Unless you’ve been living under a rock without access to the internet, you will have already heard about the podcast Serial. A much-hyped spin off of the already successful This American Life, Serial has generated interest like no other podcast I think of since the early days of Ricky Gervais almost 10 years ago.
Here’s a quick precis if you have missed. it. Serial is the work of some of the This American Life team based at WBEZ in Chicago. Overseen by the very talented Ira Glass Serial does something a bit different, as rather than being a collection of stories told in single episodes,this is one story told over multiple episodes. The story in question is a 1999 murder in Baltimore. A suspect was found, arrested and convicted. The problem is the evidence, is at best shaky. So, Serial is a sort of a cold case murder mystery – although, it’s not.
On January 13, 1999, a girl named Hae Min Lee, a senior at Woodlawn High School in Baltimore County, Maryland, disappeared. A month later, her body turned up in a city park. She’d been strangled. Her 17-year-old ex-boyfriend, Adnan Syed, was arrested for the crime, and within a year, he was convicted and sentenced to spend the rest of his life in prison. The case against him was largely based on the story of one witness, Adnan’s friend Jay, who testified that he helped Adnan bury Hae’s body. But Adnan has always maintained he had nothing to do with Hae’s death. Some people believe he’s telling the truth. Many others don’t.
Of course the media tackles stories like this all the time, what is new here is that this isn’t on broadcast media it’s a podcast. After turning their radio show into a podcast hit, the team clearly felt the opportunity was there to do something different in this space. What they have created has been a hit from the start. Podcast fans knew it was coming, they even made a video to tell people who don’t listen to podcasts how to listen to this one.
It’s perhaps interesting to note that even at this point, they don’t let on what the story is going to be – even though they’d been working on this for about a year. Maybe it’s journalism, maybe it’s not. We’re just told it’s going to be good, and it’s going to be big. Something about it caught our attention, it could be the fact that by the end of first episode there were more questions than answers. It could also be that the host was as confused as we were, Koenig is quite about the fact that they are making these as they go and she flips between guilt and innocence as she goes. This feels like a brave move for any journalist or storyteller. Not only do they not seem to know where the story will go, but they’ve no idea how it will end – but, end it must as they’re only planning 12 episodes. The wonder if it’s partly our desire to second guess the story
This is The Wire of podcasts. Like the acclaimed television drama, it takes a novelistic approach. Just as one would not open a book in the middle and hope to understand what was going on, Serial needs to be listened to from episode one and in order. It cannot be dipped in and out of but, fortunately, one wouldn’t want to as it’s utterly addictive. Like The Wire, the series is predominantly concerned with crime and racial tension in Baltimore, it has redefined people’s expectations of the medium and, while David Simon’s masterpiece is considered by many to be the greatest TV show ever made, Serial might just be the best podcast.
They are not alone in wondering if this is not only the best podcast ever, but also the most successful ever. This story from Salon puts the success down to timing Podcasts are a blossoming medium at the moment because they are free, easy to find and sample, and once subscribed to, they obligingly turn up on your smartphone, a device that 60 percent of Americans now possess, whether you go looking for them or not. There may be some truth in that. Many commentators in the US are saying that podcasting is enjoying a The mobile networks may be partly to blame here, kicking our FM chips from handsets and pushing radio into the background on smart dashboards. What is there is the podcast app, usually Stitcher. Maybe it’s also smarter people are in the game. For example, the collective have been hugely successful in kickstarter projects, most recently setting a goal $250,000 and more than doubling it with over 200,000 listeners chipping in just over $620,000 to build out their podcast network. Admittedly, these are mainly US market shows, often drawn from the PRX public radio shows that back the network. That aside, something is going on and Serial has been able to surf that wave. Perhaps more will follow.
The show itself, though, is incredible. There’s mountains of real journalism here. Real journalism, the sort that involves reading piles of papers, hunting down records, knocking on doors and hunting out people who don’t want to talk to you. They’ve done all of this, all on tape and played out for us to hear. We also hear their worries about the story,and the implications of it all. What they are quite clear about is this is not a campaign to free Adnan, although that doesn’t stop the media , if their investigation supports the conviction, then that’s an end to it say the team. This is about the story, about the questions, and the human side to what happens in a case like this. If you’ve ever listened to anything from This American Life you will know that they tell stories exceptionally well. They craft them, using words, music and actuality brilliantly. There’s a narrative, and a definite palate to the techniques they use.
Whatever the key is, they have a hit. It’s claimed it’s the fastest ever podcast to reach 5 million downloads and is number one in iTunes on 3 continents. It’s spawned praise from journalists around the world, as well listening parties, and redditors busily doing their own investigating and speculating. There’s even a podcast dedicated to picking over the content of the podcast, a podcast fancast seems like something new to me – at least to this extent. So, maybe it’s the narrative that has us hooked? Personally, I think it’s a perfect storm. The story is solid, and well told; the success of their previous work gives the team not only a platform to sell their new idea but also the credibility to suggest it will be worthy of our time. There’s also the renewed interest in podcasts, fuelled by the rise of smart devices in cars and pockets. The Ricky Gervais podcast had this. It was something new, it felt different and the more people who turn it, the more who follow. Perhaps it’s the fixed release date, where we need to wait for the new episode to drop, playing heavily on the tricks of event based TV like Dr Who. All these have come together, and maybe other podcasts will see bigger audiences as listeners start browsing their podcast apps. This could be the tipping point, where podcasting grows up and listeners (and sponsors) take it seriously. It could equally be something we look back on favourably and wonder when it will transfer to TV. Whatever happens, listen now so at least you’ll know what everyone else is talking about