Murder tale becomes a podcast phenomenon

WHILE the use of podcasts proliferates, few have caused the buzz of Serial.

This viral phenomenon is a spin-off from This American Life, a critically-acclaimed programme available on public radio in the US and on digital radio internationally. Broadcast in weekly episodes, it revisits the true story of the 1999 murder of a high school student in Baltimore and the ex-boyfriend convicted of killing her.

Since it went on air in October, the show has captured the imagination of what is, for a podcast, a huge number of listeners worldwide. It is the most downloaded podcast on iTunes, with most recent figures showing each episode averaging 850,000 downloads. Social media is abuzz with excited discussions from fans eagerly awaiting for their next fix.

In Serial, reporter Sarah Koenig and the show’s production team reappraise the strangulation of 18-year-old Hae Min Lee and the conviction of her former boyfriend Adnan Syed, who was sentenced to life plus 30 years and claims he was wrongfully convicted. The case was built on circumstantial evidence and shaky testimony, including that of a friend of Syed’s who said he helped Syed bury Lee but changed his account three times. Syed’s supporters say other witnesses and clues were completely ignored by police and lawyers.

It is a grim subject but one which Koenig tackles with determination and in a disarmingly personal style. As the best radio does, Koenig draws a vivid picture for the listener, expertly conjuring the milieu of high school students.

Koenig draws in listeners with her compelling narration, creating a suspenseful tale that Agatha Christie wouldn’t be ashamed of. This sense of creating a page-turner for radio is something the team behind the show has acknowledged.

As producer Dana Chivvis told NBC: “Sarah has said she wants the listener to feel they’ve finished a really good book or they were engrossed by the world of the book or the story itself.”

However, this is not fiction. As entertaining and addictive as Serial is, unsurprisingly, given the nature of its subject, it has not been without controversy. There have been reservations about the fact that while it is being discussed as entertainment, it is about the real death of a young girl. Concerns have also been raised about the social media sleuths who have taken up their own investigations and the ethical and legal issues that could arise.

The team behind the show were somewhat unprepared for the scale of the reaction to the show, with executive producer Julie Snyder saying: “I feel like maybe I was really naive... I think all of us are a little taken aback and kind of shocked at the little bit of an attention frenzy. It’s a small world of podcast listeners but it does feel like, ‘Oh my god’. This is a lot more intense than I had ever anticipated.”

However, as laments for the death of old-school journalism are dispatched on a daily basis, some commentators are heartened there is still a huge appetite for a programme which has been described as a “daring living piece of serious, journalistic work”. This is also reflected in the resurgence in the popularity of long-form journalism as championed by magazines such as The New Yorker and websites such as

Even those involved in Serial are not sure how it will end. Koenig and her team are still researching and working on the final episodes and estimate there will be a total of about 12. The show’s legions of fans worldwide will no doubt be bereft, whatever the conclusion.


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