In autumn 2014, reporter and audio producer Sarah Koenig, along with other producers from This American Life, decided to put out the first few episodes of a podcast they’d been working on for around a year. It was a cold case story; a real-life whodunit for the murder of 18-year-old Baltimore student Hae Min Lee, who was strangled to death on 13 January 1999. Lee’s ex-boyfriend, Adnam Syed, was convicted of her murder, though he always insisted he was innocent. In 2013, Koenig was given access to court records of the case by Rabia Chaudry, a friend of Syed, and decided to have a look. She became fixated. “If you’re wondering why I went so nuts on this story, versus some other murder case, the best I can explain is: this is the one that came to me,” she said. Her fixation became the podcast Serial.
Serial changed podcasts forever. Koenig and her producers had hoped for an audience of around 300,000. Within days, the show zoomed to five million listeners on iTunes’ podcast section, faster than any other podcast ever. It was a phenomenon as soon as it began. Other podcasts were launched that analysed each episode as they came out; fan threads spooled all over Reddit; Facebook groups were formed to discuss tiny details (I know this because I started one). Spoofs popped up on Saturday Night Live.
As The Observer’s audio reviewer, I’d been listening to podcasts since 2011. But it was a young medium and this was still the era of “what is a podcast, exactly?”. Serial broke out of podcasts’ ghetto and smashed into the mainstream.
The really interesting thing about Serial, though, is how it hasn’t died. Today, the first season has been downloaded over 300 million times, and more people get hooked each day. Even now, if I’m asked to recommend shows to a podcast novice, Serial will always be on my list. This is for a few reasons that, pleasingly, I can alliterate: mystery, momentum and music.
Serial had a mystery at its centre, which listeners felt they could work out, alongside Koenig. It had a momentum, because of those listeners’ involvement, and because the last few shows were not yet made when the first few were broadcast. (Episode 11 went into extra evidence supplied by listeners, to not much avail.) And music… the most fundamental hook of Serial was its style. The audio furniture of each episode. The music was an incessant piano chord that I can still recall with ease. The recurrent adverts (“Mail… Chimp?”) became so familiar, they were included in the spoofs.
Most importantly, Koenig’s reporting and presentation were their own hooks. Her voice and her script were clever and authentic. She brought us along in her moments of discovery. She told us how she was feeling. She laid out all her frustrations, her mistakes and biases, her obsessions (“I have to know if Adnan really was in the library at 2.36pm… Library equals innocent. It’s so maddeningly simple and maybe I can crack it”). She was organised and dogged; each episode was packed with detailed information. But she was also confused: she oscillated between believing Syed’s protestations of innocence and discarding them as ludicrous.
Koenig’s presentation is still influential now: there are very few cold case podcast shows that don’t forefront the presenter, detail how long they spent investigating the crime, how they feel about evidence as they unearth it, their confusion.
Serial also highlighted the problem with true crime as a podcasting genre. The show started well, but didn’t come to a satisfying conclusion. There were difficulties getting some of the relevant people to talk. There was a sense that the victim was not foremost; that the case and the chase were more exciting than the person who had died.
But Serial made the wider world believe that podcasts were worth listening to. It opened up the market and alerted big players to the medium. Eventually, true crime podcasts were made that changed original court verdicts. Not this one, though: Syed’s conviction was questioned, but he remains in prison today, and was recently denied a new trial. He is 39.
Illustrations by Phillipa Warden Hill