‘Serial’ Sets New Standard For Well-Produced Podcasts

With over five million listeners, the podcast “Serial” and its unprecedented success gave momentum to the new medium of podcasting, that had been struggling to take off in the past years. It was the number one podcast on iTunes when it first came out in October 2014 and has set a new standard for podcasting.

Questioning the ­accuracy of every bit of information she is given … Sarah Koenig
Sarah Koenig, the narrator and reporter for the “Serial” podcast uses all of the right elements of a good audio story that allowed her podcast to reach the number one spot in iTunes upon its release.

After the first few minutes of “Episode 1: The Alibi,” listeners become engrossed in the story, for its murder-mystery appeal and it’s award winning reporting. Most recently, the Chicago Public Media won the Jack R. Howard Award for in-depth radio coverage from the Scripts Howard Foundation.

The judge said of Koenig’s reporting, “’Serial’ broke new ground in engaging an audience in long-form investigative reporting. Sarah Koenig’s journalism and her storytelling made the public stop and just listen. Her ongoing search for the truth, as well as her transparency and humility in the reporting progress, was engrossing and set a new standard for all of us.”

Not only was the sound quality smooth and the pacing of the vocals comfortable, but the idea of following a journalist step-by-step through a story as intriguing and high stakes as this was difficult to resist.

Sarah Koenig, the investigative reporter and narrator, doesn’t bait you a sensational way or give away too much, too soon. Rather, she takes you on her journey from when the story “landed in her lap” through each step she took to try and solve it. She also takes the listener through what was known at the beginning of the police investigation through the different components that were discovered and investigated through the following years. Each one of her episodes picks at a different aspect of the case where Koenig does an in-depth analysis.

Though her reporting may have felt disjointed, how she presents the story is clear and engaging to the listener. It doesn’t matter that the episodes jump back and forth in time and in outlook, because Koenig is right there with you in the moment that you’re listening to the podcast, sorting through the facts to try and figure out the same mystery that the listener is. All of her episodes in the twelve chapter series are like this.

She tries to be as transparent about the story as she can, which is especially shown through the large variety of sources that she uses. Koenig makes sure to try and contact everyone that she mentions in her podcasts, and tells the listener why they refused to share their last name or to go on tape at all. This especially comes in handy when the listener finds out why they haven’t heard from Jay, when in Episode 8: The Deal with Jay, Koenig tells the listener how hard she tried to get in touch with him, and how he responded. She carries this standard with all of her sources. Serial

When she tells the listener that she doesn’t know something, or shares her own personal doubts or struggles in pursuing the case, the listener is right there with her, perhaps feeling the same internal struggle over whether Adnan committed the murder, or whether it was really Jay, or Mr. S., or someone else. And who doesn’t want an opportunity to play Sherlock Holmes on a real murder case? Or at least, indulge that desire from behind a pair of headphones.

The podcast is pleasing to the ear. The track itself is completely smooth and no transition between interview sound bites or different topics is ever noticeable or awkward. Also, Sarah Koenig’s voice as the narrator makes all the difference. The pace of her words is slow, but never boring as she gives you a chance to take in and digest the different facts of the case and the pitch of her voice is neutral, not too high or too low, and it’s tone is calming, allowing a listener to listen to episode after episode without growing tired or irritated with her voice.

Koenig uses a lot of sources, most of which is was able to get on the podcast, which not only shows the high-level of thorough reporting that she did, but her knowledge of what makes podcasts interesting to listen to.

Her use of natural sound adds to the story, like in “Episode 5: Route Talk” when she and her producer, Danna Chivvis, try and make the journey from the end of the school day at Woodlawn High School, out to the Best Buy parking lot in the 21 minutes, the amount of time that prosecutors said that it took from Adnan to supposedly kill Hae Lee.

A person’s personality can oftentimes come through in the sound of their voice, so adding all of the different sources not only adds support for the story, but makes listening more colorful. For example, clips from the trial where Adnan’s attorney Cristina Gutierrez was speaking to the judge or cross-examining witnesses show a new personality in the case. Koenig alludes to the fact that Gutierrez may not have been entirely mentally stable, and whether or not that’s true, you can get a sense of her erratic and eccentric attitude by listening to her voice, as it swoops dramatically up and down the scale in an unnatural sounding way.

Season 2 of Serial will be coming out before the the end of 2015, hosted by This American Life, a radio talk-show.

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