“Like Movies for Radio”: Media Convergence and the Serial Podcast Sensation

By Jennifer O'Meara

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For virality experts Karine Nahon and Jeff Hemsley, “viral events are a naturally occurring, emergent phenomenon facilitated by [an] interwoven collections of websites”.[1] Although digital media facilitate such events, they note that viral content “stands out as remarkable in a sea of content”.[2] This remarkable content is deemed worthy of sharing and, eventually, a positive feedback loop begins to sustain the visibility and impact of the content across multiple platforms. During its 12-episode run from October to December 2014, the podcast Serial became a viral internet sensation of the kind described by Nahon and Hemsley, as well as other scholars of digital culture such as Limor Shifman,[3] whose set of factors that lead to virality I will consider further below.

Serial tells the story of the 1999 murder of Hae Min Lee, a Baltimore high-school student whose ex-boyfriend, Adnan Syed, was convicted of the crime. There was little evidence to link Syed to the crime, with his conviction largely resulting from testimony given by Jay Wilds – a friend of Syed’s – who claims he helped Syed to bury Lee’s body. Serial was made by Sarah Koenig and Julie Snyder as a spin-off from WBEZ Chicago’s long-running radio show, This American Life (Chicago Public Media, 1995–). But while This American Life dedicates single episodes to theme-based short stories, often told as first-person narratives, the premise with Serial is that particularly complex stories warrant an extended structure. In this case, Koenig was contacted about Syed’s case by a lawyer (and family friend) who believes he was wrongfully convicted due to a flawed trial. Over the course of 12 episodes, Serial’s producers ultimately conduct their own investigation into the death of Hae Min Lee, one that appears, at times, to be more thorough than the official investigation.

Like with This American Life, Serial’s episodes are arranged thematically. Episodes vary in length, from 28 to 55 minutes, with podcasts dedicated to topics such as “The Breakup”, which focuses on the likelihood that Syed would have killed Lee for ending their relationship, and “Inconsistencies”, which highlights the continuous changes in Jay’s testimony. Each podcast includes interviews between Koenig and individuals loosely or closely connected to the murder. Koenig also interviews independent experts, such as Deirdre Enright, head of The Innocence Project: a centre at the University of Virginia Law School that investigates and litigates wrongful convictions. In addition to including extensive conversations between Koenig and Syed (whom she talked to for over 40 hours using a prison phone line), Serial incorporates recordings from the original trial and a range of atmospheric music.

By November 2014, Serial had achieved five million downloads in record time for a download, and by Christmas it had been downloaded 40 million times.[4] Its popularity continued to grow, with total downloads doubling to roughly 80 million by April 2015. Given these and several other podcasting records that Serial broke, the series can thus be described as “going viral”. While the data for Serial demonstrates its popular impact, the series also received critical accolades: it became the first podcast to win a prestigious Peabody award for public service achievement in the media, and Koenig was named as one of TIME magazine’s “100 Most Influential People in the World” for 2015.[5] The success of Serial continues, with Koenig embarking on a series of public talks about the podcast’s production and reception throughout 2015, as well as developing the second series due for release late in 2015.

If, as Nahon and Hemsley argue, selected content goes viral due to its remarkability rather than by chance, then what made Serial’s content stand out? And, indeed, what is the relevance of this to a journal dedicated to cinema (albeit a special issue on virality and intermedia culture)? The producers of This American Life provide an answer, one which indicates a certain kinocentrism found in contemporary culture, when describing their show: “We’re not really formatted like other radio shows at all. Instead, we do these stories that are like movies for radio.”[6] Serial’s connection to This American Life likely played an important role in its viral success since, as Shifman outlines in her discussion of the factors influencing what content goes viral, prestige and careful digital positioning strategies can increase the dissemination of certain content.[7] In the case of Serial, it benefited from This American Life’s reputation as a high-quality radio show – one that prides itself on certain cinematic properties – as well as from its producers’ network of media influencers who helped increased Serial’s visibility.

Explaining the difficulty they have summarizing This American Life within standard radio categories, the producers also describe it as “a documentary show for people who normally hate documentaries”.[8] Both the original show and the Serial spin-off draw on audiovisual – as well as audio – culture, and this article aims to make the show’s claim of being “like movies for radio” more concrete by comparing techniques used in Serial to those of documentary cinema, and to what Jason Mittell terms “complex TV”.[9] Looking at both the podcast’s production and reception, I consider overlaps between Serial and Errol Morris’s influential documentary, The Thin Blue Line (USA, 1988), and analyse how Serial uses digital materials (including the kind that Mittell terms “orienting paratexts” in relation to TV serials) to complement audio storytelling. I contend that although Serial is generally categorised as a podcast, its remarkability largely results from the way the series uses transmedia storytelling to negotiate new territory between historic and contemporary media techniques and distribution channels: in particular, I am concerned with Serial’s provision of supplementary “evidence” on their website, and the way this encourages listeners to engage with the series more deeply through a package of 12 podcasts and related imagery.

This participatory engagement will also be used to explain Serial’s virality since, as Shifman explains in her discussion of what makes content go viral, dissemination can be enhanced “if people are encouraged not only to share a certain item, but also to carry out other activities related to it.”[10] By exploring digital interactions between Serial’s listeners and the podcast’s producers, I also relate the podcast to Henry Jenkins’ concept of “convergence culture”,[11] which unites old and new media and encourages audience participation, as well as to Chuck Tryon’s concept of personalized “on-demand” media consumption.[12] Serial’s production and reception is thus used to illustrate the ways that – in today’s intermedia culture – cinema, radio journalism, television and digital content can influence and interact with one another, as can the producers and consumers of this intermedia.

