Many others have already said it, but ‘Serial’ – the recently concluded audio podcast originating from WBEZ Public Radio in Chicago is exciting, outstanding, compelling, gripping and much more besides. But it also represents something even more than these superlatives.
‘Serial’ is the future of radio, or more accurately audio, and the probable pioneer in a new golden age of audio programming. The programme also demonstrates that BBC Radio, which has always prided itself on the supremacy of its output, has nothing which compares to the creative and journalistic oomph of this American podcast.
But firstly for those who happen to have been living on a distant planet or have had three month long internet outage, then let me try to sum up the phenomenon of ‘Serial’. It is a non-fiction story told in twelve weekly episodes. The podcast chronicles and examines in minute detail the murder of an eighteen year old Maryland high-school student, Hae Min Lee, and the conviction of her ex-boyfriend, Adnan Syded, for the crime.
The case raises doubts about Syed’s guilt, who at age 18 was sentenced to life imprisonment for the murder.
The story unfolds across the weeks led by an unlikely Sherlock in the form of journalist Sarah Koenig. Her sassy, quirky personality, along with first-person asides drives the narrative. The episodes are filled with a lot of in-depth research, interspersed with Koenig’s personal musings, doubts, and revelations. Along the way we learn a great deal about the case, but also a lot about the reporter herself.
The combination of meticulous research, Koenig’s reporting style and the suspense-driven format melds it into a compulsive product. Without any marketing campaign, ‘Serial’ reached five million downloads on iTunes quicker than any other podcast before, and to date has achieved an incredible forty million downloads in total.
In reflecting upon ‘Serial’ there are a number of points that stand out.
Firstly, it demonstrates the particular stylistic and journalistic strengths of American public radio. Having grown up listening to the BBC and then working for it for 17 years, I was educated to believe that de-personalized reporting with tidy endings was best and right. ‘Serial’ broke many of the cardinal rules of radio journalism that I was taught, with its format held loosely together, through the literal and metaphorical ramblings of the reporter, along with its refusal to come to any definitive conclusions on the subject matter.
The podcast also drew upon the easy informality and personal storytelling which permeates much of American public radio, and which is so foreign to its British counterpart. In the UK there are sharply polished current affairs programmes, along with carefully constructed radio-plays. These are labour intensive products drawing upon the extensive resources of the broadcasting colossus that is the BBC. Public radio in the US has no such riches. It relies upon the generosity of individual and corporate contributors to keep going. But it has made a virtue of its paucity, using less to create more, particularly through stripped-down first person narratives (the best examples of which can be heard on ‘This American Life’ and ‘The Moth’).
The variations between British and American audio output also reflects deeper cultural differences. Americans are generally less formal and more confessional than their UK counterparts both in everyday life and in broadcasting.
The second point about ‘Serial’ is that thanks to the internet, it is charting a new path ahead for great audio programming. Its trajectory is reminiscent of HBO’s success on cable over fifteen years with its on-screen drama serials.
HBO was able to use the cable subscriptions to fund programmes that were too risky or profane to be made by the established networks. Without HBO we would never have had ‘The Sopranos’, ‘The Wire’, ‘Six Feet Under’, ‘Band of Brothers’, and more. And where this cable provider first ventured others followed: AMC (‘Mad Men’, ‘Breaking Bad’), Showtime (‘Dexter’, ‘Homeland’) and more. Now in the further evolution of on-screen drama, online providers such as Netflix, Amazon and others have got in on the act, producing further dramatic riches including, ‘House of Cards’ and ‘Transparent’. This has all been made possible thanks to technological advancements which have liberated programmes from TV networks, and increasingly from television itself, freeing both the provider and the viewer.
This is where ‘Serial’ may have found a new home for audio programming free from ‘radio’. It is delivered on-demand, allowing people to listen at their own convenience, on line, on the phone, in whole episodes or in small portions. Additionally Serial fits perfectly with the financial model of American public radio, which is reliant upon on hand-outs to keep functioning. It gives more bang for the contributor’s buck, supporting a specific programme rather than a complete network.
So thanks to new technology and sound journalistic skills, ‘Serial’ has created something innovative, accessible and utterly compelling.
It has also signaled that while the fate of radio may be uncertain, the future of audio (at least in the US) sounds good!