‘Serial’ podcast straddles the line between life and journalism



Matt Sheridan

One story, told week by week. The slogan, but also the problem, with a cultural phenomenon. 

This phenomenon is the smash-hit podcast “Serial.” Since its first episode on Oct. 3, people have been obsessed with the theme of the podcast, which explores a different drama-related story every season. The episodes have each been streamed millions of times, the podcast sits at the top of the iTunes Podcast charts and thousands have partaken in the debate and discussion surrounding the murder mystery. 

The main idea of “Serial” is that each season, one story will be told in weekly increments. It’s supposed to be like the prestigous dramas shown on television, but with two major differences—the show is audio-only, and it’s entirely non-fiction. 

“Our hope is to give you the same experience you get from a great HBO or Netflix series, where you get caught up with the characters and the thing unfolds week after week, and you just have to hear what happens next, but with a story that’s true,” says Editorial Advisor Ira Glass, the host of “This American Life,” the popular podcast from which Serial spins off.

This season’s true story is the murder of Hae Min-Lee in the winter of 1999, and the conviction of her ex-boyfriend, Adnan Sayed, that leaves him sitting in prison on a life sentence.

Min-Lee went missing on Jan. 13, 1999. A little under a month later, her body was found in a large Baltimore park popular for disposing dead bodies. In each episode of the show, host and executive producer Sarah Koenig lays out what happened in the days and months leading up to the disappearance of Min-Lee, what happened in the investigation and what her own findings have been. Koenig had looked into the case for the past year or so since she received a call for help from a sister of one of Sayed’s childhood friends proclaiming his innocence.

Before Koenig was a producer and reporter for “This American Life” and now “Serial,” she was a crime reporter for “The Baltimore Sun,” something which is evident in each episode. She is adept at utilizing the many recordings and documents at her disposal to piece together the case. Additionally, she is not afraid to thoroughly commit to the case, something she admits at the beginning of the very first episode.  What really makes “Serial” the powerhouse that it is, however, is the phone calls and interviews that she has had with people over the course of her investigation. She has been able to get in touch with just about every person involved, ranging from friends of Min-Lee and Sayed to the jurors of the case to Sayed himself, in phone calls he made with Koenig from jail.

It certainly makes for captivating radio. When Koenig tells a juror for the first time that Jay, the boy who confessed to helping Sayed dispose of Min-Lee’s body, never served any time for his role in the case, we can hear the shock of a woman rethinking her reasoning for sending a teenager to prison. When Koenig tells Sayed that she has a new development that may help his case, we hear the resignation of a boy who has grown into a young man in prison and fully expects to grow old there as well.

In listening to it, though, it’s hard not to feel that Koenig may be spinning the tale in order to create such a captivating narrative. She presents the people in the case as if they are all characters in a story, setting them up to play out classic tropes: Sayed as the misunderstood main character, Jay as the creepy antagonist, Saad as Sayed’s goofy friend. Koenig goes out of her way to portray all aspects of the case as major parts of the plot. 

“Of all the calls on the log, this is the one I think of as the smoking gun call,” she says when introducing a possibly incriminating phone call against Sayed in Episode Six: The Case Against Adnan Sayed. “It’s The Nisha Call. Think of it as a title, capitalized. The Nisha Call.” 

Six weeks into the show, it is clear that making “The Nisha Call” a thing could be an extremely intriguing point along the story for many people. There’s a classic “bottle episode,” in which she brings in an investigative team out of nowhere for one episode only to see what they think about the case. She even reads directly from the pages of Min-Lee’s diary, trying to get in the psyche of the vibrant high-school girl who was brutally killed.

This type of characterization of true stories is not uncommon in entertainment. Thousands of television shows and movies have made money and had success by spinning the dramatic true stories’ of people’s lives into fascinating narratives. What makes “Serial” so unique is how it is set up over the course of an entire season on this audio-only format. 

As the show progresses each week, the drama increases and we feel ourselves inching towards the classic denouement, the final piece in the case, the “season finale.” However, this is not a season of “True Detective” or “House of Cards.” It is a time in people’s lives that those involved in the case would probably not like to have to go through again. But now they’re being subjected to this again, with a nation of listeners going through it with them, analyzing them every Thursday morning when a new episode comes out.

Another crucial aspect of “Serial” is that Koenig claims she does not know how it will end. She says she does not know if Sayed is innocent or guilty, and when she finds out, so will we. This leads listeners to feel a deep sense of involvement. Each fan of the podcast has his or her own theory for how it will end, for who is the killer. This would be fine if it were for a work of fiction, but this isn’t a work of fiction. There is still a girl dead, and there is still a man in jail. 

Let’s think about the members of Min-Lee’s family. How would they feel if they were in the line at the grocery store and overheard somebody debating who killed their daughter? How would Sayed’s mother or Jay’s wife feel when somebody at the doctor’s office is talking about the character of these men whom they have never met? And that is the main issue with “Serial.” 

“I mean, you don’t even really know me though, Koenig,” Sayed tells Koenig in an encounter they shared in Episode Six. “You don’t. Maybe, you do. We only talk on the phone.” 

This is the first time we really feel the apprehensions of the people in the case. He is skeptical of this woman who has come in the last year and now thinks she has a handle on the events of his life. As we listen to the podcast, aren’t we all Koenig in this case, going from week to week listening to them on the phone, building anticipation, pretending to know people whom which we had never heard of until recently, debating which one of them truly is a murderer? What does this say about journalism, and what does it say about us?