Podcasts are a relatively new medium of talk radio and journalism that are giving volume to new voices in the media world. ‘Serial,’ a podcast centered around investigative criminal reporting, is one of the loudest among them and currently sits third on Itunes list of top podcasts.
Serial, an offshoot of popular podcast, This American Life, gained unprecedented success when it first aired back in October of 2014, garnering a following of roughly 5 million people during its first season, which saw it rocket to the top of the aforementioned list. In its first season, narrator Sarah Koenig walks us through the story of Adnan Syed, a 17-year-old who was convicted of murdering his ex- girlfriend, Hae Min Lee in 1999, and was subsequently sentenced to life in prison. Syed plead, not guilty, and maintains his innocence to this day while he attempts to appeal the case.
The first episode, ‘The Alibi,’ immediately piqued my interest when it opened with a choice bit of nat sound; a ‘collect call’ introduction from a prison, notably featuring the subject, Adnan Syed. The robotic-sounding woman and grainy, garbled voice of Syed, immediately gives the piece, and the show itself, an air of authenticity.
Koenig spends the first episode setting the stage for what is to come, providing background and insight. One of the first things I noticed about her voice is it sounds like NPR. I enjoy NPR and consider them the standard in good radio journalism, which includes having the right talking voice. Her voice may not soothe the soul like Morgan Freeman, but she certainly gets me ready for story time.
Serial weaves the story together throughout the season, with each episode acting as a public accounting of Koenig’s reporting from the previous week. Rather than a news story, this makes Serial feel more like a live book on tape, with each chapter presented as it was finished.
A particularly industrious bit of reporting, featured in episode 5: Route Talk, included an attempt to recreate the supposed route and amount of time it took Syed to commit the murder. The prosecution said it took him 21 minutes to drive from the high school to the Best Buy parking lot and kill Lee. To which Syed responded by saying it is impossible to cover that distance and strangle someone to death in that amount of time. Koenig did the route in a little over 21 minutes.
The season ends with the mother of all loose ends. Syed was granted an appeal, which begins in June, but the truth is, we still don’t know if he did it. It’s like trying to solve the murder in Clue, but the envelope with the guilty cards has been sealed shut. However, that should not serve as a deterrent from listening to the show. Rather, any aspiring journalist would do well to listen to Serial, if only to see both a perfect example of tenacious, inspired reporting and witness a simple truth of journalism: real life stories are not obliged to satisfy a writer’s need for perfect arcs or neat endings and seldom do.