If 25 years ago the gossip around the office water cooler was all about who killed Laura Palmer, today the talk is all about whether Adnan Syed killed Hae Min Lee. The differences between the two questions show how much entertainment, and journalism, has changed in the quarter of a century between the screening of the hit TV series Twin Peaks and Serial, an American weekly podcast that has gone viral over the past two months.
Serial, unlike Twin Peaks, deals in fact, not fiction. In the course of the 10 weekly episodes posted so far since October — with a break for Thanksgiving — reporter Sarah Koenig has told the story of her year-long investigation into the 1999 murder of Lee, a Korean-American student at a Baltimore high school.
Koenig speaks to Syed, a former boyfriend of Lee, who has so far served 15 years in jail for the murder, retraces the couple’s movements, talks to their friends, and examines the evidence — the whole narrated in the compelling and friendly tones of a natural storyteller.
“I can’t really think of a true story that has generated this kind of obsession,” says David Haglund, a senior editor on Slate, a news and culture website that has itself been so caught up in the story that it has been publishing its own Serial Spoiler Specials, or podcasts about the podcast.
Each episode of Serial now averages 2.2m listeners, a podcasting record and a particularly striking achievement given that an audience of 300,000 listeners would have been considered a success. In fact, Serial has now been downloaded more than 20m times. “The way it has evolved has surprised us at numerous turns,” says Emily Condon, one of the show’s producers,
Why the podcast is so successful has split its audience almost as much as the mystery at the heart of the programme — whether Syed is or isn’t guilty. It has been suggested that the show perfectly answers the entertainment needs of the millennial generation: not only can you listen to it when you want to (although many download it the minute it is posted on Thursday morning) but it has spawned a series of offshoots — from a vibrant Reddit subgroup, to blogs by Syed’s supporters, and parodies on YouTube.
This explosion of ancillary activity, however, is not without ethical complications. For Serial is about a real-life victim and speculates on the potential guilt of her real-life friends. Many of these have refused to take part in the programme, as has Lee’s family.
The only word from her relatives has been a cri de coeur from someone convincingly purporting to be her brother on the sub-Reddit thread: “To me it’s real life. To you listeners, it’s another . . . crime drama, another episode of CSI,” he wrote. “You don’t know what we went through. Especially to those who are demanding our family response and having a meetup . . . you guys are disgusting . . . I pray that you don’t have to go through what we went through and have your story blasted to 5 mil listeners.”
In an interview posted on Slate in October, just as the programme was taking off, Koenig detailed her efforts to get in touch with the Lee family, and defended her narrative: “I feel like we’re being very careful and responsible in our reporting.”
Serial has been praised for the rigour of its journalism, and its presentation of multiple perspectives on the murder. For Melanie Bunce, a lecturer in journalism at City University in London and a self-confessed Serial addict, this has reduced the ethical doubts around it. “I can understand that people feel [the show is] making a drama of real people’s lives,” she says. “But . . . it’s more important than just entertainment.”
It is also true that Koenig is telling a story to entertain her listeners. And as it entertains them it cannot but bring back, in all its agonising detail, the murder of a beloved daughter, sister and friend to her family and other companions.
While some listeners express a moral “queasiness”, it does not seem to have inhibited others from, for example, speculating online about how it would be “much more fun” if Jay, a friend of Syed’s who received a plea bargain for testifying against him, turned out to be a “charming sociopath”.
The treatment of Jay, in particular, highlights the ethical dilemmas raised by Serial. Because the big question for listeners is, if Syed did not murder Lee, who did? Koenig’s careful reporting boundaries, intrusive as even they can sometimes seem, are not consistently respected on social media. Jay’s conversation with Koenig was not, at his behest, recorded and his surname is not used in the podcasts. Online, however, users dig through court records, school photographs and the postings of the judge involved in the case.
They also name names where Koenig does not, speculate wildly about Jay and other potential suspects, and pinpoint locations not just of the school or shops that were important landmarks in the murder trial but of people’s houses.
Bunce argues that the programme shows that “we could be liberating podcast content from the historical dependence on radio stations and institutions”. But for others the explosion of online material around Serial is more an indicator of how journalists are increasingly losing control of content.
Emily Bell, a former Guardian journalist who is now director of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism, pinpointed this malaise in the Reuters Memorial Lecture she gave last month. “If there is a free press, journalists are no longer in charge of it,” she said. “In encouraging the world to publish, the platform technologies now have a social purpose and responsibility far beyond their original intent.”
It is a responsibility that, Bell suggests, both journalists and social media have, so far, failed to live up to. Though some of Serial’s listeners, describing themselves as “purists”, refuse to take part in the multitude of debates that surround the show, more typical is the Slate Serial Spoiler host who says: “I can’t remember what it’s like to listen to just the Serial podcast feed.”
For, if Serial’s sprawl beyond its original podcast poses dangers, it also presents opportunities. “Producers have to take [social media] into the planning process,” says Bunce. “This has been growing for a while, fans wanting to be engaged in the making of a show.”
Indeed, Koenig is still editing the content of future Serial episodes, in part to take account of new contributions from listeners. On the other hand, it could also be argued that the path the show navigates between reporting and entertainment merely highlights an age-old conundrum for journalists. “Artistry is not the enemy,” says Katy Waldman in the Slate Serial Spoiler she co-hosts. “If you can tell the story well, it’s not disrespectful to Hae.”
