Illustration: Lauren Tamaki
Chances are, you already have Sarah Koenig’s voice in your head. She’s the host and co-creator of Serial, the podcast phenomenon that debuted in 2014, and before that, she was a producer for This American Life. Koenig, who lives in Pennsylvania with her professor husband and two kids, recently chatted with The Cut on Tuesdays podcast host Molly Fischer about her life, work wife, and procrastination habits. Here’s how she gets it done.
On a typical morning:
When we’re in production my whole life changes and it’s, frankly, kind of awful. It starts out sort of sane, and then as we move forward toward our finish line, it gets crazier and crazier. If I’m behind, I’m getting up at 6 a.m., trying to write before even the kids go off to school. If I can’t drag my ass out of bed in time, then I’m getting up probably 7 or 7:30. I’m not a morning person, generally, so I’m kind of slow in the mornings.
On time management:
I’m continually shocked at my wildly inaccurate estimations of how long something takes to do. I’ve been doing this a long time — I’m almost 50 — and I’m still like, “Oh yeah, it’ll take a day.” I work super closely with my partner and Serial co-creator Julie Snyder, but I make my own schedule like, “Okay, these are the beats of the story I need to get done. Monday…” And then Thursday morning I’m still so behind, and I’m like, ‘What’s wrong with me?’ This happens every time.”
On getting into audio:
It was a much steeper learning curve than I had understood. I had worked at newspapers and I thought I knew how to interview people, but then I learned, “Oh. Wait, that’s terrible. That does not work in audio.” Probably the biggest reason I went to This American Life is because of that edit process. My mind was blown, and I had never experienced anything like that — just the sheer ripping apart of your first draft, and just starting over, and how bossy and utterly in charge the producer was. I was initially affronted by that. “How dare you.” But then I totally submitted. The smarts, creativity, and frankly, the joy and the giggling that went on in these edits was a new world for me.
On hosting her own show:
This American Life is built as a cooperative organism, and that’s what I loved about working there, and what I love about Serial, too. I don’t want to work on my own. I’m a theater nerd at heart; I’m sort of a ham, and I used to do improv comedy. I like putting on a show with a group of people. It never occurred to me that I would host my own thing until Julie sat in on an interview I did. Afterward she squinted at me, and she was like, “I have an idea for you … I think you should host your own show. I think we should make a new show for you.”
On having a close collaborator:
This is my opinion, but everybody wants to work with Julie. She’s the best editor ever. We understand each other’s rhythm in the way that we work, and we understand each other’s editorial language and the way that we talk about stories. I’ll go for the more standard speechifying that is meant to be emotional, and I’ll think it’s my money shot. I’ll be like, “Wait till you hear this.” And she’ll be like “Oh yeah, I think kill it.” And I’ll be like, “Wait, what?” She always wins, and I will relent.
I’ve learned to really, really trust my colleagues. That’s why I always, ultimately, give in to Julie, because I’m like, “I know you’re right.” Serial definitely doesn’t exist without her. It’s not as if I bring nothing to the table — I have certain skills, I can do stuff — but I do very much recognize there’s an alchemy to the way that I work with Julie.
On the pace of making Serial:
The first seasons, we had no idea what we were getting into. I was working at home then, in my basement. We made a little studio there, so I was home all the time, but not home. I would crawl up like a troll person every so often and be like, “I’m hungry.” My team and I said, “Let’s never do that again. We have lives, we have children, we have family. We want to have a more rational way of living.” And then, of course, we built the next season’s schedule. In the beginning when everybody’s feeling a little more relaxed, people are more gentle. We all get a little rougher with one another as we get more stressed, which I think is normal.
On Serial’s success:
The success of it was thrilling on the one hand, upsetting in another way, and initially, just very confusing. “What, what happened? Why is everyone looking at me?” I feel very much under a microscope. Also, I feel like, “Oh, cry me a river with your success. You don’t get to have that complaint,” which I fully understand. But Julie and I both, and Ira Glass too, we really like to experiment. Serial itself was an experiment. Every season we’ve done has been an experiment. That’s what we’re interested in. But I do worry about, are our numbers going to go way down? Is our advertising gonna go away? Are we gonna melt back into nothingness if we try this, or that, or the other thing? And I hate that. I want to be able to just do whatever the hell I want.
On not having a social-media presence:
Not being on social media is a deliberate choice. I feel a little bit old, and it’s not a natural. I would have to learn how to use it, for one thing, and I just feel like anything that I have to say, I’m already saying it in my story. It’s not like I don’t have a platform to talk about the things that are interesting to me. So I’m good; I don’t need to do it more. The really main reason, though, is I’m such a time waster and a procrastinator, that I just know it would be a massive time suck.
I’m pretty, well, the gentle word I think would be compulsive about tidiness and order at home. I will clean things, and organize things, and do the laundry. I’m in charge of every aspect of domestic life in our house except for cooking. I’ll fix the thing that needs fixing, and I’ll scrub the thing, and I will rearrange the whatever, and I will take out the things. Yes, I will endlessly do stuff like that rather than my work. I also, especially this past season, got into the New York Times Sunday crossword, and, don’t tell Julie, but I really wasted a bunch of hours.
On being a working mom:
My husband was quite magnificent during this past season where I just announced, “Assume I’m not available for anything for the next three or four months, just assume I cannot do it. If there’s an appointment, I can’t be there. If there’s a thing to drive to, I cannot do it. You are it.” He has a full-time job, and he was like, “Check.” I had to say the same thing to the kids.
I worry about looking back and thinking, I worked too hard. I had young kids, did I sacrifice too much time with my kids? We live in a very small town, and basically, I am available in a logistical way, but I’m not always mentally available to them. I have all kinds of parental guilt about that — maybe they’ll be on their therapists’ couches ten years from now being like, “My mother was in the basement and she didn’t come up for dinner. I was having a crisis and she told me to be quiet.”
I think they think my work is cool, and I think they’re proud of me. If I go do an event or a speech, I’ve brought them a few times. Usually, it’s been out of necessity because I have nowhere to put them. But it’s also a more self-serving thing: “You’re going to see, a whole audience of people is going to clap when I walk onstage. I want you to see that somebody respects me. Somebody thinks I’m good. I am appreciated.” They’re always very nice to me afterward.
What she wished she knew starting out:
I definitely had the thing that I think we all, but especially women, have: an imposter complex. I felt I didn’t deserve any of the opportunities I was given. I thought didn’t know what I was talking about, and that had no skill. I understand now that everyone’s faking it. None of us knows what we’re doing; that is the human condition. We’re just making it all up, and that’s fine. But not having a feeling of mastery, walking through the world every day — that’s not failure; that’s life.
This interview was edited and condensed for length. The full interview appeared on The Cut on Tuesdays. Listen below.