But first it’s worth contextualising Serial’s relationship to inter-media with reference to seriality more general. Distilling the proceedings from a 2011 conference on “The Mechanics of Serialization”, Shane Denson explains that since “serial forms exist in all media” then seriality studies is “an inherently interdisciplinary, comparative, and plurimedial field of study”.[13] Although this article is not focused on the seriality aspect of Serial, my analysis nonetheless acknowledges the importance of the underlying structure. Furthermore, regardless of the independent appeal of Serial’s long-form story, it seems unlikely that the show would have been so successful if contemporary audiences were not already primed for its serial structure. As Denson summarises, serialised forms of entertainment have been growing in popularity and esteem in recent years, leading to “the widespread impression” that serialised products are more sophisticated, more complex and “just plain better” than other forms of mass-produced entertainment.[14] Mad Men (AMC, 2007-2015) is one such example from the realm of television. Mittell cites the show’s impeccable style and expert production values as traits that mark it out as “quality” television.[15] While Serial’s sound production qualities are equally of a high standard, Mittell’s description of Mad Men’s “slow-burn seriality”[16] is perhaps the quality which best unites the two shows, and a good starting point from which presently to consider the relationship between Serial’s seriality, its pace, and its appeal.

The pace and structure of Serial could be considered a case of art imitating life, or form imitating content: murder trials are long and detailed, so a production based on one – particularly one that serves as a form of re-trial by media – should be, too. Analyses of Serial have already identified its novel relationship to contemporary media practices in terms of speed. Publicity material for one of Koenig’s public talks describes how, “[a]t a time when being first and being fast dominates the media, and quick sound bites are offered at every turn, Serial did exactly the opposite […] taking its time and proving that slow-motion journalism could captivate and sustain its vast podcast listenership.”[17] As this description suggests, Serial is the antithesis to the accelerated pace of much contemporary media: constantly updating Twitter feeds; television shows that condense or eschew credit sequences; “intensified continuity” editing in cinema;[18] video essays that use split screens to compare scenes. Despite listeners using the internet to access Serial, its narrow focal point and largely audio format provide us with a temporary reprieve from the speed of new media and the overwhelming quantity of visual images with which we come into contact on a daily basis.[19] Because although Serial’s website offers supplementary images and interactive maps, it is possible to comprehend and be engaged by the story without also consulting these.

To some extent, the unprecedented success of Serial’s “slow-motion journalism”[20] is evidence against discourse (yet to be proven definitively) on the negative impact of digital media on our attention spans. As Leonard Shyles summarises, digital natives are often thought to have trouble assimilating long-form information, since “much of the information on the Web is delivered in short, easily digestible, and graphically enhanced packets”.[21] Serial worked against this trend for brief digital content (or perhaps it is an exception that proves the rule): “scenes” within each episode could be long and detail-heavy, with exchanges between Koenig and interviewees often requiring careful concentration. Although there were advertisements at the start and end of episodes, Serial otherwise ran uninterrupted for up to 55 minutes. More broadly, in addition to withholding instant gratification (from the perspective of providing listeners with easy answers), the show only provided a partial form of delayed gratification, since it comes to no conclusion with respect to Syed’s guilt.

 

Re-trial by Media: Serial and the Legacy of The Thin Blue Line

Although I will return to comparisons between Serial and serialised “quality” television, any discussion of Serial’s intermedia status also requires that attention be paid to documentary. In terms of subject matter, there are considerable overlaps between Serial and The Thin Blue Line, though differences emerge as a result of their different formats and the timing (26 years apart) of the two productions. Morris’s film charts the real-life murder of a policeman in Dallas in 1976. The documentary was instrumental in freeing Randall Adams, who was wrongfully sentenced to life imprisonment for the murder. The film is also renowned for its pioneering use of reconstructed footage. By the end of the film, Morris has elicited a confession from David Harris, who had effectively framed Adams for the murder of the police officer. Although Serial reaches no such resolution, Syed (like Adams) was largely convicted on the basis of a single verbal account, rather than any substantial physical evidence linking him to the crime.

As with The Thin Blue Line, Serial highlights a variety of inconsistencies in the evidence used in the trial, including the key witness’s inconsistent account of events, as well as the failure of Syed’s defense attorney to contact a student who claimed to have been with him at the time of the murder. Partly as a result of the inconsistencies raised by Serial’s producers during their reporting-cum-storytelling, Syed’s appeal was reopened in February 2015. The Maryland Court of Special Appeals agreed to hear arguments for why Syed should get a new trial as a result of his trial attorney, Cristina Gutierrez, providing ineffective assistance of counsel. Thus, both Serial and The Thin Blue Line have used their respective media to enact tangible change in the lives of their subjects. Serial could also be said to build on the legacy of “reflexive” documentaries, such as Morris’s, which helped audiences to see that real-life events are molded into the same kinds of narrative structures as fictional ones. Bill Nichols includes The Thin Blue Line in the category of reflexive documentaries – those in which filmmaker(s) engage in meta-commentary about the process of representing real-life events.[22] Linda Williams expands on this in her analysis of memory and truth in The Thin Blue Line, explaining how the film is “acutely aware that individuals whose lives are caught up in events are not so much self-coherent and consistent identities as they are actors in competing narratives”.[23]

