I can't really take any credit at all.
SAGAL: Oh, no, the best part is you at the beginning giving the sponsorship credit and telling us what chapter it is.
KOENIG: I know. It takes a lot of know-how.
SAGAL: It's really great.
KOENIG: You know, like, not anyone can do that.
SAGAL: Well, we'll get to "S-Town" in a minute. But first we're going to talk to you about "Serial." So "Serial," as we know, as I assume all our listeners know, is the podcast you did. It was the first podcast only that "This American Life" had ever done. It was, of course, the true crime story of a - we'll call it a murder mystery in Baltimore. Had you any notion how popular that would become?
SAGAL: No. Can you - what - how did you feel when it did become the thing that everybody was listening to and talking about constantly?
KOENIG: I felt very confused. I was so confused. You know, we literally - we made it from my basement in my house because that was the quietest place. And, you know, as we got going I was really just living in the basement. And so it felt like I was, like, this troll person. And then, like, I came into the light and there were all these people looking at me. And I was like, what is happening? Like, I was just in the basement. I don't - I don't...
SAGAL: You don't know.
SAGAL: So let's talk about "S-Town" a little. This is the new podcast.
SAGAL: And it is the strangest thing because it is a reporter who gets a call from a guy in Alabama and things start to happen. But suffice to say, the story does not go where he thinks it will at the beginning. There must have been a long time where he was like or you were like, come on, this is pointless. Why are you continuing to talk to this crazy person in Alabama?
KOENIG: I mean, no, I don't think there was.
SAGAL: Really? Well, then bless your hearts for being...
KOENIG: I don't - I mean, I don't know. I don't know. I don't know. Hey, Julie?
SAGAL: Yeah, get Julie.
SAGAL: Tell - and also tell us who Julie is.
KOENIG: Oh, Julie Snyder who produced "S-Town." I did not. I just helped...
SAGAL: Why are we talking to you? Put Julie on the phone.
KOENIG: Yeah, I don't know why. I know she...
LUKE BURBANK: Has anybody worked on a radio show before?
KOENIG: She's right here. She's back. So they have a genuine question. Was there a time when you were like, this is not going to work? Like, you've got to - you've got to stop this. This is crazy. There's no story.
JULIE SNYDER: No. No.
SAGAL: No. No.
KOENIG: Did you hear that? She said no.
AMY DICKINSON: This is why we're going to lose our funding.
DICKINSON: You get that, right?
GREG PROOPS: Hey, Peter, do all your callers get a lifeline during your conversation?
SAGAL: Yeah, apparently.
KOENIG: I know. I said I would only do this if I had a lifeline.
SAGAL: All right. Well, put Julie on. Julie, hello.
KOENIG: Here, they want to talk to you.
BURBANK: This is like talking to my parents.
SAGAL: I know.
DICKINSON: It really is.
SAGAL: Hey, Julie...
DICKINSON: Dad says hi.
SAGAL: Julie, are you there?
SAGAL: Hi, Julie, it's Peter.
SNYDER: I feel like this is like talking to my parents. I - the feeling is mutual. Now I'm confused.
SAGAL: I'm not that much older than you, Julie, please. So...
PROOPS: Julie, what are you wearing?
BURBANK: Now it's really like talking to my parents.
SAGAL: All right. So, Julie, I'm just going to ask you this question, which is that the story of "S-Town," the story of the podcast, takes so many weird turns. You - things that are supposed to happen don't happen. Things that are supposed to have happened turn out not to be true. Was there any time in this podcast where you're like, this is not going to work out, this is a tremendous waste of everybody's time?
SNYDER: No. No. I mean, I often didn't have a lot invested in it, so if it didn't work out that was fine.
SAGAL: There you go.
SAGAL: Either way, it'd be all right with you. That's all I needed to know. And I also wanted to ask you about the title because "S-Town" stands - it's a radio-friendly abbreviation for what the central character, the central real-life person refers to when he's talking about his hometown.
SNYDER: That is true.
SAGAL: When did you decide that that would be the name of the podcast?
SNYDER: I know. That was a lot of discussion. It was always what we called the show.
SNYDER: But then we also tried to come up with other names for the show and they were so horrible...
SAGAL: Well, give me one. Give me a good terrible one.
SNYDER: "The Vulgar Horologist."
PROOPS: I just...
BURBANK: One of my favorite Lemony Snicket books, by the way.
SAGAL: The vulgar - well, I think, Julie, I can - speaking for America, you made the right choice.
SNYDER: I agree. I agree. It's - there's nothing like coming up with alternate names to make you realize, like, never mind. Let's just go with the first idea.
SAGAL: Well, congratulations on everything. The podcast is superb, as was "Serial," which I know you worked on. Put Sarah back on and we'll move on. We'll talk to her a little bit.
PROOPS: Say hi to Uncle Mo (ph).
SNYDER: I will hand you bank over to Sarah.
SAGAL: All right.
SNYDER: OK, thank you very much.
