I've just finished listening to Serial, the 12-part podcast spinoff of This American Life narrated by Sarah Koenig. It's taken about ten days of time in the car, on a plane or just at night before bed to work my way through the whole thing. It was gripping, intimate and so stickily led by Koenig's sharp, slightly gravelly voice, as she injected this 15-year-old murder case with her own personal conviction. "I am going to figure this out," you can hear her thinking. Why? Because she's smart, a seasoned reporter (ie. good at digging for facts) and what CAN'T be figured out these days? Well, this case for one, but that's another issue and she comes darn close.
But what fascinated me the most was how I couldn't stop listening to something that was so long that it almost defies the current Laws of Media where everything needs to be 30 seconds long. I thought we'd lost our ability to have any reasonable attention span? Well, maybe not. So, as an advocate of living the Good Life and slowing down, I thought I'd put together a few thoughts on why I think — and this is a good thing — Serial has been so popular. (Note: spoilers ahead!)
Despite the herd-like move to video, as well as to shorter and shorter media forms, the breakout success of Serial and the rise of podcasts in general are telling us something else that is happening which is completely counter intuitive or counter our dominant thoughts about modern media
1. Radio is Boring
This is a cheap shot, but I'm going to posit it anyway: in the same way that magazines and newspapers have been overtaken by the much more engaged, personal and surprising voices of the blogosphere, radio is being overtaken by podcasts. It's really just audio blogging, and Serial is proving that most of the rest of the stuff you hear on radio (and a lot of podcasts are radio shows exported to this format) are overproduced and not REAL enough. The commercialism of the medium has dumbed it down over the years.
2. Long is Good (All of a Sudden)
Who knew that we'd all like something longer, that required a greater attention span, that would tell us or teach us more??? Obviously nobody except a few people who've been betting on long form content for a few years now like the producers of Serial (or like Evan Williams over at Medium).
One of the chief joys of Serial is that it is long, has a lot of canvas with which to draw out its story and you can keep coming back for more. It was particularly delicious to finish a riveting episode and know that there were many more in front of me to enjoy. Only people who read novels usually get this pleasure.
What is good about LONG? Well it's pretty simple really (and it's informative to know what we're missing in shorter forms):
- You can go deep into a subject
- You can get to know the people much more intimately
- You can get a lot more information, so that the complexity of the subject is much more apparent
It turns out that there is a great deal of listening pleasure in going deep.
3. We Love to Learn About Others
Like Apartment Therapy House Tours, Serial is totally voyeuristic and a slice of real life in 1999 that — depending on who you are — is fascinating in itself. This lower- and middle-class community of Baltimore teenagers and community eccentrics is a fascinating peek into what life is like for them, and a reminder of what high school was like for many.
And while solving the murder mystery is the main draw, the deeper draw is getting to know the lives of these kids intimately. You start to see the complexity and realness of a very ethnically mixed American community — it is Our Town for the digital age—through the landscape and the characters, because we have time to see them and get to know them. This is all extremely gratifying to learn about as you see that the scene surrounding this awful murder is NOT black and white. It's extremely grey and communities are complicated. I loved the episode where one of the suspects turns out to have a kooky streaking habit, which in my mind, instantly removed him from suspicion. His weirdness was not lethal.
The the overall quirks and the funny bits of how strange life really is comes through in Serial and that keeps you listening. Most new media doesn’t want to take the time to present real lives.
4. The Technology Now Makes This Easy To Hear
Podcasts were invented years ago with the first iPod, but they fizzled because the technology and distribution wasn't really there. I remember that they were hard to find and to figure out how to play. Unfortunately Apple put no muscle behind these weird things they'd helped create and they were banished to the Siberia of their corporate universe.
Now independent companies and creators (and public radio folks) have seized on the medium as another way of reaching their listeners now that mobile devices have proliferated and everyone would rather use their mobile phone for music, etc while commuting instead of listening to their car radio (See #1).
Podcasts are also free (for the most part), frictionless and easy to find and hear now that smartphones are standard and many production companies have websites that allow you to listen to the podcast right off of the front of their page if you don't want to search for it in your iPhone podcast browser.
