The rise of Serial

There’s a good deal of buzz about a Maryland trial “taking the nation by storm,” to cite one of many overstatements. I wouldn’t go that far. OJ Simpson’s trial undeniably did that back in the 90s. Casey Anthony was more recent. The trial of George Zimmerman certainly lead a broad national discourse. And who really knows what the trial, or lack thereof, for Officer Darren Wilson may bring when it’s announced in the days ahead?

The trial that I’m referring to isn’t nearly as high profile. It’s not even current, having taken place nearly fifteen years ago – and few outside of Baltimore knew of it at the time. Six weeks after her January 1999 disappearance, the body of Hae Min Lee, then an 18 year-old high school senior in Woodlawn, MD, was found in Baltimore’s Leakin Park.

Adnan Syed, a Maryland-born son of Pakistani immigrants and Hae’s ex boyfriend, was named the prime suspect and later convicted of the crime after only two hours of deliberation. His conviction hinged upon the testimony of a sole eye-witness with a somewhat inconsistent story. No physical evidence links Syed to the crime, yet he will spend his entire life plus thirty years in jail.

Over a decade later, questions about Syed’s conviction ended up on the desk of the producers of long running NPR staple This American Life, who have revived it through the new Serial podcast, hosted by Sarah Koenig. Every Thursday, Koenig releases an episode averaging forty minutes in length, each one progressing chronologically through her investigation into the murder. This results in a riveting, real-life whodunnit of different a format than CSI, Law & Order, or The Wire – though its cult following may resemble the latter.

Entirely in audio, Serial leaves no rock unturned, successfully contacting nearly everyone associated with the murder as well necessary experts, and consulting every bit of case data. Changing stories, foggy memory, incomplete investigative work, Syed’s own questionable behavior, letters, cell phone logs, and teen diaries – some of which reads “like a Shakespearian mashup” in Koenig’s words. Serial presents a captivating quagmire of circumstantial evidence that, thus far, argues both Syed’s unfortunate guilt and absolute innocence.

Listeners travel on a beautifully produced, winding road that shows not only the flaws of the justice system but the difficulty in, say, explaining what you were doing on an ordinary day six weeks ago, and the ever so blurry line between common behavior and that of deviants.

As I listened attentively to the each episode of Serial on Friday mornings, I thought until this week that I was one of a relative few. A quick google search proved the contrary. In a matter of six weeks, Serial has become a phenomenon in its world. It’s now the quickest podcast to reach five million downloads on iTunes alone, leading some to wonder if this fall’s best new show is a podcast.

There is an active Reddit forum where its many users, true to form, toss around countless scenarios, questions, and observations about the case. Slate Magazine even started one of two podcast about Serial – yes, a show that breaks down another show. There are on-location Youtube videos and time lapse maps testing the prosecution’s case. It was even featured on The Today Show and word is there are Serial listening parties.

It’s incredible that in a world of on demand video, the 160-character Twitterverse, and near-infinite distractions, we could be so close to the long gone days of huddling around the radio and listening to stories. Serial proves that with a solid score and good journalism, audio can still be remarkably engaging to a large audience. There’s something comforting about that reality.

Once considered a dying format, 15% of Americans report having listened to a podcast in the past month, up from 8% in 2008. I’m usually on a rotation of ten or so myself.

With only eight of Serial’s twelve episodes having been released, you still have time to join its listenership in real time as they are released each Thursday. Episode number one is posted below. You can find the rest on iTunes, on the Serial Soundcloud, the official website, or your preferred Android podcast app.

If you do start listening, let me know!

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