I don’t normally listen to podcasts, but I have a soft spot for the soothing voices and euphonic names found on NPR. Moreover, while I love crime and courtroom dramas on television and Netflix, many of them have gotten so grisly that they have become difficult to watch. Thankfully, This American Life producers Sarah Koenig and Julie Synder have come to my rescue with the absorbing new podcast Serial. Serial takes many things from TAL, but by telling the story across a season, rather than an episode, it allows listeners to delve deeper and become more invested in the story. Each season will cover one story, lasting roughly 10-15 episodes, until the storyline is sufficiently resolved. This is a fresh approach to the largely static format of long-form journalism. Also, it’s one of the most original media ideas I have seen in a long time.
Though not explicitly a whodunit podcast, the first season will explore the 1999 murder of Hae Min Lee, a senior at Woodlawn High School in Baltimore County, MD. Last seen at her school during a January afternoon leading up to a freak ice-storm, Lee was found dead in a city park roughly a month later. The cause of death was strangulation, and her ex-boyfriend, and fellow Woodlawn senior, Adnan Syed was charged and convicted of killing her on the testimony of his friend. He is now serving a life sentence in prison, but continues to maintain his innocence. His friend, Rabia Chaundry who now works as an immigration lawyer, contacted Sarah Koenig, who as mentioned is now with NPR, and was formerly a reporter for the Baltimore Sun where she had written articles covering the disbarring of a lawyer in Baltimore. This same lawyer was Syed’s defense lawyer, and his trial was her final criminal trial.
Chaundry blogged about her decision to reach out to Koenig:
For 15 years I’ve believed Adnan as he’s held on to his innocence. It has been a drawn out trauma for those of us who know and love Adnan. I’ve run around with his case files for years, sometimes in the trunk of my car, sometimes storing them at my mothers, sometimes at Adnan’s parents…Over 5 years, then 10, then 15 many details faded, but a few remained rock solid. Parts of his trial, the visits to him, the appeals, the people involved in the case—it was snips of a movie…But it wasn’t a movie. It was his life…For the past year [after we met] Sarah and her team have tracked down all the players in this case, examined very document, found things we never knew, got gasp-inducing interviews, and bore as deep as one could get into the details that both make and break the case.
Though Chaundry makes her bias towards Syed’s innocence apparent, the production team continually checks that they are maintaining a reporter’s objectivity. In a story over a year in the making and involving such prolonged contact with their subjects, Koenig admits such a goal has its difficulties:
I’m struggling with separating my personal feelings about people from what they’re telling me and what the reporting is telling me to do. I have to check myself a lot to make sure, am I being fair to everybody? Obviously, in any story you’re trying to be careful, but if you don’t know somebody, you’re freer. They’re not friends, exactly, but I know them and they know me and now we’ve got that responsibility to each other. So that’s definitely different.
“Different” is the perfect word to describe Serial. Though it shares the careful story structuring and information presentation of This American Life, this season reminds me far more of one of the serials of radio’s golden age: Dick Tracy or The Adventures of Philip Marlow for the Netflix and YouTube era. In fact, I didn’t entirely realize it was a news report until the second episode, it flows that naturally.
As much as it sounds like a crime story on tape, we are constantly facing the reality that these are all real people: reporters trying to dig out the truth. One of these characters is lying but for listeners and reporters alike, there is a real ambiguity present as this story unfolds. As Kelsey Miller writes, “All we can be certain of is that 15 years ago a teenager was killed, and another one went to prison. Someone knows the truth, but he or she is not telling.” Serial allows that macro question of “who killed Lee?” as the foundation through which we explore other questions about how we live. How accurate are your recollections? What makes those memories more accurate? What is enough evidence to declare the truth? Are people what they seem? How can we know the truth? How can our courts?
Though many of us do not have stories near as dramatic as Serial is presenting, these sorts of questions relate to our lives as well. We all tell stories: we hold grudges, judge others, judge ourselves, and present ourselves through our past. But as the interviewees demonstrate, three people can see the same thing happen and have utterly different accounts mere weeks later. A crime drama which points to a deeper human drama outside of psychoses is rare in entertainment today. So far, Serial has done an excellent job of blending the two aspects to this story in a completely natural way.
As Koenig has said, Serial is “about the basics: love and death and justice and truth. All these big, big things.” As a listener, you begin to believe the characters, and each strike to a testimony of a favorite character forces us to re-evaluate our own judgment. Each fact or new testimony offers us a new glimpse at why we were previously biased, forcing us to confront our individual thoughts on these basics, in a very particular, very real set of circumstances.
Serial took roughly one episode to become my newest commute obsession. It’s a story you will take with you into your day and week, as you wait for the next installment. Frankly, I don’t think I have ever been this intentionally excited for an aural drama, well, ever. I’m just about on pins and needles waiting for this week’s episode, which was the explicit goal editorial advisor Ira Glass had in mind.
We’re trying to compete with, like, HBO and Netflix, and basically the way that people watch TV, which is, you get hooked on Game of Thrones or House of Cards or whatever show it is, and then you just want to hear every episode, or see every episode. And this will basically allow you to do that, but you can do it while you’re driving.
So far, they have hit that target fantastically. What is incredible is how this style of journalism manages to truly humanize its subjects. I find myself in complete agreement with Glass here: I too am “very curious to see how it goes.”