If you listen to podcasts, or are remotely interested in accumulating this strange form of cultural capital, then you are most likely familiar with season one of “Serial.” “Serial” was the fastest podcast to reach five million downloads on the iTunes store, and it topped the charts for months, even after the conclusion of its first season. After its release in 2014, it also won a Peabody award in 2015. Largely considered the first breakout podcast, and paving the way for fellow NPR darling “S-Town” and the controversial “Missing Richard Simmons,” “Serial” became a cultural phenomenon. Season one of the show continues to captivate listeners, even as subsequent seasons have proved to be less than stellar.
Serial is the brainchild of reporter Sarah Koenig. After receiving a phone call from Rabia Chaudry, a family friend of Adnan Syed, a man who, while still in high school, had been found guilty of his ex girlfriend Hae Min Lee’s murder in 1999 , Koenig heads to Baltimore to dive into a case that was supposedly closed over a decade ago. In interviews with Chaudry, Koenig presents a side to Syed that prosecutors tried to cover up. A loving son, devoted friend, and the golden boy of Baltimore’s Woodlawn High School, Syed had to have been wrongly convicted. Koenig then tries to break down this persona, revealing to her listeners that she worries that she herself will be manipulated by Syed’s charm. Through phone calls with him, listeners get to hear this charm, and that makes Koenig’s efforts to find out what really happened to Hae Min Lee more understandable.
In the end, Koenig doesn’t offer any sort of conjecture about Syed’s innocence or guilt. She admits that she doesn’t know. Some friends say he did it; some deny he would ever harm anyone. Some experts call the work done by Baltimore police negligent and a gross mishandling of justice; others say that they would have done the exact same thing. It’s a case without answers. While Syed will be receiving a new trial due to publicity from the podcast, Koenig leaves listeners wondering, much as she does herself, what exactly happened to Hae Min Lee that January afternoon so long ago.
True-crime podcasts have become a staple of the industry. The 2017 series “Atlanta Monster” models itself after “Serial” pretty closely. The series follows journalist Payne Lindsey as he investigates the Atlanta Child Murders that took place in 1979-1981. As in “Serial,” Lindsey conducts phone interviews with Wayne Williams, the man who was convicted of the murders and still maintains his innocence, as he traces the original investigation in an attempt to find out what really happened. Also like “Serial,” and probably to the frustrations of many listeners, “Atlanta Monster” leaves it up to listeners to decide who they want to believe, which has become a trope of the genre. More often than not, these shows expose different issues, such as the mishandlings of the justice system or the ways in which a crime affects a certain community. No one has any answers, but we’ll spend ten hours binging the evidence.
Even though “Atlanta Monster” didn’t receive as much acclaim as “Serial,” it gained attention because the format established by “Serial” works. The ambient soundscape used by both shows of people chattering in the background, leaves in the park where the body was found, or the sounds of doors being slammed in the reporter’s face are immersive. They allow the listener to follow their reporter to the very scene of the crime and feel as though they are solving the problem right alongside them. The scratchy audio of recorded phone calls with prison inmates has started to become cliche and overdone in the years since “Serial,” but we still listen and love to become involved in the story. Because at the end of the day, listeners don’t want to be told a story; we want to experience a story, or at least be given the illusion that we are experiencing the story alongside the journalists who have more authority than we could ever have. Koenig acts as though she knows just as much as listeners do even though she’s always ten steps ahead of her audience. But she lets the audience feel connected to the action in way that makes us all amateur detectives. This is the genius of “Serial,” and this is why we still talk about it. Sarah Koenig is the perfect clueless investigator, wondering out loud at every twist and turn in the evidence, and this makes us trust her. We trust her to tell us the truth, not proclaim to know all the answers, and to feed our morbid fascination with crime. This genre definitely has offshoots that stray from the strict reporting style of “Serial.” Comedic true crime shows such as “My Favorite Murder” and “The Last Podcast on the Left” stray from this mold through a non scripted conversation about a different crime each week, but this is for a niche audience and will probably never reach the same kind of cultural acclaim that Koenig’s show has. Even as the true crime podcast genre continues to explode, we will probably keep talking about “Serial,” and not just because we want to know if Adnan Syed really killed Hae Min Lee.
Featured image courtesy of serialpodcast.org