In the late-1980s, Morris’s foregrounding of the way that “real” documentary subjects become embedded in partly-fictitious stories was considered new and progressive, but, perhaps as a result of their exposure to such documentaries, Serial’s key players explicitly acknowledge their roles as “actors”. When Koenig interviews a detective, for instance, she jokes that he is a real detective while she – a journalist and producer by trade – is “playing one on the radio”. Both Koenig and Syed also use language that conflates the crime and subsequent trial with that of narrative storytelling. In episode 1, Koenig notes that cell records “bolster the main plot points” of principal witness Jay Wilds’s story, and in episode 6 Syed refers to people believing “the narrative of what Jay is saying” – a narrative that incriminates Syed. Syed recognises himself as a “character” both during his trial and once again through the making of the podcast: he claims to have drawn from the television show Matlock (NBC, 1986-1995) when he asked for a lawyer upon learning that he was being charged with first degree murder. Syed also acknowledges a performative approach to his role in the podcast when he explains how he is intentionally keeping his exchanges with Koenig impersonal. More so than Morris’s subjects in The Thin Blue Line, our primary contacts in Serial reveal their own media literacy when they draw parallels between their real lives and their constructed representations. In Morris’s documentary, David Harris instead seems unaware (or at least unconcerned) with the potential impact of what he is saying on camera.

Like The Thin Blue Line, Serial incorporates details of its own construction. At the beginning of most episodes, we hear the same automated voice that Koenig hears each time she speaks with Syed: “This is a Global-Tel link prepaid call from Adnan Syed, an inmate at a Maryland Correctional facility.” On occasion, their conversations are cut-off or interrupted, reminding us of the tedious labour involved in accumulating the audio recordings that we are now hearing. Morris’s documentary also incorporates details of its own construction, as well as making a feature of the problems experienced during the shooting, as when a camera malfunctions while interviewing David Harris: this means that, despite Morris’s tendency to show his interviewees talking into the camera, The Thin Blue Line’s closing confession is only heard, accompanied by a close-up of the tape recorder playing Harris’s confession back (Figure 1).

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Figure 1

This is the only scene in which we hear Morris question anyone, with the format (as well as the content) foreshadowing Serial precisely in that we hear Morris interview Harris about a murder, just as we hear Koenig interview Syed. The audience has no visual drama to distract from Harris’s confession; his words are all that matter. The visual focus on the tape recorder highlights that a piece of cheap audio technology was sufficient to achieve the documentary’s aim of proving who committed the murder. Koenig uses audio recording equipment to similar effect (although without eliciting the same kind of revelation) in Serial. Since verbal accounts are largely what landed Adams and Syed in jail, both Morris’s and Koenig’s approach to their subjects suggest they realise that words, rather than physical evidence, could also set them free. Yet, as I will consider in further detail towards the end of this article, Serial’s mystery and appeal can partly be attributed to the expressive power of the voice.

 

Showing vs. Telling: Supplementing Audio Content with Visual Material

Morris doesn’t use a voice-over in The Thin Blue Line, but such narration is a staple of what Nichols terms the “expository” documentary mode (which often uses an extra-diegetic narrator to provide an authoritative commentary on unfolding events).[24] Given the podcast’s natural absence of images, Koenig instead has to summarise important visuals, as well as commenting on them critically (much like the typical documentary narrator). There is a self-awareness to the way that she tries to remain impartial when describing materials that listeners can’t see. When reading handwriting from a detective report, Koenig comments that while it looks like “Alright, I come clean”, it could also be read (nonsensically, but on the basis of the handwriting) as “A bright eye came down”. At certain points, however, she has little choice but to summarise and draw a conclusion from what she sees.

Episode 5 provides perhaps the best example of a “scene” that could frustrate listeners and make them wish they were watching a documentary, rather than listening to a podcast. Koenig and one of the producers, Dana Chivvis, re-enact a sequence of events described by Jay, after Syed insists that his incriminating timeline would be impossible to execute in 21 minutes. Although the sequence is one of the most overtly dramatic of the series (the producers couldn’t disprove the timeline, although they did show it to be highly unlikely), it is somewhat frustrating to listen to: they are revisiting the crucial locations in Lee’s murder, but all we hear is Koenig and Chivvis driving and commenting on the time. This route, and the school where they begin – where Lee was last seen alive – is fundamental to the entire season, but listeners have no choice but to imagine it rather than see it for themselves. This problem, which ultimately comes down to one of media specificity and the limits of audio storytelling, calls into question the contradictory idea evoked earlier by This American Life’s producers of “movies for radio”. This is not to say that listeners do not enjoy imagining things for themselves, but that the precise details of a crime story are not suited to visualization. Rather than accepting this limitation of audio crime storytelling, Serial’s producers employ transmedia techniques to address, and partly resolve, the issue.

At the end of most episodes, Koenig mentions that there are supplementary pictures, maps and documents available on the website, serialpodcast.org. Each of the podcasts is titled, numbered, and accompanied by an image related to that particular episode (Figure 2). These supplementary materials point to the fact that, no matter how compellingly Serial crafts its audio story, audiences can crave something more visual: a picture of Hae Min Lee and Syed (the murdered schoolgirl and the man imprisoned for her murder), a map of the area in which the crime took place (Figure 3), or a scan of a letter that provided an alibi for Syed, but which his attorney never pursued (Figure 4). Again, The Thin Blue Line could be considered as an influence, since in that film David Resha explains that – aside from the documentary’s many filmed interviews – 67 per cent of its shots are cutaways to things like official documents, photos and maps (see Figures 5 and 6).[25] Both Serial and The Thin Blue Line therefore show awareness that, no matter how much information is provided verbally, audiences benefit from visible “evidence” which they can see with their own eyes.

