This post is a part of our People’s Insights monthly brief for November, called “Disrupt, or be Disrupted.”
Serial investigates a murder that took place at a Baltimore high school in 1999 and resulted in the suspect Adnan Syed receiving life imprisonment. It launched in October and quickly ramped up to become the fastest podcast to reach 5 million downloads and streams on the iTunes store, and topping charts in the US, the UK, Germany, Italy, Canada and Australia.
In 30-40 minute episodes every Thursday, the show’s host Sarah Koenig reveals more of the story and clues that could reveal who did it.
Mix of Formats
The show is told from the perspective of Koenig, as the host and reporter, and includes audio snippets recorded during the trial itself and during her subsequent interviews with people involved in the case.
It’s not a new type of story, Serial is about two teenagers from different backgrounds falling in love, separating, and one of them getting killed. It’s not even a new type of storytelling, but a mash-up of various established forms of storytelling: investigative reporting, episodic storytelling and podcasting in the style of a documentary.
But it’s notable because this mash-up hasn’t necessarily been done before. As The New Yorker’s Sarah Larson puts it, the show combines “the drama of prestige-television-style episodic storytelling” with “the portability of podcasts.”
It’s also interesting because the team behind Serial is still piecing together the story and doesn’t know how it will end. In fact, the show has been running in ‘real-time’ since the end of October, with new episodes being filmed each week. This allows the producers to include fresh evidence as we saw in episode 9, in which Koenig shared information she received from listeners of the show who were in Baltimore at the time of the murder. This also means listeners can’t “binge-listen” and catch up as is normal for Netflix viewers – listeners must tune in to know what happens next.
Serial has become a cultural phenomenon, occupying a part of daily conversations in a way typically reserved for popular TV shows and movies.
Serial has inspired memes, infographics, podcast parodies, podcasts that analyze the podcast, communities, debates, controversies… the producers have even received offers to turn the show into a movie (which they declined, for now).
Analysts and marketers believe that Serial might drive the mainstream adoption of podcasting by listeners alike, and some believe it might revive long-form investigative journalism.
As Josh Logue, a senior at University of Maryland explains:
“Serial’s success is good news. It’s proof that journalism, done right, can captivate online audiences, and for long stretches of time.”
If nothing else, it may give the show’s protagonist Adnan Syed a chance to prove his innocence – his appeal has finally been processed and a hearing been scheduled for January.
Listen to the podcast here: Serial Podcast