Tomorrow, the insanely popular Serial podcast will end its first season, leaving its estimated million-plus listeners scrounging for something else to keep them rapt during the commute (hint: these podcasts are a good substitution until season two rolls out at a time to be determined).
Miles of thoughtful text have been written on Serial’s unexpected success, its origin, its parent radio show, This American Life, t’s producer, Sarah Koenig, and its issues of race and voyeurism in such true-crime reporting wherein many of those involved are still trying to live their lives (sometimes-TAL reporter Jon Ronson’s interview with the family of Adnan Sayed, the central character of the story who is also currently serving life in jail for Lee’s murder, is particularly poignant).
But there’s really one key driving force behind the phenomenon that is Serial: It’s a great story that’s been told well.
Of course, there are multitudes of great storytelling podcasts available, both from public radio stations and independent purveyors of digital media. So what sets Serial apart?
For one, it’s hyper-focused. Despite declarations that long-form journalism is dead, plenty of elite media outlets (ahem, the New York Times) have experimented successful with digital media’s potential to make longer stories both more compelling and more informative. Serial is the kind of long-form broadcasting that has been, previously, very difficult to support on terrestrial radio.
Unlike the medium that requires listeners to tune in at a specific time, on a specific channel, podcasting allows users to have the content on demand, where they want it. This has allowed Koenig to dive deeply into the many facets of the case — and has given armchair (or maybe earbud?) detectives plenty of details to work with in their own private attempts to solve the murder of Hae Min Lee. There are maps and documents. There are outside sources. There’s Google. In the time between episodes, listeners wait impatiently while filling up on more information.
Koenig’s willingness to spend a long time with a story is absolutely one of the best takeaways for newbie podcasters; use the medium to your advantage and, if the story is intriguing enough, people will come back week after week.
Is it Thursday yet? pic.twitter.com/8RNA0Z6RcV
— Sesame Street (@sesamestreet) December 10, 2014
The consistency of the podcast, too, is important — and something that a lot podcasters really struggle with. Thursday has become, in the last two months, synonymous with Serial, which has been crucial to its ability to build hype and create a culture of conversation around it. The consistency was so dependable that when Koenig took a week off for Thanksgiving, Twitter users (including some celebrities) expressed their upset and boredom.
There is also a lot to be lauded in the way that Koenig shaped the story — even without having an ending. Because of the duration and the consistency, Koenig was able to lead listeners through the discovery process along with her, encouraging what would usually be a passive audience to consider their own theories. This was, Koenig told Rolling Stone, by design.
“I hope that people who are listening will feel like they’re learning the particulars of the case in the same manner that I am learning them, so that by the end, it feels like we have all kind of drawn a conclusion together,” she explained.
At the jump, many listeners assumed Serial was a finished product — that Koenig had recorded it all, come to a conclusion, maybe had even changed the outcome of the case in some way. But as the podcast began to go from “popular with the NPR set” to “literally everyone is talking about it,” it became clear that she was, in fact, still figuring it all out herself. Which is another important storytelling lesson: Sometimes, going in with just a story and no conclusion works in your favor. As a result of the open-ended nature of the case, it’s now become common to not hear “are you listening to Serial” but rather “who do you think did it?”
Koenig told the New York Times that the lack of a perfect ending is because, well, the story is true — which is part of what everyone loves about it.
“…it’s not my responsibility to make a perfect ending. I do want a solid ending that is based in my reporting,” she explained. “But I don’t feel a responsibility to make it the kind of entertainment that you would get on some TV drama. No way. That would be crazy. That’s not what I do. I’m a reporter.”
There is a richness to the audio of Serial. Years of telling stories on the radio has conditioned Koenig to know when moments will be good — when driving around trying to match the timeline of the prosecution to the actual time it would take to get from the high school to the Best Buy parking line, Koenig records every door slam, every crunch of footsteps, ramping up the action of a situation that is actually about as mundane as it gets — and the combination of interviews, old footage, phone calls from the prison, the haunting original score, and her own theories and questions about the case make them even better. Week by week, she focuses on small aspects, leaving in even minute details to ensure that the listeners questions are answered. At least, mostly. Plenty of other things remain unanswered, as well. Why didn’t she record her talk with Jay? people ask each other over dinner. What about the girls who orbit the story — why didn’t she interview them?
But we trust her. The listener trusts Koenig, rarely wondering what she’s left out, because there’s so much she’s left in.
“So many pieces of tape that I play, people hear them in completely, diametrically different ways,” she told the Times, explaining why the experience is different for every listener.
The expertise that Koenig and her team bring are one of the biggest reason for Serial’s success, says former This American Life producer, Planet Money co-creator, and now, creator of Gimlet Media Alex Blumberg.
“That team, it’s some of the most talented producers in audio journalism,” he explained. “It’s a difficult story to tell, and they’re telling it incredibly well.”
The story is also deeply American. It is, as Koenig explains in the very first episode, about high school kids. As a result, many listeners feel connected to the experience of the students, to the possibility that it could have happened to them. This has spurred listeners to become even more involved; a subreddit that cropped up shortly after the podcast began offers week-by-week updates, theories, and shared information. But toward the end of the run, the users also began raising money for the victim’s family. That’s how personal the story feels — not only did people crowdsource a second season (despite the show’s advertisements and backing from TAL, it’s still an expensive job — which is another lesson, that sometimes it’s worth it to throw money at a story), they’re also contributing to the lives of the people in the story.
Sarah Koenig is an award-winning journalist with years in the field and on the airwaves to point to. She’s a good reporter, but she’s a great storyteller. By allowing a somewhat meandering, potentially-open-ended story to wind its way through the legal system, suburban Maryland, and 15 years of history, she and her team captured our love of true crime (to a possibly problematic degree), our fascination with the lives of other people, our collective head-scratching about the inner workings of the justice system, and even our questions about perception and memory.
Young podcasters, take note. This is how you tell a story.