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.”