‘Serial’ provides weekly entertainment and suspense

Sarah Koenig and Julie Snyder, the women behind "Serial," stand with Ira Glass, the host of "Serial's" predecessor, "This American Life." Meredith Heuer via Mother Jones

“Serial” (2014 – present), a spinoff podcast of “This American Life” (1995 – present) hosted by Sarah Koenig and produced by Julie Snyder, breathes life into a neglected medium of storytelling, allowing its audience to fall back in love with the radio in a new way. “Serial” investigates a 1999 murder case, delving into narratives and following leads to try to nail down what really happened.

In an age largely dominated by the silver screen, home televisions and personal tablets, radio has largely fallen to the wayside when it comes to producing narratives that appeal to the modern milieu. The brain trust behind “Serial,” however, has combined the nostalgia of radio with the accessibility of the internet, creating an episodic podcast that has topped iTunes charts since Sept. 19, 2014 — two weeks before its official release. Though marketed as a podcast, “Serial” has used the “This American Life” radio listener platform to attract an initial following. 

Formally, “Serial” is exactly what the name implies: a weekly continuation of the same non-fiction story. Each week it pulls the listeners back, determined to make sense of a storyline wrought with intentional ambiguity. Like well-written television programs, “Serial” is produced in a way that leaves the listener unsatisfied and hungry for answers that will only come after a glacially slow-moving week. Just as readers waited for installments of Charles Dickens’ newspaper serial “The Pickwick Papersalmost two centuries ago, modern listeners wait for this new series.

Koenig states in the pilot that the show came as a product of a year of investigative reporting surrounding the 1999 murder of Hae Min Lee, a student at Woodlawn High School in Baltimore, M.D. Intrigued by the facts of the case and uncertain of the state’s decision to convict ex-boyfriend Adnan Syad for Lee’s murder, Koenig tries to ascertain truths in this complicated, fifteen-year-old case.

The show follows a similar trajectory to well-written murder mystery novels or syndicated television programs. In the world of “Serial,” leads are tailed and characters developed, all to the well-suited soundtrack composed by Nick Thorburn and Mark Henry Phillips. Meanwhile, through phone conversations with Syed, court testimony from witnesses and students, phone records and police reports, Koenig shares the facts of the case, the unanswered questions she has concerning an overwhelming lack of evidence and her own vacillations between Syed’s presumed guilt and innocence.

With one season under its belt, “Serial” still leaves many questions — or perhaps the only question — of the case unresolved. Though much of the story’s mystery endures by the end of the first seven installments, the future of the podcast is less doubtful. The show will continue to run in upcoming seasons with the same premise, grappling with the day-to-day themes of human lives.

It is the medium of “Serial” that sets it apart from its literature and television counterparts. Though not a completely new platform from which to tell stories — Americans flocked to the radio in the mid-twentieth century for everything from news to comedy to music — the bridging of radio and internet as a foundation for narrative allows for a wider listener base in a more contemporary setting.

Completely devoid of visual components, “Serial” allows the audience to stimulate its imagination, an element completely absent from Netflix binges. Moreover, offered without a cost of subscription, “Serial’s” availability on the Internet and radio allows listeners to engage in a narrative for free. Additionally, the story is uninterrupted by commercials, which allows for a purer listening experience. Free of targeted popup promotions and advertisements, listeners are granted solace in their anonymity and comfort in knowing they are free to submerge themselves in narrative undisturbed for as long as Koenig speaks.

“Serial” has put wind back in the sails of radio chronicles. It is storytelling in a form forgotten to most American consumers, one that may be on the verge of making a comeback.


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