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The Thin Blue Line embeds these materials throughout in the form of cut-away shots, while Serial’s producers embed them on their website. From an audience perspective, the latter may be superior. Cutaway shots can last for as long as the director/editor deems necessary but, when images and documents are instead available through easily accessed links on the Serial site, listeners have the time and freedom to digest them as they see fit. For example, Koenig notes that two full days of Syed’s trial were dedicated to the cell-phone records, including testimony from technological experts. Data from Syed’s phone – which he lent to Jay on the day of the murder – made up a significant portion of the case against him: at several points in the timeline, Syed’s phone connected with cell-phone towers in incriminating locations (although the accuracy of such data is uncertain, and this is still under question in respect of Syed’s case). If Serial can be seen as a form of re-trial of Syed by media, then it is fitting that we (the unofficial jury) have the resources to properly examine these same records (see Figure 7). The same holds true with the blueprint diagrams of crime scenes, which both The Thin Blue Line and Serial make use of, and which audience members may want time to examine (Figures 8 and 9). Thus, while Shawn Rosenheim describes The Thin Blue Line as requiring viewers to “act for themselves as historical interpreters, detectives sifting the evidence”,[26] Serial’s historical interpreters have substantial evidence to sift through (including letters, an affidavit, cell phone records, hand-drawn maps, and blueprints), and more time in which to do it. The evidence provided on Serial’s website is still only a selection – that which the producers deem most important – but it nonetheless provides the show’s listeners with a chance to become more immersed in the material.

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Serial’s use of such paratexts[27] encourages comparison with the television serials that Jason Mittell theorises in Complex TV: The Poetics of Contemporary Television Storytelling (2015). In fact, if you replace the word “viewing” with “listening”, then Mittell’s description of complex television as enabling an audience to “build up their own comprehension skills through long-term viewing and active engagement” holds equally for Serial.[28] Like with the podcast, complex TV shows such as Lost (ABC, 2004-2010) benefit from using digital platforms to expand their storyworlds and to encourage active engagement by listeners in the performative online sphere. Mittell dedicates two chapters to transmedia storytelling and to what he refers to as “orienting paratexts”. As he explains, transmedia storytelling generally involves “paratexts whose prime goal is to expand the storyworld and to extend narrative engagement with the series”, while orienting paratexts “reside outside the diegetic storyworld, providing a perspective for viewers to help make sense of a narrative world by looking at it from a distance”.[29] In other words, paratexts can be used to provide us with greater detail into, or a broader perspective of, any given story. Serial’s digital resources include elements of both. The producers developed orienting paratexts, such as an interactive evidence map and a people map (Figure 10), both of which help listeners to keep track of the story unfolding. Other materials, such as hand-written letters by the victim, Hae Min Lee, and Asia McClain (who believes she was with Syed at the time of Hae’s murder) instead deepen our engagement with the story and its principal players.

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Mittell reveals why transmedia storytelling’s ability to “support and strengthen the core television narrative experience” is especially important for serials, since “gaps between episodes and seasons provide time for viewers’ attention to wander”.[30] Here, Mittell draws on Jenkins’ analysis of The Matrix (Andy and Larry Wachowski, 1999) and transmedia storytelling in Convergence Culture (2006).[31] Serial’s audio format created even more gaps for the audience than a TV serial, with even further potential for wandering attention. This, in turn, gave rise to a range of supplementary materials, with Serial’s producers anticipating demand for both orienting and transmedia paratexts. Serial’s paratexts are also in keeping with the kind of transmedia storytelling that Mittell and Henry Jenkins describe as being designed with “coordinated precision”.[32] Each time you click on an episode to download, the website highlights certain paratexts as being “related to episode X”. Listeners do not have to search for this supplementary information: that coordination has been done for them.

 

Serial as “Forensic Fandom”

Mittell explains that transmedia narrative models “encourage forensic fandom with the promise of eventual revelations once all the pieces are put together”.[33] Although he uses the term “forensic” in a general sense (pertaining to public discussion or debate), the technical description of forensic science (as the investigation of crime scenes with a view to providing impartial evidence in a court of law) is particularly apt to describe Serial’s content, as well as the producers’ investigative and impartial approach to it. When, in episode 4, Koenig explicitly encourages listeners to “figure out this case with me”, she also brings to mind Jenkins’ argument that collective intelligence (between media producers and consumers) is a key cultural shift taking place in the new millennium.[34] In addition to Koenig telling us that “now is the time to start paying close attention because we have arrived, along with the detectives, at the heart of the thing”, Serial’s thorough approach to fact collection encourages the kind of attentive listening and digital discussions that allow “virtual communities to leverage the combined expertise of their members.”[35]

A key benefit of collective intelligence is that it enables problem-solving for things that “we cannot know or do on our own.”[36] Such collective problem-solving is evident in the many online communities used by Serial’s fans to analyse the details of the case, with a view to unraveling the mystery. For example, on Reddit.com there are over 400 responses to a detailed blog post by legal associate, Susan Simpson, entitled “Evidence that Jay’s Story Was Coached to Fit the Cellphone Records.’’[37] Simpson’s January 2015 post incorporates transcripts from Serial, as well as additional materials which the author sourced, such as aerial views of locations from Google Earth and hand-written letters from one of the detectives involved in the case. Serial also inspired other interactive offshoots, including detailed online polls regarding Syed’s guilt and involvement,[38] and Koenig’s interactive public talks, which allow listeners to quiz her on the case directly.

