“Serial”: Podcast That Captivated The Attention Of Millions

From left, Dana Chivvis, Emily Condon, Sarah Koenig, Ira Glass and Julie Snyder are the team behind the "Serial" podcast.
From left, Dana Chivvis, Emily Condon, Sarah Koenig, Ira Glass and Julie Snyder are the team behind the “Serial” podcast.

Is Adnan Syed guilty or innocent? The question that remains unanswered in the fastest podcast ever to reach 5 million downloads and streams in iTunes’ history, according to Apple.

Over the course of twelve episodes, the “Serial” podcast, narrated by Sarah Koenig, an experienced This American Life producer/journalist, re-investigates a murder of a Baltimore high school student Hae Min Lee, back in 1999. Adnan Syed, Lee’s ex-boyfriend was charged of strangling her to death and is currently serving a life sentence plus 30 years. But this is not a clear-cut case. Syed’s conviction was based on testimony from his friend, Jay (identified only by first name in the podcast) who said he helped him bury the body.

“It is the one that came to me”, said Koenig about why is she so crazy about this particular case, “it came right to my lap. If I can help get to the bottom of it, why shouldn’t I try?”

“Serial” drags people in because it is a story about real people. Listeners anticipate what is coming next because each episode goes deeper into a single story. Plot and characters unfold from episode to episode. We feel like we’re walking along with Koenig as she interviews people and goes through police documents and reports.

Sound effects that are coming from cellphone conversations and taped interviews and hearings make us feel like we are witnessing the crime scene and that we are present in the case. Good combination of music, natural sounds and seamless transitions build up to the drama.

Great example of  natural sound was the use of a recording from a hearing when the prosecutor confirmed that he received a letter from Asia McClain where she discredited her earlier alibi statement. In her letter, McClain wrote that she saw Syed in the library at the time of the murder. Later, she said that she was pressured by her family.

Koenig gives us information in an particular order. New evidences and mysteries arise with each new episode.  We are always eager to find out what comes next. Her voice is pleasant, literate and witty. The script is conversational, casual and never boring. True-life crime stories are always fascinating to everyone. Also, Koenig’s personality comes through very easily and listeners feel like they know her. Sometimes she is serious, sometimes she laughs and sometimes she is very frustrated with how Syed’s case was handled by the authorities.

“That’s not a strategy, that’s a fuck up,” said Koenig about miscarriage of justice regarding McClain, potential alibi witness.

Koenig is great in engaging other people and incorporating different voices into the podcast. In each episode there are as many as 10 voices. From Jay, Asia, Don, Josh, Adnan and everyone else who was involved in the case. 

After 15 months of reporting, in the last episode, Koenig gathered all the evidence, interviews, documents and cell records to way everything. Many discrepancies and conflicting statements were evaluated. Often times there is silence  before transitions that is not awkward but welcomed.

“Problem with speculation is that you can’t prove it so you have to drop it,” Koenig said in the last episode. Podcasts ends with an uncertainty of who really killed Lee 15 years ago. Koenig presented all sides of the story as  true investigative reporters do, and she gave us an opportunity to make our own conclusions.





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