Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Serial and the New Podcast Revolution

Hae Min Lee and Adnan Syed (centre, top and bottom)

In radio and podcasting circles, the rather geeky milieu that I travel in, there is a bit of thing happening. It's a podcast called Serial, which follows the real-life case of the murder of Baltimore high school student Hae Min Lee in 1999, and the arrest and imprisonment of her alleged killer, ex-boyfriend Adnan Syed. Sarah Koenig, the host and executive producer of Serial, was approached by the family of the imprisoned man to look into the conviction. We follow Koenig as she picks apart the case. Koenig claims to not know where it will end. Is an innocent man in jail for a crime he didn't commit? Is the real killer still on the loose? Tune in, or rather, subscribe to Serial, and find out.

Serial is four episodes in and Koenig has poked enough holes in the case to make you doubt whether the cops have the right man (the homicide detectives remain adamant that they do). Each episode unravels a different part of the story. Episode one is the longest, and provides the set-up needed to get you hooked and wanting more. Episode three is about the discovery of the body: who found it, and what was the guy who found it doing in the woods anyway? Episode four delves into the inconsistencies of the key witness for the prosecution.

Adnan Syed has now been in prison for 14 years. But, the case is mysterious enough that you're not really sure what will happen by the end of the season. Is Syed guilty? Sometimes his story seems shaky, sometimes the testimony that ultimately convicted him seems like a pack of lies. On Facebook and Twitter, the release of each new episode is received with fanfare and thousands of people commenting on social media. People talk about the case, and also express the general sentiment that Serial is a podcasting masterpiece.

If you're a fan of TV crime drama or mysteries the story beats will be familiar. Except that, in this case, it is all real and told in an intimate way, with the techniques pioneered by This American Life. TV criticism here at Critics at Large and elsewhere often celebrates our new age of television that tells long, complicated stories over many episodes and even seasons. We all now know the joys of following a long and in-depth storyline, whether we binge it or follow week-by-week as they are released. Going deep into a story is a uniquely fulfilling experience. Even after only four episodes, Serial offers a comparable experience to its listeners.

On one level, it's a wonder that it has taken so long for this kind of storytelling to come to world of podcasting. It seems so obvious (now that it has been done). But radio offers its own precedents: before the emergence of television, the 'soap opera' was developed by radio producers – the term “soap opera” coming from the soap companies who originally sponsored the radio productions. One can imagine people huddled around their radios, eagerly waiting for the next instalment. People don't huddle around a wooden radio anymore – they are more likely to stick in their earbuds as they run on a treadmill – but new media, for all the innovation in technology, still has a lot in common with the old. People everywhere are tuning into Serial, eagerly awaiting the next episode, jumping to share their feelings with one another on social media, every episode sparking a new flurry of chat.

Prior to the launch of Serial a few weeks ago, radio celebrity Ira Glass (creator and host of This American Life, a radio show that has defined and redefined what is possible with audio storytelling, and also an executive producer of Serial), went on a media campaign to raise awareness for the new series. He did appearances on late night shows, including Jimmy Fallon, to talk about it. They also got good PR in the traditional press. The Guardian did a piece about it and featured an interview with Koenig. And The New Yorker weighed in too. with a piece provocatively titled "'Serial': The Podcast We’ve Been Waiting For".

Sarah Koenig, Ira Glass, and Julie Snyder. (Photo by Meredith Heuer)

Recent developments in podcasting, including the media attention given to Serial, are pointing to a new wave of interest in the medium. There has long been an interest from radio producers, who love the freedom that podcasting provides. Podcasting is to radio what HBO used to be to network TV. You can be more daring, you can use swear words, and (most importantly) you can tell longer, more complex stories. And, just like the HBO revolution, podcasting has opened the door to more 'adult' programming. Public radio, as wonderful as it can be, is often handcuffed by a certain PG sensibility and limited range of show formats.

One of the challenges still facing “the podcast” as an emerging popular medium has been that the technology still seems to many as a bit fringy, and tuning in involves a few key technical steps that seems to many like magic. I know this problem all too well. “So, where is it? How would I listen to it?” people ask when I mention to someone at a party that I have a podcast.  (Familiar with this recurring issue, Ira Glass has released a charming video where he talks with an 85-year-old friend about how to listen to podcasts.) But there is finally a critical mass of people who know how to do it now, and advertisers are paying attention – addressing the one powerful remaining obstacle to podcast production: money. It may have taken a decade to catch on, but recent studies are showing that advertising dollars spent on podcasts actually have ridiculously high levels of engagement, when compared with ads on other, more traditional media.

Another radio pioneer, Alex Blumberg (who worked with This American Life and also created NPR's successful Planet Money series), recently left his cushy public radio gig to start his own podcasting network. I am eagerly waiting to see how he does. All indications say that he will make a go of it. And, for a Canadian example, media critic Jesse Brown's podcast Canadaland has secured a liveable recurring revenue source through a crowd-funding platform called Patreon.

It's looking like podcasting might make the big time, finally. To be fair, this has been said before. Really, though, this time it's going to happen. Really. The world of podcasting has firmly left the era of two drunk guys talking about movies in their garage. And, if you apply a little discretion to your choices, a podcast can deliver all the sophistication you'd get from a show on NPR, BBC, or CBC. Possibly more.

Episode 5 of Serial comes out tomorrow. All four previous episodes are available for streaming and download on their website. Or just check out this short preview of the series.

Sean Rasmussen is a Toronto-based digital communications consultant, media enthusiast, and freelance radio producer. Twitter: @Sean_Rasmussen.

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