Such participatory behavior can also be related to conceptions of Web 2.0 culture. As Shifman discusses in relation to memes, sharing user-generated content is a dominant activity in Web 2.0 environments.[39] In the case of Serial, although a certain amount of user-generated content was uploaded to the show’s crowded Reddit forum (including humorous memes which, given the subject matter, were often in bad taste), Serial’s listeners generally focused on sharing information: either new theories or existing evidence reworked into new arguments.[40]

 

Serial as “On-Demand” Media

In a telling acknowledgement of the podcast’s reception, several of the public talks that Koenig is giving in 2015 are entitled “Binge-Worthy Journalism”.[41] The term binge-viewing is commonly used to describe how audiences increasingly consume one or more seasons of a television programme within a short space of time. Initially, DVD boxsets made this possible, with streaming sites such as Netflix and Hulu further enabling such extreme viewing habits.[42] Implicit in the term “binge-worthy journalism” is an understanding that journalism rarely elicits such obsessive behaviour. Yet just four weeks into Serial’s twelve-week run, producer Dana Chivvis posted an update on the website entitled “A Question of Binge Listening”, in response to listeners’ requests for the full season to be released at once. Chivvis explained that this was not possible since they were making the episodes as they went along (of course, it did become possible to binge listen to Serial once the series was complete.) But the fact that listeners felt entitled to demand all of Serial at once, and that the producers felt the need to respond to these requests, speaks to the nature of what Chuck Tryon (writing on cinema and television) calls “on-demand culture”.

For Tryon, “on-demand” digital culture provides viewers with “new forms of immediate access to movies and television shows”.[43] As Tryon demonstrates throughout On-Demand Culture: Digital Delivery and the Future of Movies (2013), such immediate access can shift audience expectations for how quickly content should be delivered. Listeners who requested all of Serial’s episodes at once seem to reflect a new kind of impatience; one that immediate access might be seen to create. The requests from Serial listeners – and the way in which the producers promptly responded to them – also reflect an increase in audience control that Tryon identifies as another side-effect of individuals having near-constant access to entertainment through digital platforms: “access to entertainment is promoted as mobile, persistent, and interactive, allowing the user far more control than in the past”.[44] In terms of interactivity, Serial’s website and social media accounts provided quick and easy avenues for listeners to request more episodes, with the producers receptive to such interaction. Chivvis thanks listeners for their patience and enthuses that “we couldn’t be happier that you’re as absorbed by this story as we are”.[45] But, even if the producers had already made all of the episodes, would or should they have indulged demands for the whole season to be released?

Little research has been done on the impact of media “binges” on audience satisfaction and engagement. From the producer’s perspective, however, there are certain benefits to a more staggered release. This allowed Serial’s producers to capitalise, literally, on the podcast’s success: towards the end of the twelve-week run, the producers appealed for listeners to donate money for a second series. Within a few weeks, enough money had been raised and the second season is due for release in the winter of 2015-2016. The staggered release also allowed Serial to gain momentum, with new listeners joining each week. The increased listenership was partly due to word of mouth – people urging their friends and family to listen so that they could discuss it – and partly due to the sustained attention from popular sites like Vulture.com, which created 36 short-form articles on Serial, both during and after its run. Again, this recalls Shifman’s point about positioning material at important media “hub” in order to increase their spreadability.[46]

Perhaps more importantly, Serial allows the producers to incorporate new information, some of which trickles in as a result of Serial’s popularity. As late as episode 12, Koenig reveals information provided by two important figures: Don, Hae Min Lee’s boyfriend at the time she died, who had declined Koenig an interview months earlier, and one of Jay’s co-workers to whom Jay had talked about the murder. Naturally, this new information could not have been incorporated had the series been completed or broadcast in one go: these contributors came forward with new information only because they, too, got caught up in the hype of the show. This unusual feature of Serial’s production captures how, in many ways, what makes it stand out as remarkable in a sea of content (to use Nahon and Hemsley’s description of viral media) is that it managed to be both uncommonly slow, in terms of pace, and uncommonly up-to-date, in terms of the speed with which new information (such as details from further interviews) was shared with listeners. Participatory engagement by audience members is common in today’s digital landscape, but Serial is remarkable in that selected listeners (albeit those already connected somehow to the events) were able directly to contribute to subsequent episodes. This element, along with the many and varied listener investigations on sites such as Reddit, have allowed Serial’s global audience to contribute to the show’s unraveling of a complex real-life event.

As the above analysis suggests, Serial’s success can partly be explained by its effective combination of a fast and a slow pace, and of documentary traditions and transmedia storytelling. But this alone may not have resulted in Serial breaking a variety of podcasting records: Koenig deserves some of the credit, and her narration merits particular attention.

 

“She was talking just to me”: Creating Intimacy with Millions of Listeners

As evident from the attention that Sarah Koenig has received in the media and from fans of the series, her style of narration – which provides us with personal insights and summative judgments as well as facts – was important to Serial’s success. In Episode 1, for instance, Koenig introduces us to Rabia Chaudry, the lawyer who approached her about Syed’s case. Koenig quickly summarises Rabia’s appearance and personality: “She’s got a beautiful round face framed by hijab. She’s adorable looking, but you definitely shouldn’t mess with her. She’s very smart and very tough.” Since Koenig previously produced and presented on This American Life, the notably popular radio show and podcast that spawned Serial, it is worth briefly considering how its impact and appeal relate to that of Serial. As Corey Flintoff details, National Public Radio began podcasting in 2005 and, within several years, public radio podcasts were regularly appearing on iTunes “most downloaded” lists. This American Life was particularly popular; by 2007, it had a weekly audience of 1.7 million and was played on over five hundred radio stations.[47] Flintoff attributes the show’s success to the interview style of its creator, Ira Glass (who also serves as editorial advisor on Serial) and who analysed oral storytelling traditions when developing This American Life. Glass aimed to replicate traditional interview patterns, while combining them with his own witty, literary commentary.[48] There is an equally literary quality to Koenig’s descriptions of events; as when she describes the difficulty of trying to recreate the muddled timeline for the murder, metaphorically, as “like trying to plot the coordinates of someone’s dream”. This is important since, unlike a documentary narrator, Koenig has to provide us with mental images of the key people and places without boring listeners with overly-mundane descriptions.

