Right now, if you’re not listening to Serial then you probably at least know you should be; it is being heralded as a breakout show for the podcast format. With each series focusing on a different real-life story, the first sees journalist Sarah Koenig as she looks into the details of the murder of Hae Min Lee in Baltimore , 1999. Her 17 year old boyfriend, Adnan Syed, was subsequently convicted of life in prison for the crime.
Television is full of true crime shows that look into old cases, that try to determine guilt or prove injustice, but Serial is different. Most obviously, it completely lacks the sensationalism of most true crime shows. Koenig’s first person account of her investigation is level and impartial. Unconcerned with the visual stimulus television must provide, there are no gratuitously recreated events or stagings of crime scenes. Also, whilst most true crime shows recount events chronologically or follow the subsequent investigation as it unfolded, Serial is structured around Koenig’s own research into the case 14 years later; as she uncovers facts, raises questions and disproves what she thought she knew, so do we.
If Serial has anything in common with a TV show, then it is with True Detective. Whilst the HBO show is fiction, the two share an episodic structure built around an investigation into an old crime. Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson play former Louisiana State Police officers who are interviewed about a high profile case they investigated. Similar to Serial, the interview driven narrative jumps between different perspectives and to different points in time. Like Serial, we are also led to question the viewpoint of those accounts and what that person’s true motives are.
I feel it’s this that has been one of the biggest hooks for people as they delve into Serial. This episodic structure of the narrative is something people know they like, which makes it simple for them to shift to an audio format.
Serial is long form investigative journalism, something that has found an increasingly diminishing audience of late. We consume more media digitally and our attention spans shortened correspondingly. Through presenting this as a podcast, they have found a new medium of reaching an audience used to consuming things on demand. It’s possible we’ll start seeing longer journalistic pieces by other publications adapted from print to audio.
If Serial really is a revolution of the podcast format, then it could also be a renaissance for investigative journalism.