Review: The Podcast “Serial”

This is the post where I am officially joining the quickly-expanding fan club of Serial (Website | iTunes), the new audio podcast spin-off from Ira Glass’s public radio program, This American Life.

It joins Chicago’s WBEZ’s incredible lineup of podcasts that are setting a high standard for the production and distribution of media that are opening eyes (but more importantly, ears) for a coming revival of audio programming unmatched since the golden age of radio (which I’m not old enough to recall personally, despite rumors to the contrary).

Unlike This American Life’s format that devotes each episode to the telling of 3-4 stories (or, “acts”) related to one theme., Serial, as described on its website,  is “a podcast where we unfold one nonfiction story, week by week, over the course of a season. We’ll stay with each story for as long as it takes to get to the bottom of it.”

Each podcast is around 40-50 minutes and is produced with the “new journalism” meets new digital editing meets un-broadcast-announcer-sounding voice that Ira Glass has pioneered (and has influenced the style and pace of much of what NPR “sounds” like). Each podcast is released on Thursday morning and unlike any other podcast I’ve subscribed to, a large community of listeners has sprung up across the internet to analyze episodes in depth (a common phenomenon these days with popular TV shows).

During the first season, Serial is examining the case of Baltimore murder victim Hae Min Lee and the person convicted of her murder, Adnan Syed, who is serving a life sentence for the crime. Here is how the show’s website sets up the season:

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.

New journalism of the late 1960s-70s borrowed heavily from literary conventions of fiction writing. In a rather revolutionary fashion on the pages of Rolling Stone and Esquire and other magazines, writers / reporters interjected themselves into the narrative and, at times (Hunter Thompson springs to mind), became a leading character in the fiction-like non-fiction narrative.

The style of This American Life (and other programs, notably Radio Labs), is for the reporter to take on the role of narrator, explainer and even, at times, apologist or advocate for a particular point of view. For the most part (there is one notable exception), This American Life’s form of journalism has provided both an entertaining and informative interpretation of phenomena few of us actually know about before, nor would ever think we would care about.

This approach goes many steps farther with Serial. Sarah Koenig, host and executive producer of the program, is not only the narrator-reporter, she has become (after six episodes) a leading character in the narrative. It’s a murder mystery and if you know the genre, you know there’s the need for Sherlock Holmes, Jessica Fletcher, et al. As it’s non-fiction, her  search for answers has taken on elements of a reality show in which we are now beginning to wonder about her reasons for doing the investigation and her response to what she is learning.

Why journalists are loving Serial

In this age where those who run media companies have been advised to slice and dice “content” up to its lowest common denominator and then rewrite the text so that it first, and foremost, pleases the ever-changing algorithms of Google, it’s amazing to experience long form media delivered through the tubes of the internet. The series has already run a few thousand words past the longest of articles one would find in The New Yorker.

Journalists are seeing in Serial some dream gig: the chance to dig in and use all the time and resources imaginable to do a story on a crime that no one knows about and that isn’t as clear-cut as the conventional and expected story of a convicted murder: the sudden discovery of DNA proof that he’s the wrong man.

What journalists may be missing

Because I listen to so many audio books while riding my bike (with an earplug in one ear only), many of them non-fiction, the Serial podcast has a bit different context to me. It’s like a brand new way to experience someone telling me a story that stretches 500 pages and a dozen hours. Except with Serial, “the audiobook” is presented in a way that no audio book I’ve ever experienced has (except, perhaps, the audiobook version of Katharine Graham’s autobiography that is so powerful when narrated by her, I can’t imagine reading it in print.)

Rather than being a murder mystery, Serial is becoming a story about a journalist trying to determine the mystery of whether or not there is a story in the murder. It’s like an author of an audio book is writing the book in real time, sharing with us the pieces that have to come together and the frustrations when they don’t.

Bottomline, it’s great storytelling. That it’s being distributed via podcast is just icing on the cake.

What others are saying about Serial (a tiny sampling):

A note on podcasting

Thanks, Dave.