Serial: radio in the age of ambiguity
Though we launched our very own cllbr radio project last month, the most striking event in the world of audio reporting wasn't ours.
Indeed, the podcast universe was taken by surprise when in October, co-producers Sarah Koenig and Julie Snyder spun-off their latest opus, Serial, a podcast that unfolds the nonfiction story of the 15-year old murder case of Hae Min Lee and her convicted ex-boyfriend, Adnan Syed.
In the span of a few short weeks, Serial has become a worldwide phenomenon, one that CNN has dubbed "the podcasting world's first mega hit", attracting nearly 20 million downloads and counting, from an audience ranging in the millions.
A social phenomenon
Though the show is clearly built both as a journalistic and an entertainment program, it is at its core a documentary piece that benefits from the team's strong storytelling capacities — most of which are reminiscent of Serial's parent series, This American Life. While few documentary films are able to draw such interest in such a short time span, the sudden rise to mainstream of an audio report isn't only based on the podcast itself.
In fact, what's most striking is that Serial seems to evolve in a virtuous spiral of popularity; it has become a self-standing, social phenomenon where interaction plays a role as big as the weekly releases themselves. Stimulated by this vigorous community of hardcore fans (which it has build over the course of less than two months — a feat in itself), the show's popularity has stimulated innumerable parallel investigations into the case. The Financial Times' Sarah Gordon even claims that the producers "are increasingly losing control of content".
Fan sites and sub-reddits are stemming everywhere — some, like Bold Italic, are even publishing "the best Serial infographics" — all to discuss the very real murder of a very real young girl 15-years ago. It is reported that the Lee family does not at all appreciate this sudden burst of interest…
The very factuality of Serial's reporting also raises some questions that ethical boards and media scholars are starting to investigate. For one, Koenig and her team are digging into a story that unfolded 15 years ago, where most protagonists (save for Hae) are still alive and well.
Though Serial is the result of more than a year of research and interviews, the podcast is being produced "on the go", and is largely the result of interactions with the witnesses and the online actors that follow and dig into the story. Yet the ability of many of the real-life characters to go about their lives "normally" is being affected, as they are suddenly placed under the scrutiny of millions of listeners. Full names, private adresses, delirious scenarios are being made available online, sometimes by serious media like The Guardian who's published pictures and maps to contribute to the audience's experience.
What happens, then, if nothing happens? Will an angry mob form, made of thousands of disappointed listeners? Who will they direct their anger towards? Contrary to the situations in Ferguson and Staten Island where reports are fresh and relatively unequivocal, the guilt in the case of the murder of Have Min Lee is being constructed by a small team of would-be investigators, journalists, and — let's face it — entertainment producers.
Interviewed by the Financial Times, Koenig clarifies her intentions: “I’d rather disappoint many, many people than make some conclusion just because I’ve got to make . . . a satisfying story.” Yet one cannot help but think that the ability of the producers to generate further such interest in their own work will be inextricably linked with their ability to provide a satisfying ending. Or at least, closure.
To the satisfaction of many, The Star reports that the case is being reopened by the Maryland Court of Special Appeals, and a date set for hearings in January 2015.
The end, then
In the end, Serial may or may not conclude that Adnan Syed killed Hae Min Lee. Regardless of this very important outcome — one which sheds light on the dysfunctional system of American justice — the secondary contribution of Koenig and Snyder's work is their exploration of a new kind of investigative journalism. Or rather, an actualization of a long lost tradition of durable investment in a story, of a search for truth, and of the interdependence between fact and narrative in the making of the news.
In a recent video report, The Verge calls this handful of quality investigators "the new radio stars". Of these chosen few, Alex Blumberg — the producer of This American Life and Planet Money — is very clear about where he stands: "we are witnessing the dawn of a second golden age of radio".
While many may have shrugged this off as wishful thinking only a few months ago, these examples go a long way to prove that there is a business model, a purpose, and further formats to be exploited in radio and podcasting. Serial may not be without its ambiguities. But that is exactly the point.