SAGAL: Thank you, Julie. That was Julie Snyder, the producer of "S-Town." Sarah, are you back with us?
KOENIG: Hello. I'm here.
SAGAL: All right, Sarah. So I wanted to ask you about "Serial," which - you did season two about Bowe Bergdahl. Do you know what season three is going to be yet?
SAGAL: I take it from your strained affirmation that you're not going to tell me what it's going to be about.
KOENIG: No because what if it doesn't work? And then I'm like, you know, humiliated nationally.
DICKINSON: Join the club.
SAGAL: Happens to me every week. It's not that bad.
SAGAL: So can we say that season three will be even more different?
PROOPS: Is there anyone in the house that knows the answer to that?
BURBANK: Can we talk to your cat?
KOENIG: You could ask either Julie's husband or the dog.
SAGAL: All right. Well, Sarah Koenig, it is a pleasure to talk to you. We, however, have asked you here today to play a game we're calling...
BILL KURTIS: You knew this was coming, Sarah.
DICKINSON: Oh, yeah.
KOENIG: Oh, no.
SAGAL: Of course we're going to ask you about breakfast cereals.
KOENIG: You're kidding.
SAGAL: What else could we do?
KOENIG: Really? You've got a whole staff there.
SAGAL: I know. And I'm telling you...
KOENIG: Like, this is the best they could do? I seriously thought this wasn't going to happen.
SAGAL: We looked around - we looked around the table, we were like, well, what do we do? Breakfast cereal? And everyone went like, yep.
KOENIG: All right, fine.
SAGAL: Answer two out of three questions about breakfast cereal. Get them right, you'll win a prize for one of our listeners, Carl Kasell's voice in their voicemail. Bill, who is Sarah Koenig playing for?
KURTIS: Victoria Black Miller of Visalia, Calif.
SAGAL: All right.
BURBANK: Can you imagine if it was Adnan Syed of Baltimore, Md.? Just by coincidence?
SAGAL: Yeah, he wrote in.
KOENIG: Well, then this call would be recorded.
SAGAL: Yeah, I know. Here's your first question. Breakfast cereals, it turns out, sometimes have sequels, just like terrible movies do. Which of these is a real breakfast cereal spinoff - A, Cap'n Crunch's Punch Crunch; B, Trix Flix Bix (ph); or C, Lucky Charms: Easter Rising?
KOENIG: Anyway, what was the first one?
SAGAL: Captain Crunch's - excuse me, not captain - Cap'n Crunch's Punch Crunch.
KOENIG: That one.
SAGAL: That's right, Cap'n Crunch's Punch Crunch.
(SOUNDBITE OF BELL, APPLAUSE)
SAGAL: It was pink flavored, did not last long. Second question. Kids' cereals, of course, are very sweet, but some of them were more obvious about that fact, such as which of these - A, Kellogg's Choco Candy Sweetums (ph); B, Post Sugar Corn-fetti...
SAGAL: Or C, General Mills' Raw Sticks of Sugar Cane?
KOENIG: I don't know. A.
SAGAL: A. You're going to go for Kellogg's Choco Candy Sweetums? No, it was Post Sugar Corn-fetti, early '50s cereal that was taken off the market. But it eventually became Frosted Flakes, which are very popular. All right, last question. If you get this right you are declared innocent.
SAGAL: The cereals Quisp and Quake, which by coincidence I very much enjoyed as a kid in the '70s, had a rather unfortunate marketing slogan. Was it A, fuels jittery, bouncy, manic fun; B, the cereal that can't be kept down; or C, if your parents won't buy it for you, scream at them?
KOENIG: B. B.
SAGAL: You're right, it's B.
(SOUNDBITE OF BELL)
SAGAL: The cereal can't be kept down.
SAGAL: That's why we don't have Quisp or Quake anymore. Now, Bill, let me ask you, should we tell Sarah how she did? Or should we leave it as an ambiguous ending and let her decide how she feels, whether she did...
KOENIG: I think we should just ruminate on the nature of victory.
SAGAL: No, we'll tell you. Bill, how did Sarah do on our show?
KURTIS: Well, it's a mystery to me, but Sarah pulled out a win.
KOENIG: Aw, thanks.
SAGAL: So one last question. When can we expect "Serial" season three?
KOENIG: When I'm good and ready.
SAGAL: Sarah Koenig is the host and creator of the award-winning podcast "Serial." A new podcast from "Serial" and "This American Life," "S-Town," is out now. It is astoundingly good. Sarah is not the host, but she does tell you what chapter you're listening to at the beginning of every episode - the highlight. Sarah, thank you so much for joining us.
KOENIG: Such a pleasure, thank you.
SAGAL: Thank you, Sarah. Take care.
(APPLAUSE, SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
SAGAL: Just a minute, Bill finds a surprise in his breakfast. It's the Listener Limerick Challenge. Call 1-888-WAITWAIT to join us on the air. We'll be back in a minute with more of WAIT WAIT... DON'T TELL ME from NPR.
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