Serial is back in our lives and we’re loving it more than ever. After tackling the cases of Adnan Syed (season one) and Bowe Bergdahl (season two), for season three, the hugely popular podcast has set itself the task of tackling the whole criminal justice system, by concentrating on the workings of the court system in Cleveland, Ohio and telling the stories they found there in their signature style.
Happy as we were to hear Sarah Koenig’s now legendary voice filling our ears again, the second episode introduced a new reporter to the show – Emmanuel Dzotsi.
Obsessed with show as we are, we had to find out more about Sarah's new co-presenter, and specifically the British guy now involved in the tiny team that creates the world's biggest podcast - the podcast that arguably started our obsessions with not only true crime, but the medium as a whole.
Grazia spoke to Emmanuel on the phone from New York to find out everything we could about Sarah, how the series is out together - and the amazing story of how he ended up moving to Cleveland for a year for the show.
So what is the story behind your accent?
I was born in England, my parents are of Dominican and Ghanaian descent – we moved around a lot when I was a kid – when I was seven, we moved to Belgium for five years, then eventually ended up in Toledo Ohio, about two and a half hours from Cleveland. I grew up, went to High School, went to University. That’s the long story…
How did you end up working on Serial?
Sometimes I do wonder that! When I was at university I realised I was into radio journalism, particularly long-form storytelling. I jumped at the closest thing that was radio adjacent, so I started as an intern screening calls for a morning call-in show, deciding who would get on air… basically my job was to get yelled at for an hour by people who were angry I wasn’t putting them on. When I graduated I moved to Chicago and interned at the public radio station, WBEZ [where This American Life and Serial are produced], for a year, just trying to learn and get experience and do everything. Every minute I was in Chicago, I was either at the radio station or trying to freelance for small newspapers, which was great, because they would send me to different things every day and I got the opportunity to write and cover events. This American Life [Serial’s parent show] has a fellowship, like a six-month apprenticeship scheme. I was applying for jobs all over the place and I had been interning a long time and… I needed a real job, or something close to a real job. And it’s kind of crazy, TAL was a Hail Mary application, but they were the only show who got back to me. I got rejected from a station in Alaska – it was so remote that the posting included the fact that the town had just got a newspaper and a movie theatre. I was like, ‘If I can’t get hired in this town…’ and I didn’t. But the same day, TAL called and said they wanted to interview me. I came here for six months, then towards the end, the Executive Producer here at Serial, Julie Snyder, called me into her office and was like, ‘Hey, you’re from Ohio, right? We're thinking of doing some work in Cleveland, would you be willing to move out there, we need someone on the ground the whole time’. And I was like, ‘Yeah! Sure!’ I think I went away for like an hour to pretend to think it over.
And did you know that would turn out to be the new Serial?
I knew that it could be, but at that stage, at least in my mind, there was a question… we didn’t even know what shape the series might take. The way Serial and TAL works, if the story isn’t working, we’ll kill it – the kill-rate at TAL is famously high – so it was possible, but it was also possible it might not work. I hoped that wasn’t the case, because I was moving there! But you never know. I think I knew… I hoped it would be the new series of Serial. When we first got there, my job was to go to as much stuff as possible, find these people, find anything that was interesting. I was told, ‘If there’s something interesting, then go do it!’ which is kind of a reporter’s dream. This was the first time I’d been given a beat and it was like, you have to do this… and by the way, you have no real deadline.
When we hear you in the second episode, you're recording some pretty shocking stuff. Could you believe the stories that were unfolding?
It was a complicated feeling – as a reporter, you’re looking for things that are interesting. Before this, I’d spent some time in court houses, but I’d never sat down and watched the day to day and I think if you’ve not done that, it’s shocking. I remember the first time I watched a trial and at the conclusion, the defendant was found guilty on a couple of charges that meant she’d be serving anywhere from 20 to life, and she was a 55-year-old woman. Watching somebody lose their liberty when you’ve not seen that before, it’s a really sobering thing. I think at first, everything shocked me. One of the biggest comments I’ve had from people who’ve listened so far is, ‘You hear about stuff like this, but it’s still shocking to hear’. I think we know, we all know, courthouses are not a great place to be. So the discussions I’m hoping people are having about judges and how our system works, are ‘What does that mean for us, and what do we do with this?’
The show feels tonally different this season - how do you think it differs?