Serial’s entertainment value similarly divides listeners over how new a format it really is. Bunce says the programme is as “new and radical” as Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood once was. Published in 1966, Capote’s book both shocked and captivated readers by using the pace and style of a novel to tell the true story of the 1959 murders of the Kansas farmer Herbert Clutter, his wife, and two of their four children.
But many of the offshoots of Serial’s success look pretty old and unradical. As well as discussing the show on social media, listeners are also talking about it in person — forming discussion groups at the Algonquin Hotel in New York (at a “sound table” to rival Dorothy Parker’s famous Round Table meetings there) or meeting up to listen to the podcast together. Its success may have less to do with new media and more to do with preoccupations familiar to every age and stage of history.
For Michael Bromley, professor in international journalism at City University, as for many Serial listeners, the podcast works because it has “gone back to an older style of journalism ” in which the investigation unfolds in a more winding and almost leisurely way than most modern storytelling.
Serial’s narrative style mimics the way we think, hesitant, unconvinced by something one minute, changing our mind the next. Koenig’s frank avowals of her uncertainties or, at times, her discouragements echo a universal human condition. “It seems to me we crave some way of understanding the immense complexity of life,” says Bromley.
While Serial may not represent a real departure from storytelling and reporting through the ages, it may do something more useful, and that is to provide a convincing model of how such reporting can be paid for. According to Edison Research, about 39m Americans, 15 per cent of the over-12 population, listened to a podcast last month, up from 12 per cent in 2013 and 9 per cent in 2008. Making money from them has, however, proved tantalisingly difficult. Paying per episode has not taken off, and providing potential advertisers with predicted audience size has been a very inexact science.
But as Serial has taken off, it has captured the attention of advertisers. Sponsored from the outset by email marketing provider MailChimp, it is now also supported by website publisher Squarespace, Amazon’s audio publishing arm Audible and NYT Now. These companies, themselves products of the digital revolution, see new opportunities in the close connection that forms between listeners and the voices in their ears.
“We’re seeing brands get very interested [in podcasts] because they see it as a way to have an intimate connection with listeners,” says Matt Lieber, co-founder of Gimlet Media, a new Brooklyn-based podcasting venture.
According to its chief executive Adam Sachs, Midroll, a podcast advertising company that places commercials in more than 150 shows, charges rates of between $20 and $30 per thousand impressions (calculated on a projected number of downloads per episode) — about five times the cost for traditional radio advertising. MailChimp says it paid in the range of $25-to $40 per thousand impressions for Serial. With downloads far exceeding the producers’ initial estimates, MailChimp “is getting a very good deal”, says Emily Condon.
MailChimp has benefited not just from its paid advertising but from the social media conversation. Even a mangled pronunciation of MailChimp from the company’s in-show ad has received more than 3,100 mentions (#MailKimp) on social media, according to Brandwatch. The company says it does not measure sign-ups resulting from podcast advertising — and Audible also declined to discuss the impact of its Serial ads — but Mark DiCristina, MailChimp’s marketing director, told Ad Week magazine that the company had seen a rise in sign-ups since the show started.
Originally funded chiefly by the popular US radio programme This American Life, Serial may not need many “sponsors” (as podcast producers call their advertisers) for a second season. In episode nine, in a move familiar to regular audiences of US public radio and television broadcasters, Koenig made an appeal to listeners to donate, and one week later Serial’s producers announced that “between the money [listeners] donated and sponsorship, we will be able to make a second season”, although they declined to put a figure on the amount raised.
The listener-supported model has been successfully employed by other podcasts. For example, Radiotopia, a podcast network backed by PRX, a public media company that helps distribute This American Life, recently raised more than $620,000 on Kickstarter.
Of course, whether Serial’s funding model will provide a blueprint for other podcasts is, like the success of a second series, not a done deal. Much could depend on how this series ends. Although Koenig has said there could be more, the show is expected to have 12 episodes. And, while it appears clear by now that Syed’s conviction is unsound (his lawyers have pursued an appeals process for some years, and there will be a hearing in January), the big question for most listeners is whether, at the end of the programme, she will be able to tell us whether Syed is guilty or not of Lee’s murder.
“You might not stay listening if you didn’t think there was going to be resolution,” says Melanie Bunce. The format may not be reusable if the outcome disappoints. Koenig herself is unapologetic about the possibility.
“I’d rather disappoint many, many people than make some conclusion just because I’ve got to make . . . a satisfying story,” she told Slate’s Mike Pesca. “I hope that’s not where I lead all of my listeners but . . . I don’t know.”
If she doesn’t provide one, argued Pesca in the same interview, “the internet will rise up in a collective wail” and he pleaded with Koenig to reassure him that Serial would not “wind up being a contemplation on the nature of truth”.
For others, that possibility, or the light Serial has shed on the US justice system, the nature of investigative journalism, and even, more simply, how we tell whether people we know are telling the truth, are good enough takeaways from the series. The lack of a definitive conclusion would be disappointing but, as one Maryland-based listener put it, “that’s the nature of real life”.
“I feel like the word for this whole series has been ‘ambiguity’,” says another, 28-year-old Anna Maltby Patil. “The crime was ambiguous, the ‘evidence’ was ambiguous, the characters involved have been ambiguous, everyone’s opinions about the podcast itself have been pretty ambiguous. I think we’ll be able to do a lot of interpretation about that but I don’t know that Sarah is going to provide it for us . . . I don’t think I’ll feel let down, because the storytelling and the experience has been so amazing.”
Sarah Gordon is the FT’s business editor, Shannon Bond is its US media and marketing correspondent
Photographs: Courtesy of ‘Serial’; Baltimore Sun