Serial host Sarah Koenig inspires students during return to UChicago

Koenig, AB’90, gives series of talks and remembers intellectual curiosity of campus

Long before she revolutionized podcasts, Sarah Koenig arrived at the University of Chicago looking for a place that required “grit.”

The Serial host got the rigorous academic challenge she wanted as an undergraduate, but didn’t know it would be so fleeting. When Koenig, AB’90, returned to campus last week for a series of talks, she told her teenage daughter how she had taken the place for granted.

“I didn’t know that I wouldn’t always be surrounded by people who were fantastically curious and smart,” Koenig said during her Oct. 18 visit as the Program in Creative Writing’s Dedmon Writer-in-Residence. “You just assume the world’s going to be like that. I didn’t know any better.

“I remember, with some distance, realizing: ‘Ohhh, that was just college. I thought it would keep going!’”

Her return to UChicago represented a chance for her to help foster the latest generation of that intellectual community. Before discussing podcasting during her public talk at the Logan Center for the Arts, Koenig held a pair of informal Q&As: one with creative writing students, and another with the staff of the Chicago Maroon student newspaper.

Even for aspiring novelists and short-story writers, the chance to sit down with Koenig was a chance to learn about the craft of storytelling. Before launching the first season of Serial, which re-invigorated the podcast medium and landed her on Time magazine’s list of 100 most influential people in 2015, Koenig spent years as a producer for WBEZ’s This American Life and a reporter for various newspapers, including The New York Times and The Baltimore Sun. Those experiences honed her narrative instincts.

“She was talking about how she has hours and hours of tapes to distill down,” said Emily Musgrave, a third-year undergraduate majoring in creative writing. “She has to figure out a way to pull people in, keep them throughout the whole series.”

‘Ask me any question’

For the staff of Maroon, the afternoon contained even more practical instructions. The publication began launching its own podcasts last year, and time with the Serial host provided a unique opportunity for students to learn from someone at the top of the craft.

Maroon managing editor Katie Akin said one question that stood out involved how to best interview people across different backgrounds—many of whom may be suspicious of curious outsiders.

“You have to be very upfront about your motivations, about why you’re doing what you’re doing,” Akin recalled Koenig saying. “You have to respect that a lot of people aren’t going to talk to you—but most people want to tell their story. You just sort of have to go for it.”

A chance to talk to college students thrilled Koenig, who squeezed her campus visit into the production schedule of Serial’s third season—one that examines the complexities of the American legal system through a Cleveland courthouse.

Speaking on the Logan Center stage earlier this month with Rachel DeWoskin, an assistant professor of practice in the arts, Koenig paused for several seconds when asked if her latest work could spur meaningful judicial and legislative changes.

“Do I think a podcast can change the world?” she said. “No.”

But Koenig does feel “bursts of light” when young people tell her they’ve been inspired to become lawyers or investigative reporters. The chance to help budding storytellers and writers, she said, is something she will rarely pass up.

“If they are hungry to do that kind of work, that makes my heart sing,” Koenig said. “I’m all yours then. Ask me any question. I will help you until the end of time.”

Seasons 1-3 of Serial can be found on all major podcast apps and at