Koenig’s openness with listeners also includes reflective fluctuations about Syed’s guilt, likely echoing listeners own conflicting opinions. Discussing who could have made two anonymous phone calls in episode 4, Koenig explains that “I only have guesses that I can’t responsibly say out loud.” Her attempts to remain impartial continue until the final episode, when she reassures listeners that – in addition to the measured information she shares in the podcasts – the producers speculate about all kinds of things that would be inappropriate to share. Again, the narration builds trust between listeners and Koenig (who reassures us that she is tracking the “spin”) and further contributes to the sense of intimacy. While some listeners may have wanted Koenig to get off the fence regarding her opinion of Syed’s guilt, her unwillingness to do so is perhaps the ultimate testament to Serial’s reflexivity and the producers’ unwillingness to contribute further to the problem that they have been unable to solve. With the “story” of Hae Min Lee’s murder still unresolved after 16 years – and despite Serial’s eighteen-month investigation – attempting to provide “resolution” to their series would be misguided in the absence of proof of someone’s innocence or guilt.

Serial’s intimate narration is foregrounded in the TIME article on Koenig as one of the year’s most influential people. In keeping with the magazine’s premise of having one famous person sing the praises of another, actor Ewan McGregor describes how Koenig “talked to me in the bath, in the kitchen and in the subway, and although I knew there were plenty of others listening […] she had an uncanny knack for making me feel like she was talking just to me.”[51] This sense of closeness between the radio broadcaster and her audience is certainly not unique to Serial. Scholars of radio often use the term “the illusion of intimacy” to capture how, as Wayne Munson explains, radio can simulate direct interpersonal communication through “the closeness and timbre of the voice, the affect of the speaker, and [the] apparent direct address”.[52]

Koenig is not the only person whom listeners, willingly or unwillingly, become close to. Koenig spent over forty hours talking to Syed in prison and these interviews are featured throughout. As we learn over the course of the series, Syed did not speak at his own trial,[53] a common defense strategy but one that he describes as exceptionally difficult. In episode 11, Syed indicates that he sees his involvement in the podcast as a delayed form of cross-examination. He describes how he has attempted to give Koenig only the facts, and not to make it personal, or try to get her on his side. In many ways, Serial allows Syed the chance to be heard, with Koenig performing the role of benevolent (and potentially biased) cross-examiner. Koenig manages the difficult task of both interrogating and befriending Syed. Not only is she open with listeners about her fluctuating opinions on his guilt, but she tells Syed when she finds out things that “look bad” for him.

The intimacy between Syed and Serial’s listeners is one way in which the podcast departs from Morris’s treatment of the man found to be innocent in The Thin Blue Line. As Williams explains, in the documentary Adams “remains a cipher – we learn almost nothing of his past”.[54] By contrast, Serial’s addictiveness partly occurs because we hear Syed, and others, talking about his past in such detail. At one point, Koenig is taken aback when Syed says that she doesn’t really know him, and yet she has told us that she half-expects to catch him in a lie if she talks to him long enough (this never happens). A similar tension exists for listeners. We hear Syed talk at great length, but without ever knowing if he is lying or telling the truth. The tentative nature of our identification with Syed is never resolved, since Serial doesn’t find him to be innocent or guilty. An expectation that the mystery would be solved – one grounded in both fictional media and real-life jury proceedings – likely contributed to the podcast’s addictive nature.

The fact that we never see Syed being interviewed also lends Serial an added source of mystery and appeal. Through its focus on the audio, Serial taps into the expressive power and revelatory nature of the voice. The set-up, like that of other radio shows, leads to an intense concentration on vocal, in addition to verbal, properties (something that Michel Chion equally notes in respect to cinema: he classifies non-verbal utterances as the most cinematic form of “speech”[55]). Koenig seems aware that it is not just what people say, but the way that they say it. In episode 8, she plays what she describes as her favourite piece of tape from the entire season. The segment features Laura, a friend of both Syed and Jay, reflecting on her feeling that neither of them was involved: “Well then who the fuck did it? Like, why would— it doesn’t make sense. Why would— (stuttering) Hae was— I can’t— I’m probably just as confused as you are.” This may seem like an odd moment for Koenig to select as her favourite piece of recording, since it certainly isn’t revelatory in terms of the content. But, listening to Laura start and restart sentences as she struggles to find the words to reconcile things, we sense her frustrated confusion, something to which Koenig and many listeners can relate. Pauses also become pregnant with meaning. Is Koenig pausing because someone has just said something that gains meaning in the larger context? Is Syed pausing to fabricate an excuse? In episode 6 Koenig asks Syed why he didn’t page Hae Min Lee after she disappeared: at one point in this exchange, there is a long pause before Syed asks (seemingly confused), “Are you asking me a question?” The fact that we can’t see Syed also allows us to forget that he is in prison. This makes it more disconcerting when the automated voice of the prison telephone system occasionally cuts him off mid-conversation. The audio storytelling format thus creates intimacy while keeping us at a certain enigmatic distance.