I didn’t work on the previous seasons, but I know one of the things I loved about working with Sarah [Koenig] is she’s such a brilliant, brilliant writer. I think often, that’s lost sometimes in the content of what she’s reporting, because what she’s reporting is so interesting we forget that what she’s doing in the way she’s writing her script is so well done. I think the biggest thing we’ve been able to do this season is to showcase that. There are also a lot more scenes and things happening live. With season one it was a case that had happened 20 years previously, second season there weren’t a lot of live things happening that we were giving your our impression of. But with this season, so much of what happened, we watched in real time. We're going to be observing and commenting a lot more and describing things we’ve noticed and inevitably when you’re telling stories that you yourself have experienced, you’re going to put more of yourself into that. That’s what I think is wonderful, that people are getting to hear so much more of Sarah’s thoughts because she was there and she’s such a great writer. The writing that goes into that first episode, describing the courthouse… it’s a humbling thing to hear that and then be like, ‘Oh I have to come in’. It’s a great one and I’m privileged to work with her.
What's the process of making Serial, from beginning to ending up on air?
Even before I’d been hired, Sarah and one of our producers, Dana Chivvris, were scouting out different courts to see where we’d have access – I think they settled on Cleveland early on. Then I got hired and there were already a couple of interesting cases we’d heard about that we would follow, then you go from there. People start telling you, ‘If you’re interested in this case, you should go here…’ and slowly, but surely you start following people for different things. Then there was a point maybe a quarter of the way through where we were following tons of different stories that were all interesting and looked like they could go somewhere. Then we followed those out to their conclusion. Then we sort of stepped back. Julie had been working on S Town, so once that finished, we were able to take all these stories and then they’ll sift through stories and together we sussed out what stories we were going to do over time. Eventually I moved back from Cleveland to New York, because most of the cases we were following were finished. Then we went away for a few months, came up with a story structure for how we wanted the season to go – then we started writing, then we start having edits, which are like table reads where we’ll read and perform bits of stories out loud and playing clips to give people an idea what it would sound like. Then we work and rework those and eventually it winds up in your ears.
What’s Sarah like, in real life and off mic?
I think one of the great things about Sarah is that the intelligent, curious person you hear, is the person that she is. It’s hard, sometimes the person you are when you write, isn’t the person you are when you’re speaking, but Sarah’s such a good writer, that basically that’s how she talks. She’s very down to earth, she’s a great boss. She would travel four hours by car each way to Cleveland, away from her kids for days at a time, back and forth – I’d always be struck by how much energy she would bring every single day to what we were doing. She’d get out of the car after a four hour drive and be like, ‘Ok, we are going to work and keep working until the moment I go to bed tonight, every single second counts’. It’s so nice when someone brings that enthusiasm and zeal to things. She makes all of us a lot better.
What’s it like being part of the biggest podcast in the world?
I guess it’s early days, so I don’t know if I’ve really had time to process that. But I do know it’s crazy to be making something that people are listening to and talking about. I remember the morning of the launch it was a bit like walking into the High School cafeteria – like I know somewhere out there people are talking about us, but I’m not sure what, or whether it’s good, and do I even want to know? It’s a real privilege – as a journalist, the best thing is when you spend a lot of time on a story, you want people to listen, you want people to hear it, or at least come across it. The opportunity to have an audience this big is really fantastic and of course, a major responsibility – and it’s something everyone here takes seriously. But also, nobody here thinks of themselves as better than anyone else, I think people take that responsibility and audience seriously and we hold ourselves to a really high standard. I think we’re aware, as we should be, about what people are saying on Twitter and what-not, but the best thing about working with talented people is that it’s less about what happens on the internet as it is, ‘We’ve set these standards for ourselves, I’m working with the best people in the business, I want to be as good as everyone else.’ It’s really humbling though. We’ve had conversations over the summer like, ‘This is so interesting to us, but is anybody else going to find it interesting?’ and so far, knock on wood, we’re glad people are listening.
Has your British accent served you well, working in America?
I think sometimes it’s a weird one for people, especially in Ohio, there aren’t exactly a load of black British people walking around. But I think yes and no. Yes in that it solidifies you as an outsider and sometimes people are more willing to be more honest with outsiders for whatever reason, than people within their community. But also, for that same reason it can be a bit of a handful. Often a big part of my job is convincing people to talk to us and they hear an English accent from an Ohio cell phone number, and they’re like, ‘Wait, is this a scam? Who are you? Where are you from? What do you want?’ Sometimes if anything it can lead to confusion. But one of the things that’s always surprised me about being in America, in a country where you’d think accents don’t mean as much as they maybe do in Britain, Americans think British accents think of it as giving you a level of credibility I sometimes wonder if I deserve!
Serial is released every Thursday, available on all podcast providers.