If you haven’t heard about this podcast called Serial, where have you been? Probably living your normal life, not overly investing in or obsessing over a random radio, non-fiction story. Serial is a 12-episode podcast about a murder case that occurred in 1999 in Baltimore.
I’m not one to jump on the bandwagon of popular culture fads. I only just bought a Macbook, didn’t get a Netflix subscription till a couple of months ago and refused to read Twilight. I prefer to wait till I am good and ready to sample such things, when the hype dies down. Serial Podcast was no exception, I was told about it by my friend a couple of months ago, didn’t really understand the premise and it slipped my mind.
It wasn’t until a couple of weeks ago when another friend talked about it that I downloaded an episode on my phone using her home WIFI (I don’t have unlimited data ok) before heading home on the tube. I was instantly hooked and had a great four days of getting to work being enthralled by the real life story. I listened to 11 episodes in four days of binging. The last episode was released last week.
What is a podcast?
A podcast is a downloadable broadcast that can be listened to on the go. This medium has been around for a while but since October 2014 This American Life (a weekly non fiction podcast) launched its spin off podcast show called Serial. This show has become the most popular podcast ever with over five million iTunes downloads.
What’s the story with serial?
Serial is based on a 1999 murder case of an 18-year-old High School Student, Hae Min Lee who was strangled allegedly by her ex boyfriend Adnan Syed. Syed now facing life imprisonment has always professed his innocence, with scanty to no forensic evidence linking him to the crime Sarah Koenig sets out to talk to as many people involved in the case as she can to find answers.
Koenig works with a team but is the narrator, reporter and producer to the 12-part series. She tries to tell the tale from a variety of perspectives, has regular recorded telephone meetings with Syed, the star and only witness on the prosecution side – Jay, and other students who attended the Baltimore High school. Every episode focuses on a different aspect, the trial, Syed’s Lawyer, his alibi etc. Koenig and her team read reports and pore through evidence. This results in well researched, thoughtful and enlightening episodes. Listeners get the chance to be completely taken in, absorbed by the true life story and are invited try and find out who did it.
Similar to Orange is the New Black
Serial reminds me of Orange is the New Black, tenuous but stick with me. Both are true stories about crime, both a very popular, both investigate the harsh realities of the system, possible injustices and the wide ranging consequences of it. OITNB released in the UK in May 2013, is based on the memoirs of Piper Kerman who spent a year in prison after being convicted of drug smuggling charges. However, the hit Netflix show is controlled in some part by the creator of the memoirs, Kerman herself. She wrote her story, was guilty of the crime and admitted it and is now well known for it. Kerman is in control of how the story is told and how she is portrayed. In contrast, those involved in the Baltimore murder case are not in control and neither is the accused, Syed, his family and friends.
Criticisms of the podcast
While many have hailed Serial as a pioneering series, original reporting, a great narrative; many also have been critical of the show for various reasons.
- The victim, Hae Lee is never really focused on. Not really Koening’s fault, she contacted her family several times to try and get their input into the podcast but to no avail. But I can understand why this is a sticking point.
- It’s a real, true life event that occurred. It is because this is real things get a bit tricky, the friends and family of Hae and Adnan are exposed. This awful event is being dragged up all over again and it must be frightening and upsetting. Some people may think it’s an example of some sort of misery porn, obsessing over a ‘who dunnit’.
- It has racial stereotyping in it. Some people have criticised Koening’s musings saying that it has a lot of racial stereotyping. The good immigrants being Syed being described as too innocent looking to be a killer and Hae of Korean descent described as popular and intelligent. Jay – an African American Adnan’s acquaintance was described with a surprise, he liked alternative music, not hip-hop and even played Lacrosse! I think there is some evidence of this, but I don’t think this is an overall indictment of the show.
- Crazy fans. The fans of the show have gone crazy over it, flocking to the Best Buy shop which is where Syed allegedly called his friend Jay after the murder occurred.
I think the series is incredible, instantly engaging and thoughtfully reported. Koening and her team have spent over a year researching this case mainly because she believes that the accused is a nice guy. Having been approached by a family friend of Syed’s – Rabia Chaudry – to investigate the case she tries her best to be impartial, fair and transparent. She openly is unapologetic for expressing her voice in her reporting, evidence of reflexivity is clear. The show encourages people to think about memories, friends, family and death. With the end of this series, goodness knows what I’m going to do with my time- I’ll probably get over it and reluctantly move on to the next fad.