 

Conclusion

Significant changes have taken place in the media landscape between The Thin Blue Line’s release and Serial’s digital broadcasting 26 years later. As Jenkins explains in his discussion of media convergence, the assumption “that new media was going to push aside old media” was rampant in the 1990s.[56] Although the hope/fear that the internet would replace conventional broadcasting was not entirely misguided, Serial simultaneously embraces digital developments and traditional storytelling strategies, including those of documentary cinema. By using physical documents and images to supplement the podcast, the producers draw on the traditions of radio journalism and the appeal of oral storytelling, while taking advantage of new media in order to address potential “gaps” that emerge from telling a crime-based story through an audio medium. Channelling the transmedia storytelling practices of various long-form television serials, Serial provided materials that could orient listeners, expand their understanding of the storyworld, and encourage the kind of “forensic fandom” that Mittell identifies as characteristic of complex television fandom.

Explanations for Serial’s appeal and impact, however, should not understate Sarah Koenig’s distinctive presence. Koenig fulfils a variety of crucial roles: investigative journalist, interviewer, confidante, storyteller. While this presumably required considerable effort, she moves almost seamlessly through these roles, and risks frustrating listeners in order to maintain the integrity of the series by providing a clear picture of events (within the confines of her, and our, expanding knowledge) without entering into hearsay. Serial is somewhat characterised by tensions of this kind: moments that are heard but might be better seen; Koenig’s overlapping roles; Serial as a confluence of various old media techniques (radio journalism and documentary cinema) and new media distribution strategies (podcasting and digitally-enabled paratexts, such as interactive maps). Although focused on the past, Serial provides an exceptionally up-to-date recounting of that past by incorporating new information provided by “witnesses” related to the story the podcast tells. The producers’ openness to questions of “truth” – to letting the information itself dictate each episode’s content and length – means that it departs from much of the small-scale, easily-digested infotainment that is characteristic of contemporary media culture. Instead, Serial taps into the timelessness of the whodunit narrative, as well as the willingness of its global listenership to contribute to the creation of a version, however fragmentary, of real-life events.

 

Acknowledgements

Serial’s success was partly down to the way it motivated listeners to discuss the show’s content: thank you to Maria Pramaggiore, Eva Forman, Keavy Gallagher, and Moira White for the various Serial discussions, and to the reviewers for their helpful insights.


[1] Karine Nahon and Jeff Hemsley, Going Viral (Cambridge; Malden, MA: Polity Press, 2013), 2.

[2] Ibid, original emphasis.

[3] Limor Shifman, Memes in Digital Cultures (Cambridge, The MIT Press, 2014). Shifman analyses virality as part of her dominant aim of understanding memes. For Shifman, the main difference between a meme and a viral video or image is that the former is always a collection of texts.

[4] Amy Roberts, “The ‘Serial’ podcast: By the numbers,” CNN.com, 18 December 2014, accessed 20 August 2015, http://edition.cnn.com/2014/12/18/showbiz/feat-serial-podcast-btn.

[5] Ewan McGregor, “TIME 100 – Pioneers: Sarah Koenig”, time.com, 15 April 2015, accessed 1 August 2015, http://time.com/3823276/sarah-koenig-2015-time-100/.

[6] “This American Life”, “About Us.” thisamericanlife.org, accessed 20 August 2015, http://www.thisamericanlife.org/about/about-our-radio-show.

[7] Shifman, 2014, 66-73.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Jason Mittell, Complex TV: The Poetics of Contemporary Television Storytelling (NY; London: NYU Press, 2015)

[10] Shifman, 2014, 72.

[11] Henry Jenkins, Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide (New York; London: NYU Press, 2006)

[12] Chuck Tryon, On-Demand Culture: Digital Delivery and the Future of Movies (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2013)

[13] Shane Denson, “To be continued…: Seriality and Serialization in Interdisciplinary Perspective.” Conference Proceedings of: What Happens Next: The Mechanics of Serialization. Graduate Conference at the University of Amsterdam, March 25–26, 2011. In: JLTonline, June 17, 2011, accessed 10 November 2015, http://www.jltonline.de/index.php/conferences/article/view/346/1004.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Mittell, 2015, 228.

[16] Ibid, 228.

[17] “The Long Center”, “Long Center Presents: Sarah Koenig.” thelongcenter.org, accessed 20 August 2015, http://thelongcenter.org/event/sarah-koenig/.

[18] See David Bordwell, “Intensified Continuity Visual Style in Contemporary American Film”, Film Quarterly, Vol. 55, No. 3, Spring 2002.

[19] In Rebecca Ora’s abstract for a paper on Serial at the Visible Evidence XXII conference in August 2015, she notes that it is apt that Serial lacks visible evidence since its story took place in the 1990s, a time before “the obsessive documentation about to take flight with cell phone cameras and Google Earth”. Ora’s abstract also draws comparisons between Serial and The Thin Blue Line, although she focuses more on how each treats the (un)knowability of their respective truths. See “Visible Evidence 22 Panelist Bios & Abstracts”, accessed August 27 2015, http://visibleevidencexxii.ca/wp-content/uploads/2015/01/VE-2015-Panelist-Bios-Abstracts-Sheet1.pdf.

[20] “The Long Center”.

[21] Leonard Shyles, Deciphering Cyberspace: Making the Most of Digital Communication Technology, (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 2003), 174. Shyles refers here to the impact of digital media on children in particular.