But most of all, podcasts are high quality content on demand, meaning you can listen to them whenever you want, wherever you are and you are no longer shackled to the car radio or even to your own playlist of favorite songs. Want to engage your brain or learn something? Listening to a podcast on your daily commutes is much more satisfying than listening to music in my book.
5. Audio Crushes It Where Video Fails
Audio has been WAY underestimated. Audio, like traditional radio, allows us to do other things while listening so that it truly is the most portable form of media. In a portable, mobile age this is a game changer, especially when it now goes wherever your phone goes.
Additionally, people forget how intimate audio experiences are. My 10-15 hours with Sara Koenig was like having a relationship with her and it was a good one (despite how annoying she could be at times). Want to get really close to your audience? Podcasts are the way.
6. This is Sara Koenig’s Story
Which is why Serial is really the Sara Koenig Radio Show. If we didn't identify with her and her obsession about solving this crime, the whole thing would be off. This is how it works:
a. She makes it extremely personal
b. The hook is her own personal involvement
c. She seems totally charmed by Adnan, ie. she loves her subject (which is crucial for the story but not the investigation)
d. In her arrogance, she thinks that she can solve the case by herself, and then proceeds to use her emotional attachment to guide her — particularly her emotional attachment to Adnan, or the “how could this boy do this?? He just doesn’t seem like the type.”
This last point is important. Sara Koenig's attachment to the story and to believing that Adnan should be innocent — and then her wrestling with the fact that it doesn't look like he is innocent — IS the story.
Which leads me to...
7. We Love to Identify With The Underdog Amateur, Because That's Us
So this is not a story that’s really about a murder, it’s really about Sara Koenig’s personal story to try to make order out of a part of the world that is fuzzy and to relate to it.
This is the kicker and the big appeal, because no matter what you think about her—annoying or likable—her own personal obsession to figure it out and discover the truth is what draws us in episode after episode.
To be a great narrator you have to love your subject, but allow yourself to have all the disparate feelings that your readers/listeners are having too. In other words, you have to be artfully all over the place.
Which leads me to...
8. She Masterfully Constructs The Narrative Towards Ambivalence and It Is a Celebration of The Amateur
While many could have driven towards one outcome or decision of innocence or guilt in this case/story, Sara Koenig doesn’t do that. She plays both sides of the fence, letting her and our emotions get attached to both potential outcomes, veering back and forth with us until the very end (ie. we’re hooked because she doesn’t allow us to come to rest on any one side. she keeps us up in the air).
This is a great approach for story telling, but a terrible way to analyze a case and it seems to me that any skilled investigator would move far differently through the material and be far less emotionally attached to the people or potential outcomes. I think most professionals in the crime field would think this whole production totally ridiculous, but that's okay, because this is not really about that. It's something different.
What is it?
We come away caring about all of the people involved, including very sad for Hae Min Lee. A good story doesn’t paint a black and white picture, life is never black and white; a good story shows you the realness of the world and how there is good and bad in all of us. it shows you the imperfection of the world, but ultimately draws you to the ones who rise above.
This whole thing stuck with me, even after I had decided in my own mind that Adnan had to have done it. Why? Because he was tightly tied to the crime, had a motive, had no real alibi, and there was absolutely no other person who had a motive and could be found to have done this.
But I felt Sara Koenig ended the whole thing quite well — though she didn’t say this exactly.
Good people sometimes do very bad things. It is hard to believe that reason person would really want to do this or could pull it off, but being angry and frustrated at another for not loving you or doing what you want them to do is very common.
That said, there doesn’t seem to have been enough evidence to convict Adnan, and there is still some doubt, which, in a court of law, should operate. But I’m not a lawyer.
But this is really about why Serial matters. Why?
Serial matters because in a world of soundbites, fibber blabber, 13-second videos and a seeming disinterest in the shadowy, unsatisfying, grey areas of real life and the complexity of real people (which takes some time to unpack), we seem to have found a medium that can take us exactly to this spot, and I hope we go there again and again and again.
Check it out at Serialpodcast.org or on your iPhone under Podcasts, search "Serial"