The real secret of "Serial": How it revolutionizes the podcast

Radio is so old-timey, and the "TAL" style so entrenched, that we assume we know all its tricks. But we don't

Published November 13, 2014 12:00AM (EST)

"Obsessed" and "addicted" are two words that come up constantly when aficionados discuss the podcast "Serial," a multi-part true-crime narrative hosted by journalist Sarah Koenig. Strongly shaped by the storytelling sensibility of the radio series "This American Life," the first season of "Serial" investigates the conviction of a Baltimore teenager, Adnan Syed, for the 1999 murder of his ex-girlfriend, Hae Min Lee, whose body was found in a wooded park.

The most striking aspect of "Serial" is that the podcast's own creator is not entirely sure how it will end. She and her collaborators are researching and working on the final episodes even now. (They estimate there will be a total of about 12.) Whether or not Koenig will conclude that Syed was innocent of Lee's killing, for which he is serving a life sentence, has yet to be decided. Whether her audience will agree with Koenig and whether either party's opinions on the matter will make any difference to Syed's legal status are even more uncertain.

Many theories have been floated to explain the podcast's near-instant success. ("Serial" is currently the most downloaded podcast on iTunes.) Some say it's the serialization itself, the way Koenig doles out the story to her subscribers one dose at a time, tantalizing them with cliffhangers that leave them craving more. As Michelle Dean reported recently in the Guardian, a forum on Reddit provides a place for the most fervent "Serial" devotees to post additional information they've dug up on the case themselves, from photos of the major figures to what some deem to be incriminating evidence.

Serialization beckons today's wired audiences to participate in the narrative. (This is hardly new, however; Charles Dickens was routinely petitioned by readers to save or jettison characters in his serialized novels.) In the heyday of "Lost," fans created their own podcasts to dish about the latest developments and discuss theories about what was really up with that island. Reportedly, fan disapproval led to a summary dispatch of two unpopular "Lost" characters and may even have redirected major plot points as the showrunners struggled to stay ahead of their cleverest viewers.

Serialization has proven itself to be addicting, but so has true crime. When I wrote about my love of the genre earlier this year, it seemed like three-quarters of the people I know immediately pulled me aside to confess how much they love it, too. Yet true crime remains rather stigmatized, associated with cable-TV vultures like Nancy Grace and cheap paperback peddlers of gory sensationalism. "Serial" is excellent, but it's not a better true-crime narrative than, say, Robert Kolker's "Lost Girls." It does, however, offer an easier, more friction-free in. With "Serial," you're just subscribing to a free podcast, one associated with a tony public radio institution -- not shelling out $25 for a book about a serial killer of prostitutes.

When evaluating breakout phenomena like "Serial," observers tend to chronically underestimate the power of distribution systems. Podcasts are a blossoming medium at the moment because they are free, easy to find and sample, and once subscribed to, they obligingly turn up on your smartphone, a device that 60 percent of Americans now possess, whether you go looking for them or not. No commitment or effort required.

A new medium can also introduce a ghettoized genre to a wider audience. E-books did that for "Fifty Shades of Grey," an utterly unremarkable erotic romance of the "billionaire falls for his secretary" school, whose publication coincided with the wider adoption of e-readers. Yes, readers too embarrassed to be seen reading a paperback with a bare-chested man on the cover could discreetly devour E.L. James' lite-S&M fantasia on their new devices, but even more influential was the way the e-book medium help topple less obvious barriers. Many readers simply hadn't known that books like this existed, or would appeal to them, and perhaps weren't sure where to find them. Suddenly, with one whispered recommendation from a friend at the playground and few clicks on your Kindle (whose free WhisperNet connection was Amazon's killer app), you were good to go.

Some critics have claimed that the secret of the podcast's allure is Koenig herself, and the way the serialized format exposes the halting, switchbacking, second-guessing process of journalism to the audience's scrutiny. She stumbles across a lead or tracks down a witness thought lost and she's thrilled. A clue turns out to be more ambiguous than she hoped and she's crestfallen. She runs down blind alleys and chases red herrings. Sometimes Koenig learns something that leads her to believe that Syed is innocent, and sometimes she wonders if he's just playing her.

But there's nothing especially remarkable about any of that. Janet Malcolm's 2012 book, "Iphigenia in Forest Hills," plays out exactly the same drama, as the author gnaws away at the case of a Queens physician accused of putting out a hit on her husband. Malcolm simply could not believe that someone like Marina Borukhova, an educated, ladylike doctor from a conservative Jewish sect, would do such a thing. At one point, Malcolm even breaks one of her own ironclad journalistic rules and meddles in the case. There are times when the reader suspects that the author's "sisterly" feelings toward Borukhova are clouding her judgment, and Malcolm knows it.

