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Julie Snyder in It’s A Long Story

On making two of the most successful podcast series of all time

Julia Lenton
Sydney Opera House

September 11 changed America. It also changed This American Life

For almost six years, Ira Glass’s distinctive radio show had been using the tools of journalism to tell the stories of everyday Americans. Julie Snyder, who had joined This American Life in 1997, says that after the September 11 attacks the program had no choice but to change tack. 

“Everyday life became political. We were swimming in the waters of a post 9/11 politics. The response, the war, civil liberties, national identity; there was no way that you could just tell stories that would be divorced from that.”

Snyder has worked on two of the most successful podcasts of all time; This American Life and its spin-off, Serial. Speaking to Hamish Macdonald on the It’s A Long Story podcast, Snyder describes how September 11 was a turning point not only for the genre-shaping This American Life, but for her own career. Before the attacks the show sought out the incredible stories from everyday American life. Afterwards they instead told the everyday stories connected to the incredible events changing America. Snyder took charge of these stories – covering everything from Guantanamo Bay to gun violence. 

“I liked telling those stories through people,” she says. “I wanted to find people who could talk in a relatable way... There is nuance, there isn't a monolithic way that all Republicans think this way and Democrats think that way.”

“Everyday life became political. We were swimming in the waters of a post 9/11 politics.”

Julie Synder

Snyder was coached in the art of an entertaining story from a young age. Growing up in a household with five brothers, her father solved dinner table dramas by demanding the children recount stories from their day. ‘Highlights, kids, highlights!’ he would exclaim, pounding the table whenever they waffled.

At university she tried to get a job at the campus newspaper but thought the students working there were a little bit snotty. Instead she enrolled in a broadcast journalism course – and was teaching it within the year.  By the age of 23, Snyder was in commercial radio and, she says, had quickly become cynical of journalism. If she hadn’t found This American Life, she was going to quit radio and go to law school.

Sarah Koenig and Julie Snyder had been working together for 15 years when Ira Glass gave them the green light to create Serial. The on-demand nature of the emerging podcast medium enabled a new format: a weekly, serialised documentary which would serve different stories than those they could tell in an hour on This American Life. Koenig and Snyder hoped their first episode would reach a modest 300,000 listeners. Two seasons and over 267 million episode downloads later, Snyder has already moved on to the next record-breaking podcast: as the executive producer of S-Town, released earlier this month.  

This American Life, Serial and S-Town have at least two things in common. First there’s a commitment to stories that generate empathy and celebrate ambiguity. Give your listeners an emotional connection to the people being talked about, she says, and you’ll provide a much deeper understanding of the position those people are in.  Second, and in light of her success, there also seems to be trace of her father’s insistence, pounding on the kitchen table, of ‘highlights, kids, highlights’. 

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