[22] Bill Nichols, Representing Reality: Issues and Concepts in Documentary, Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1991, 56-7.

[23] Linda Williams, “Mirror Without Memories: Truth, History, and the New Documentary”, Film Quarterly, Vol. 46 No. 3, Spring 1993, 12.

[24] See Nichols, 1991, 32-8.

[25] David Resha, The Cinema of Errol Morris (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2015), 55.

[26] Shawn Rosenheim, “Interrotroning History: Errol Morris and the Documentary of the Future”, in Marcia Landy (ed.) The Historical Film: History and Memory in Media (Piscataway, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2001) 326.

[27] The use of the term “paratexts” in audiovisual culture is an extension of Gérard Genette’s conception – in Paratexts: Thresholds of Interpretation (1997) – of liminal devices that mediate between book, author, publisher, and reader.

[28] Mittell, 2015, 51.

[29] Ibid, 294; 261.

[30] Mittell, 2015, 295.

[31] See Jenkins, Convergence Culture, 93-130.

[32] Ibid, 314.

[33] Mittell, 2015, 314.

[34] Jenkins, 2006, 3-4 (but also discussed throughout his book).

[35] Ibid, 37.

[36] Ibid. See Pierre Lévy’s Collective Intelligence: Mankind’s Emerging World in Cyberspace (1997) for a more definitive account of information sharing in digital culture.

[37] Susan Simpson, “Serial: Evidence that Jay’s Story was Coached to Fit the Cellphone Records.” ViewfromLL2.com, January 13 2015, accessed 10 November 2015, http://viewfromll2.com/2015/01/13/serial-evidence-that-jays-story-was-coached-to-fit-the-cellphone-records/. As of 10 November 2015, there are 406 Reddit comments related to Simpson’s post. See: https://www.reddit.com/r/serialpodcast/comments/2sdcwb/view_from_ll2_blog_post_evidence_that_jays_story/

[38] Websites such as Legal Talk Network and BuzzFeed conducted polls on Syed’s guilt which included multiple detailed questions. See “Legal Talk Network”, “Serial’ Podcast Poll: Do You Think Adnan Syed is Guilty?”, 18 February 2015, accessed 20 August 2015, http://legaltalknetwork.com/serial-podcast-poll-think-adnan-seyed-guilty/. See also Julia Furlan, “The Definitive Serial Obsessive Poll”, BuzzFeed.com, November 4, 2015, accessed 13 August 2015, http://www.buzzfeed.com/juliafurlan/the-definitive-serial-obsessive-poll#.vi3KWj7Lv.

[39] Shifman, 2014, 19. Shifman takes this point about sharing from Nicholas John, “Sharing and Web 2.0: The Emergence of a Keyword,” New Media and Society, July 3, 2013.

[40] It is worth noting here that, although Serial can be said to align with Shifman’s concept of viral content as 1) having prestige; 2) being well positioned in the media; 3) encouraging audience participation, Serial is less in keeping with the other factors Shifman identifies: positivity; provoking high-arousal emotions (wow or angry responses); and the packaging of messages in a clear and simple way.

[41] For example, The Connecticut Forum has titled their September 2015 event, “Binge-worthy Journalism – Backstage with the Creators of Serial”, accessed 20 August 2015, https://www.ctforum.org/binge-worthy-journalism.

[42] It is the decision to “binge” on a single show that is novel; this departs from the long-standing figure of the “couch potato” who binges on television more generally.

[43] Tryon, 2013, 1.

[44] Ibid, 4.

[45] Dana Chivvis, “A Question of Binge Listening”, serialpodcast.org, October 2014, accessed 10 August 2015, http://serialpodcast.org/posts/2014/10/a-question-of-binge-listening.

[46] Shifman, 2014, 72.

[47] Corey Flintoff, “The Public’s Radio: All Things on the Dial”, in Michael C. Keith, ed. Radio Cultures: The Sound Medium in American Life (New York; Washington: Peter Lang, 2008), 179.

[48] Ibid, 178-9.

[49] Williams, 1993, 13.

[50] Ibid, 12.

[51] Ewan McGregor, “TIME 100.”

[52] Wayne Munson, All Talk: The Talkshow in Media Culture (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1993), 34.

[53] In fact, there were two trials: the first ended in a mis-trial and, as Koenig explains in an early episode, it appears that the jury from the first trial were leaning towards acquitting Syed.

[54] Williams, 1993, 13.

[55] Chion uses the term “emanation speech” to describe such non-verbal utterances which, he argues, constitutes a film character’s sound “silhouette”. Michel Chion, Audio-Vision: Sound on Screen, translated from French by Claudia Gorbman (New York; Chichester: Columbia University Press) 85.

[56] Jenkins, 2006, 5.

Notes on Contributor

Jennifer O’Meara holds a PhD in Film Studies from Trinity College Dublin. She lectures in Film Studies at the School of English, Media and Theatre Studies in Maynooth University. Her most recent publications include contributions on film sound, performance and dialogue to The New Soundtrack, The Cine-files, The Soundtrack, and Cinema Journal. Jennifer is in the process of completing a monograph on engaging dialogue in independent cinema, and is currently researching the participatory reception of film posters and dialogue across digital platforms.

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Media sources:

Lost (ABC, 2004-2010)

Mad Men (AMC, 2007-2015)

Matlock (NBC, 1986-1995)

Serial (WBEZ Chicago, 2014)

The Thin Blue Line (Errol Morris, 1988)

This American Life (Chicago Public Media, 1995– )