Creators of This American Life bring new life to radio drama.
As the age of shrinking attention spans and visual overstimulation marches on, the Serial podcast defies convention as a runaway hit. Season One came out in 2014 and was self-described as “One story. Told week by week.” Hosted by Sarah Koenig, it garnered nearly sixty million downloads over twelve episodes, which range in length from twenty-seven to fifty-five minutes. Each of the episodes was akin to a chapter of a racy mystery and revolved around the 1999 murder of Hae Min Lee, a popular Baltimore teenager. Her ex-boyfriend, Adnan Syed, was the lead suspect.
In Serial, Koenig takes listeners through the case, evidence (and lack there of), investigation, and trial. Over the course of a year of determined work, we hear her inner thoughts while she wrestles through the countless contradictory details of the case. As she questions and analyzes every turn, we’re actively involved in the investigation and reconstruction of the story. We’re privy and privileged to bits and pieces of interviews with the main players of the drama including Syed, who is now serving a life sentence for first-degree murder in a Maryland correctional facility.
A masterful storyteller and a keen, self-taught detective, Koenig weaves a tale that inspires binge listening. She invites us on her wild and dangerous journey with lines such as, “Someone is lying and I really wanted to figure out who,” and, “If you want to figure out this case with me, now is the time to start paying close attention because we’re at the heart of the thing.” We’re drawn into the story like a moth to flame, and before we know it we’re in the investigation with Koenig as our fearless, unrelenting leader.
2) “I think the odds of you getting the charming sociopath—you’re just not that lucky.”
- Deirdre Enright, The Innocence Project
3) “I told them the truth, I did not show them a location that was true.”
- Jay Wilds, Key Witness
4) “I don’t want to overdo it here, but it’s possible that had this bench conference not happened, Adnan’s whole life could have been different.”
- Sarah Koenig
5) “You go from my savior to my executioner on a flip-flop flip-flop…”
- Adnan Syed to Sarah Koenig
For many, all it took was a listen to the first minute of the first episode to become entangled in the case. It’s that compelling and confusing, which is a magical combination that breeds intense curiosity. The pieces of the case don’t line up, much less lock into place. Which of Lee and Syed’s friends are lying? The timeline is a mess and makes it impossible for Syed to be at the scene of the crime at the time of the murder. Or does it? We’re left wondering how a jury allowed a prosecutor to get away with such sloppiness and why the defense attorney did such a poor job of defending Syed. Every episode drops a bomb of additional questions and takes us further down the rabbit hole.
As the only podcast to ever win a Peabody Award, which recognizes distinguished and meritorious public service by American media makers, Serial is a testament to the power of reinvention. In this case, the reinvention is the use of the radio drama as a powerful and emotional medium. It serves as proof that people love nothing better than a good story that makes us think as much as it entertains us. Give us a juicy enough hook, drop just the right amount of bread crumbs on the path, and we’ll follow you to the ends of the earth. Koenig’s gift, shared with her immensely talented team, is her reverence and respect for spin and its use in the justice system.
“The trouble with spin is you can’t ignore it because somewhere swirling around inside of it is a tendril that’s true,” she says.
That tendril is what we’re all looking for throughout every moment of Serial’s twelve roller coaster episodes. We want that golden ticket, for our own intellectual satisfaction, and for the sake of justice, for both Hae Min Lee and Adnan Syed. To her deep credit, Koenig raises enough doubt to make us adamantly want a retrial, and we’re not alone.
Peabody Award aside, the attention the case received from Serial prompted the Maryland Court of Special Appeals to send Syed’s case back to a lower court. This is a tremendous break for Syed and his legal team because it allows them to file a request to reopen the case. It’s a small, albeit important, step for Syed—whether he and his legal team will succeed, remains to be seen.
What is for sure is that Serial has a tremendous opportunity, and an equivalent amount of pressure, to deliver the same quality show in Seasons Two and Three that they created in Season One.
Season Two began with a bang in December 2015 and immediately captured its audience.
In the middle of the night, Pfc. Bowe Bergdahl grabs a notebook, snacks, water, some cash. Then he quietly slips off a remote U.S. Army outpost in eastern Afghanistan and into the dark, open desert. About 20 minutes later, it occurs to him: he’s in over his head.
[©Image 2 courtesy of Meredith Heuer; Image 3 courtesy of Elise Bergerson]
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