Was Serial Special?

Posted on April 3, 2015October 14, 2015Posted in Words

 As I’ve already posted, I am fascinated by Serial. Not just the podcast itself, but the reaction to it. A few months ago I set up a google alert to keep a track of stories, posts and other news about it, and whilst the number returns is smaller than it was there’s still a couple of stories a week that add something new to the story. Clearly, other people are still as fascinated about it as I am. It also seems that new people are also still discovering the series as well, with new tweets popping up everyday as another listener disappears down the rabbit hole. There certainly is something about it. Back in February Ira Glass told a journalist they were still getting 500,000 downloads a day for the show, and in March Dana Chivvis from the show told Miranda Sawyer they’d passed 75 million downloads . Now, that sounds impressive but if we assume they’re counting each episode as single downloads, and we assume that everyone who downloads the first episode will then get hooked and get the rest, then you do end up with a more realistic figure of 6.2 million listeners. That said, 6 million listeners for something they expected would manage a few 100,000 is remarkable. But, not only did listeners go slightly mad Serial, so did the media. Journalists talked it Serial making podcasting mainstream, with the New York Times’ (now late) media reporter David Carr calling it the mediums first hit. If you look at the media hype, he’s probably right. The numbers were good, but the NPR podcast Invisibillia stormed past Serial in early 2015 with a bunch of new subscriptions. Of course, it’s these new listeners that are problem. ITunes uses new subscriptions and comments to create their charts, so if a stack of people are hitting subscribe on their iPhones then that will push a show up the chart. If what they makes them want to say something, or voice an opinion, then that too adds scores to the door and will push it up the chart. You’ll perhaps have seen the video that Ira Glass did promote Serial, now that will have helped. As will the first episode going as a special version of This American Life    . This is a fantastic kick start, as no doubt the people who love the show would like Serial – not least because the team work to the rules Ira Glass put in place for This American Life. It sounds like the spin off it is. Same people, same rules, same level of journalism. But therein lies the problem. As Aaron Crocco points out on medium, not everyone gets that advantage. Most podcasters have to come the long way round of pushing out show after show, hoping the audience will grow. It’s not easy. But, if like Serial or Invisibillia you can launch on 260+ radio stations across the US and on of the worlds biggest podcasts then you have an advantage. Let’s assume you can use another show to promote you, hopefully you can persuade their listeners to subscribe. If you can, that could well give enough of a spike to get you into the iTunes chart – which in turn could then scoop up more subscriptions from the people who missed your promotion but spotted you when wondering what the heck to listen to! Bit by bit, you might build an audience. The problem is, are you adding new ears?

Awareness of Serial

When Edison looked at Serial as part of their Infinite Dial survey at the start of 2015, they found that actually a fairly small number of people were aware of Serial – but the awareness rate amongst podcast listener was much higher. Not surprising, since research from 2014 by the same team said that podcast listeners were prolific. Not only did they spend more time with podcasts that any other audio form, they listener to a lot. So, when promoting something new you might be pushing at an open door – especially if Ira Glass is holding it open for you. It can help as well if, like Alex Blumberg, your former employer lets you tell your audience where you’re going, If you’re at all interested in podcasting, you should listen StartUp as it’s fascinating insight into the world – it’s also a well told story and uses many of the same approaches that worked in Serial, but they’ve also taken a great approach to the ads.   Blumberg hopes that his new podcast business, Gimlet, can be the one that breaks through and becomes the Netflix of audio. Certainly, the timing seems right. There is renewed interest in podcasting. So, what made Serial special? Well, it benefitted from all of the above. A good start is important, but then plenty of movies and Tv shows have hired big stars only to see them flop. There has to be something worthwhile once you get there, and Serial did that. The Ira Glass school of radio has some great graduates. They know how to tell a good story, and the one they found was really good. There was much with which to engage, which journalists, academics and listeners all did. For them, it was all about the story, and the ethics.  Yes, let’s not forget the ethics. Especially when the star witness who declined to appear in Serial went on the record. Of course, Serial could have had all of this and not gained traction. Serial was actually a combination of elements. They had a good start (what a Gimlet investor described in Start Up as an ‘unfair advantage’) and found a good story, which they crafted and crafted well. Timing was a factor here, because this is the age of the app – where apps like Stitcher are now appearing on the dashboards of luxury cars. This means that there are devices out there ready for content. Podcasting in the past was a faff, and the temptation was stick with what you know. Now you can read a tweet about a podcast on the bus and be listening to it a minute later. So, the question is will we see another Serial? Will season two be as big as season one? Well, they’ve got an audience hooked – so the first episode is already eagerly awaited. If they can find the right story it should do well. Other producers should see hope in the success, but let’s be realistic. Even in the most developed market only around 33% of the population has EVER listeners. That’s a good number, but in podcasting that may be less important, as there is evidence to suggest that the intimacy of podcasts means that audiences are more likely to engage with the advertising. Serial was good. It was well made. It had a great story and did a great job in getting people to talk about podcasting again. It raised the benchmark for podcasters, but we can only hope that those who follow will use their own skills, ideas and creativity to make their mark – rather than copy Serial.


These are all thoughts that I’ve been developing for a conference paper. Once it’s all ready, I’ll post it here together with some of the results of a survey I did last year amongst some Serial listeners.