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23 December 2019updated 09 Jul 2021 7:12am

S is for Serial: The podcast that left us permanently plugged in

By Aneta Ozga

In 2014, Adnan Syed and Hae Min Lee were almost household names, but not because either of them had done anything newsworthy that year. Hae Min Lee was murdered in January 1999 and Syed has been in prison since February 2000, convicted of her murder. 2014 was the year their story was retold by investigative journalist Sarah Koenig, via a rigorous narrativised investigation, directly into the public’s ears. This was Serial, a podcast by radio channel This American Life: “one story told week by week”.

Serial told the story of the murder of Hae Min Lee via forensic reinvestigation of the evidence and new interviews with many important figures from the 1999 case, including Adnan Syed’s family and Syed himself. Syed was an ex-boyfriend of Lee’s; Koenig also interviewed Lee’s next boyfriend who she was dating at the time she was killed. All this was combined with Koenig personally investigating every detail of the case. Although Syed was convicted and imprisoned, he maintains that he is innocent, and Koenig remained sceptical.

Serial is longform with each episode nearly an hour and addictive with each episode leaving more to be uncovered. Its success was unparalleled. Serial released its first episode in early October 2014. By the end of December that year, it had been downloaded 40 million times, and was the fastest podcast ever to reach five million downloads by that November. After the case of Adnan Syed, Koenig followed up with two further seasons, the second focusing on Bowe Bergdahl, a US Army soldier held by the Taliban and charged with desertion, and the third a variety of criminal cases heard in one courthouse in Cleveland, Ohio. The same channel also produced S-Town, which opens as a murder mystery and ends up following, in intimate detail, the life of an eccentric clockmaker in a small town in Alabama. 

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It is easy to forget there was once a time before podcasts. The format emerged in the 2000s and the term was coined in 2004 by Ben Hammersley in the Guardian, a portmanteau of “iPod broadcast”. Podcasts are of the same family as on-demand TV, giving the consumer more freedom to choose than on traditional TV or radio, downloadable straight to the user’s device. iTunes integrated podcasts in 2005, but it was Serial addictive, consuming, a provider of essential cultural reference points that had us permanently plugged in. We’ve stayed this way since: over 7 million people in the UK listen to podcasts each week. In a Guardian article about the “art world insider” look of the decade, Jess Cartner-Morley notes that the impeccably stylish woman in question “probably had earphones in to listen to a podcast, this decade, rather than being on the phone”.

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Cartner-Morley’s point, perhaps, is that it has been just as fashionable this decade to be switched on and engaged intellectually as socially. But just like being on the phone, podcasts possess a level of intimacy. They are often listened to through headphones, so the listener feels they are being spoken to directly, and because they are accessible anywhere they are woven around the listener’s life. Podcasts present an opportunity for permanent stimulation and instant gratification, in a format even more flexible and private even than the media that has marked a shift in our consumption of television.

This intimacy was especially pronounced in Serial because it told a gnarly true story that left listeners feeling as though they were privy to secrets and able to form their own theories about the case. True crime is a literary genre that’s been around for centuries, but has become undeniably embedded in culture over the past decade. Not long after Serial came Making a Murderer in 2015, the Netflix original series about the case of Steven Avery, who was convicted for the 2005 murder of Teresa Halbach. This conviction followed a false imprisonment for rape and attempted murder in 1985. The programme documents the entire case and questions the credibility and motives of the state.

Making a Murderer was and still is, with a second season released in 2018 and the case still very much in the public eye a major reference point politically as well as culturally. There are numerous online conspiracy theories, and a petition to the White House in 2017 to free Avery (and his alleged then-teenage accomplice Brendan Dassey). After a month, the first season had gained over 19 million viewers.

The use of sensitive cases such as this for entertainment has been contentious. Teresa Halbach’s family did not participate in either season of the documentary, releasing a statement before season two aired saying: “we are saddened to learn that individuals and corporations continue to create entertainment and to seek profit from our loss.” Though Making a Murderer was met with widespread acclaim, some critics also contended that it was one-sided. “Making a Murderer never provokes the type of intellectual and psychological oscillation so characteristic of Koenig and Snyder’s Serial,” writes Kathryn Schulz in the New Yorker

Serial epitomises two of the major cultural booms of the 2010s: podcasting and true crime. Perhaps what both trends signify is a desire for intimacy and connection in this age of digital relationships and community fracture. Serial encapsulates the decade in which we put in our headphones, and never took them out again. 

> This article is part of our A-Z of the 2010s.