Anyone who’s a fan of the podcast Serial knows what I mean by “a star is born.” Sarah Koenig spent many diligent years as a journalist and as a producer at the public radio show This American Life, but Serial made her a phenomenon, and in the process, she made the podcast a rising art form.
I arrived late to the wonders of Serial, Season 1. Debuting in October 2014, it was half-way through its 12 episodes when a young friend in her late 20s downloaded it onto my cell phone: “You’re a ‘mystery’ person, you’ll love it.” She was right. I was instantly hooked by Sarah’s way of telling a story. And what a story! A modern-day Romeo & Juliet romance comes to an end, and the girl winds up dead–but there’s a twist. In Shakespeare’s tragedy, blame is placed at the feet of the two families, but in this story they’re merely a complication. Adnan Syed is currently serving a life sentence for the 1999 murder of his ex-girlfriend Hae Min Lee, a popular senior at a public high school in Baltimore. She broke up with him twice: the first time over the stress of keeping their relationship secret from their parents; the second time because she’d fallen for somebody else. But did Adnan kill her? Sarah, investigative journalist, explores that question. We hear from many different people there at the time, including Adnan himself, who speaks to Sarah from a prison phone. I was often surprised to find myself charmed by Adnan and hoping he didn’t do it. Then again there were things he did–and didn’t do–on the day of the murder and afterwards that made me suspicious that he did. Right now none of us know except for Adnan, and we may never know even if he gets a new trial. That’s a real possibility, and the dots lead to Serial’s influence: the questions raised by Sarah and her team as well as the world-wide attention generated by the podcast.
According to Apple, Serial was the fastest of any podcast to reach 5 million downloads. By the time it wrapped about three months later, the number was at least 40 million and has since grown to more than double that figure. That’s a staggering number–for any art form. To put it in perspective, movies like Avatar and Jurassic Park each sold around 80 million tickets at the box office. The final Harry Potter movie sold about 48 million tickets. Serial’s success can be summed up like this: 1 compelling story + changes in technology = new megahit art form.
The technology: in September 2014, one month before Serial’s debut, Apple made the podcast app a permanent part of its latest operating system. Other smart phones also had the technology. No doubt I wasn’t the only person suddenly walking her dog and listening to Serial instead of music. Ditto that for any commute or road trip longer than 15 minutes. Ditto that for household chores or working out at the gym. Listening to Serial was as good as listening to a great book on audio, but with an added perk: the suspense of waiting for the story to unfold. Once I caught up with the series and started listening to it in real time (once a week), there was no binge-listening. I had to wait. BUT, all this chatter is just a prelude leading up to Serial 2–and why I think it’s the more important story, even though the media says it’s not quite as popular and that listeners were less engaged.
Serial 2 began this past December and wrapped at the end of March. Like millions of other fans, I couldn’t wait for it to start. Another true story told in installments but with one noteworthy difference. When Serial 1 first aired, almost nobody knew about Hae’s murder, except for the people in Baltimore. At the time of her murder in 1999, the internet was new to the general public and Google was a fledgling company. Fast forward to 2014, and the world news is a key stroke away. Most of us know the basic facts about U.S. soldier Bowe Bergdahl. In 2009, he voluntarily left his army post in Afghanistan and, within hours, was picked up by the Taliban. Five years later our government brought him home by swapping him for five Guantanamo Bay detainees. Initially praised for serving with “honor and distinction” by National Security Advisor Susan Rice, he now faces a court-martial on charges of desertion and misbehavior before the enemy. It’s possible he could get a life sentence. It’s also possible the military could consider his five horrendous years as a prisoner ample punishment. It’s a complicated story–far more complicated than Serial 1’s Romeo & Juliet Redux–because it’s about all the terrible things that can happen in war: disillusioned youth, torture, death, serious bodily injury, misinformation, PR mistakes, miscommunication between different branches of the military, lack of communication between the President and Congress–and the list goes on. War is foggy and confusing. Serial 2 does a great job of conveying the complexities and confusion, but it also shines a light on some misinformation. The most important one being whether Bowe’s disappearance resulted in the death of six soldiers who may or may not have been looking for him.
The criticisms of Serial 2 are mostly comments like: not as compelling or riveting, most people already knew Bowe’s story. I disagree. Most of us only knew the sound bites–isn’t that the way most Americans get their news these days? As Sarah Koenig has pointed out, the serial format is as old as Charles Dickens. One hundred and eighty years after The Pickwick Papers captivated readers, people still want to be tantalized and entertained. But this was a story about a war we’re in, which has affected our country in countless ways. As citizens, shouldn’t we have a desire to listen closely? To listen thoughtfully with an open mind, hoping to learn something?
What are your thoughts? I’d love to know.