Serial is an exciting, maybe dangerous model for podcasting

By making its audience part of an investigation, Serial has opened Pandora's Box.

click to enlarge Sarah Koenig in the Serial offices. - Elise Bergerson/NPR
Elise Bergerson/NPR
Sarah Koenig in the Serial offices.

Like millions of people (and millions and millions and millions), I recently finished up Serial, the 12-part podcast about the real-life 1999 trial and conviction of high schooler Adnan Sayed for the murder of his ex-girlfriend, Hae Min Lee.

At first listen, I was surprised that Serial had become so popular, so quickly. It is without question the most popular podcast of all time, with legions of rabid online fans who debated the merits of each episode with a passion usually reserved for Mad Men. 30,000 Reddit users turned into amateur analysts and sleuths.

This surprised me, but not because Serial wasn’t great. I’m certainly not immune to the charms of the show’s derpy host/shamus, Sarah Koenig (I mean, my god, I’m not a monster). It’s not that I didn’t find the show’s story gripping, or have plenty of opinions about it. (Of course that lawyer was incompetent. And clearly, clearly Jay is hiding something. Just listen to the calculating little smoothie).

I was surprised by Serial’s insane popularity because its parent show, This American Life, is just as great, consistently, week in, week out, and has been for decades. Sarah Koenig herself has been on staff at This American Life for since 2004, reporting powerful stories the whole time. Serial sounds very much like This American Life, in its editing, in its pacing, in the way it frames voices.

But a few things make Serial more than just an extended This American Life episode.

For one, the extra space was used, not only for telling a more complex and intricate story, but for reflections on the nature of reporting itself. It’s a particularly fascinating listen for any writer, as you get to hear Koenig and her team weigh their evidence and debate how to tell their story.

And the real humdinger is that those decisions were actually being made as the podcast was recorded. Episodes of This American Life are fully reported and neatly tied up before they air each week, but Serial’s first episode aired while the reporters were still investigating. That meant that not only fans, but people actually involved in the story, could hear the show and interact with it.

As Serial was broadcast, people offered new information, and contested conclusions as they were being recorded. Real-life events, triggered by the show, changed the course of the show. The story itself was the story. That’s true to some degree of all journalism, but it’s rarely — I’m tempted to say never — been so central to the appeal of a project.

Some people have understandably critiqued Serial on ethical grounds for exactly this point. There’s some common DNA here with interactive reality television, as Serial became a kind of game for many of its listeners — but with real people’s lives on the line. People who had left these traumatic 15-year-old events behind them had to dredge up old memories. Trouble was definitely caused.

We can be sure new shows will follow the Serial model, taking advantage of the ease of digital production and the willingness of The Internet to pitch in on big projects. There will be a lot more cold cases dug up by amateur sleuths, or perhaps corruption investigations taken up by crusading journalists.

That’s not necessarily all for the good. Though she’s been critiqued, Koenig is an experienced and ethical journalist, backed up by a responsible organization. But the internet has no filter for competence or ethics, and Serial knockoffs could just as easily become vendettas disguised as investigations, digital witch hunts and harassment channeled through this fresh and exciting form. What if, say, #Gamergate had been a podcast, in which the harassment of women were chronicled weekly?

But any new technology or format carries very similar risks. Serial is just one way that podcasting is growing up, evolving past its roots as "radio online."

To see where things go from here, download next week’s episode.

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