Things I learned working on Serial

N.B.: The last day of my seasonal contract with Serial was Friday, April 15, 2016, and I’m posting on my personal account, so this is from me and is not an official stance of the show. I know you know that already.

How do you follow a phenomenon? Serial’s first season made history, broke records, and introduced millions to podcasts. The original team was reporting and producing a new story. And this left a question: how does Serial work in a post-Serial world? How do you make it even more of, rather than just on, the internet? That was my job.

When I started at Serial as community editor in October, the story for Season 2 had just leaked, though we weren’t confirming it. The final episode of Season 1 had dropped ten months before, and unchecked nostalgia meant all manner of speculative press inquiries were swirling. Google searches for the launch date were spiking. Reporting a true story stacks some production factors on the external calendars of, say, court systems. What we did have — since the eight-person team controls the method of distribution — was the element of surprise.

Vagueposting “coming in 2015” across the social, I started with digital housekeeping, mostly quiet on the existing Twitter and Facebook accounts, readying the Tumblr, Instagram, Vine, and Snapchat. Since this was a new role, it wasn’t clear where the audience might want us to be. You never assume. You guess — and then calibrate to the levels of reaction with a mix of posting, listening, acknowledging, and responding.

Someone asked me a few months ago how my work for the show was creative. It was either a sincere ask or a snide jab, but either way: to me, this is not a question. If you are really listening to and interacting with an audience, the work must be defined as you go. That’s the fun of it. My career so far: high school English teacher, cancer hospital database programmer, grad school in literature, more grad school in literature, PBS, Knight Foundation, PopTech, livetweeting Arab Spring, Doctor Who, Al Jazeera, bootstrapping an app, HuffPo, Al Jazeera, BBC, Serial. I use words and timing to persuade groups of people to love something (and often, each other).

Social used to be a cola sip test, and while we still talk about daily online wins and fails, it’s much more about an aggregate social presence now. Tiny parties and gif parades happen deep in the threads. You’ll post a tweet and immediately see faves on earlier tweets as people go to the timeline. Twitter is where we go for service outage updates, breaking events, and random links. Sometimes the internet is fire. Sometimes the internet is a trash fire. Sometimes it’s a slow news day. In any case, we return in a few hours.

And this means you can run almost-tied polls that are more about preference than opinion. You can leave space for the audience to be clever and stay around for more than the “content.”

You can nod at other fandoms because the show doesn’t exist in a vacuum, and occasionally respond in their diction.

Or tag a relevant account that is pretty impossible not to love. Serial takes the reporting seriously, and ourselves less so. It wasn’t Sarah posting on the social accounts, but the accounts needed to feel like the show — in the show’s style, fitted to the tone and diction of the particular platform. (An episode tweet is different than a Facebook post, Vine loop, Instagram video, newsletter description.)

The current froth around video (live, 360, and in general) makes social for audio properties particularly tricky. I was doubly lucky in that digital editor Whitney Dangerfield commissioned artist Carl Burton to do incredible animated illustrations (here’s more on their process) that served as the visual over special audio cuts for Vine and Instagram that my executive producer Julie was supportive of spending staff time on — I’d find six and fifteen-second clips from the final hour-long episodes and our mixer and music editor Kate would decide whether to add music (she treated the whole season like a score) and how to fade so each would loop nicely. And these short loops were deliberately different than the intro minutes we fed the Facebook audio player for each episode — so a listener had audio in three places beyond the feed.

Many listeners for both seasons wanted even more audio, especially after the schedule changed to add another week between episodes, and two new companion podcasts of note started this season — Task & Purpose Radio (offering a military perspective, listen for Weirick) and Speaking of Serial (an Idaho perspective, where Bergdahl grew up). Both discussed our episodes in a looser, conversational format with multiple hosts. In fandom terms, this makes sense — lightly-edited commentary between fans around the highly-produced original [canon]. Knowing that some audience members listen to our show only so they will understand their favorite companion podcast’s take on it (entirely valid), I listened to all the companion podcasts and watched their public social interactions — their fans are our fans, one degree removed.

What you’re always looking for with an audience are their universals — what connects them to each other, what unites them. Understanding why they are listening, or what they are listening for, is a good way to research their universals (I’d say their ‘globals’ like in programming, but fandoms work in universes). During the season, we used Tumblr as a way to receive longer messages and chats; when Sarah and Julie toured California in March, I asked for submissions through our Tumblr submit page for tickets to events. The volume of press about the season was much lower than the first season, but downloads were higher — 50 million going into the final episode — so dark social was at play and I made sure we had ways for people to reach us privately. This impressive submission about understanding a parent’s military background more after listening I de-identified and shared with the user’s permission, then (to my great joy) she reblogged it on her personal Tumblr and revealed her authorship in a tag.

Unsolicited, someone sent a 4:26 song about Bergdahl that he wrote (I have his permission to share with you) that is full of details and quotes memorable phrases from episodes. There is a Bergdahl finger puppet show, complete with a cage, created for a school assignment that I found through a tagged photo and got the full details about through an Instagram dm chain. I always pause before retweeting (the account can handle the haters, but you want to protect fans) and decided the community would stand up for a great logo animation, and they did what I hoped — retweeted and faved her tweet and left great comments on her Instagram.

As we binge/stream asynchronously, it’s even more important to find ways to make clear that you aren’t listening/watching alone. When we changed the schedule, Sarah did a brief explanation that we put in the feed and she talks about a global map of listeners’ tweets during launch week that I worked on with the wonderful Jeff Ferzoco of CartoDB. It’s a simple map, and it illustrates how very many places in the world people talked about the show. We used geotagged tweets, so the real number is of course larger, and the Facebook comments were full too of listeners identifying themselves as dots on the map. It’s similar to our limited podcast metrics in that we can only point to the visible parts of the iceberg, but with the right context, it’s enough.

Beyond connecting with place, I did a few Twitter listening parties for those in the audience who might want to listen to the episode together at the same time during the season, a few hours after a new episode went out (roll call), mainly on weeks with many links in the transcript to documents and reports. We weren’t breaking news, but we could acknowledge when it happened, phrase an otherwise-random tweet to roll our eyes with the audience when a presidential candidate misspoke Bergdahl’s name during a debate (it degrades gracefully if you didn’t catch the debate gaffe), and high-five listeners when they were ahead of a news cycle. Turns out, the audience was as ambitious as we were, asking for more episodes, longer episodes, and raining the tear-face emoji when we suddenly announced the season finale.

All my best to the team, wow will I miss this audience, and now, I’m off for new adventures…