The plots of most decent true-crime narratives with a first-person element lead the reader on a similar dance, taking the author's investigation step by step, charting disappointments and exhilarations and playing up the suspense of impending discovery. If you know the genre at all, Koenig's role is anything but exceptional; in fact, it's so typical it's generic. That's not meant to be disparaging. This figure in any crime narrative, true or fictional, is essentially more archetypal than individual: the detective, the seeker, the one who can summon the mute objects and facts of the world to coalesce into a story. She tells and she also interprets. She's a writer and a reader in one person.

This figure is also always stumbling and blundering, convinced she's nailed the culprit or bagged a crucial clue, only to get it all wrong, to assume where she should question, to trust where she should doubt, until the climactic moment when suddenly it all falls into place. Whether Koenig will ever reach that moment is itself subject to doubt, but if she were on the right track from the very beginning, if she were flawless in her choices about what to scrutinize first or which elements of the prosecution's case are the most vulnerable, there wouldn't be a story at all.

The significant difference between "Serial" and, say, Malcolm's "The Journalist and the Murderer" or Truman Capote's "In Cold Blood," is the medium itself. It's too easy for us to overlook the idiosyncratic qualities of -- for want of a better term -- radio. We take radio's traits for granted, and even when a creation like "This American Life" or "RadioLab" comes along to revolutionize the form, we always seem to assume that we already know everything about its abilities. Radio is so old-timey, after all, the stuff of grandparents reminiscing about the Golden Age of "The Shadow" or (shudder) "Amos and Andy."

Are podcasts radio? Sort of, but not quite, because it would also be foolish to underestimate the effect of on-demand consumption and the peculiarly intimate experience of listening to narratives with earbuds, so that the voice telling the story is located right inside your head. It's this aspect of Koenig's role as narrator that makes "Serial" feel like something new and strange. Although the bumpy process of finding the truth and making a case are common elements in true crime books and documentaries, both of those forms lead the reader or viewer to identify with the narrator (in different ways, but to similar effect). The narrator may misstep or jump to incorrect conclusions, but the reader goes with her: Her approach and her encounters with the evidence are ours, and all we have. She is our only guide.

With "Serial," however, Koenig's is not the only voice we hear. Occasionally, a collaborator named Dana pops in to offer her opinion or even a non sequitur ("There's a shrimp sale at the Crab Crib") as the two drive around Baltimore. In the most recent installment, Koenig brings in an attorney practiced in overturning wrongful convictions, and the woman gently explains that Koenig is not informed enough about the behavior patterns of psychopaths to figure out whether Syed might be one. Speaking of psychopaths, the book that most resembles "Serial" in this respect is Jon Ronson's "The Psychopath Test," a collection of first-person essays about Ronson's various efforts to get a handle on the psychopaths supposedly all around us, including a convicted murderer whose true nature Ronson despairs of ever grasping.

But Ronson (who is celebrated for spoken-word performances of his work) and his voice are always the point of Ronson's narratives. His hilariously anxious, obsessive persona is what readers (or listeners) are looking for when they come to his work. Not so with "Serial": Above all, the podcast's listeners want to know whodunit, and Koenig often feels like an inadequate proxy in that quest.

Koenig calls attention to herself precisely because she seems so average and even uninteresting. (The likelihood that she is a master manipulator of such impressions should not, however, be discounted. She is crafting a story, after all.) Why doesn't she attach more importance to an apparent alibi or Syed? Why doesn't she take more seriously a note passed back and forth between Syed and the victim on which someone has scrawled "I want to kill"? And for god's sake, why is it taking her so long to track down Jay?

Meanwhile, as the listener broods over these questions, there is always the sound of Koenig's voice, a perpetual reminder that she is only one person, a person with a particular view of the facts. Because we can hear the voices of her sources for ourselves, we are not obliged to accept her interpretation of their credibility, sincerity or moods. By contrast, it's less apparent when, say, watching an Errol Morris documentary, that one man's sensibility is directing what we see and hear. Morris is able to nearly erase his own presence from his films, fostering an illusion of objectivity or authority.

But Koenig can't do that -- someone has to tell this story, and tell it with a voice that is recognizably that of an individual woman. Because "Serial" is influenced by the highly personalized narration style of "This American Life," it is also constantly underlining and reinforcing her subjectivity. Since true crime as a genre tends to bring out the amateur detective in everyone, her listeners are prompted over and over again to think of what they would do differently and to contemplate how much Koenig is not like them. Koenig is indeed a character in this story, not because there's anything especially innovative about how she's pursuing the story or showing her notes, but because her chosen medium insists upon it.

Rumor has it that if a second season of "Serial" gets made, it will not be about a crime. Will it still exert the same attraction? Perhaps not. But podcasts themselves -- a wide-open medium filled with experimentation and innovation at present -- will never be the same, and surely other ambitious creators will pick up the true-crime thread where Koenig and company drop it. They, too, will need to negotiate the challenge of describing a search for authoritative truth in a medium that is constantly reminding its audience that they're listening to only one human being's version of what happened.

By Laura Miller

Laura Miller is the author of "The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia."

MORE FROM Laura Miller

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Audio Podcasts Radio Serial This American Life