If you read beyond news stories about the aftermath of Ferguson, the killing of two NYPD police officers, and conjectures about the 2016 presidential race, something exciting and refreshingly different has been gripping the United States since October last year: public radio. Serial, a new podcast produced by the team behind National Public Radio’s This American Life, just finished airing its first season. The show sheds new light on a mysterious murder case 15 years ago in Maryland. On serialpodcast.org, this is how the producers advertised the first episode:
It’s Baltimore, 1999. Hae Min Lee, a popular high school senior, disappears after school one day. Six weeks later, detectives arrest her classmate and ex-boyfriend, Adnan Syed, for her murder. He says he’s innocent – though he can’t exactly remember what he was doing on that January afternoon. But someone can. A classmate at Woodlawn High School says she knows where Adnan was. The trouble is, she’s nowhere to be found.
Over the following twelve weeks, Sarah Koenig, a well-known U.S. journalist and Serial’s co-producer and charismatic host, explores what happened on January 13, 1999, when Hae Min Lee went missing. She reopens old court files, interviews people involved, and talks to Adnan Syed, who is serving a life sentence in a Maryland state prison. These prison calls feature in Serial’s intro theme and have become a hallmark of the show. It soon turns out that there is one bewildering detail about the case: There is no physical evidence against Adnan Syed. He was convicted on the account of only one witness, Jay Wild – who was not even a close friend of Adnan’s, and whose story and testimony at trial do not add up. According to Jay, Adnan called him that day to pick him up from the Best Buy parking lot, showed him Hae’s dead body in the trunk of her car a few hours later, and convinced Jay to help him bury the body in Leakin Park. I don’t want to spoil it for you but, of course, it’s more complicated than that.
The podcast is available on iTunes and ranked number one for several weeks while it aired. Instead of binge-watching television shows, listeners have been tuning in to public radio, which is already one of the most fascinating aspects of this new cultural phenomenon. Some of the show’s features have become popular cultural memes, such as the Best Buy parking lot, the mysterious pay phone, Leakin Park, or the I-70 park’n’ride. Saturday Night Live has done a brilliant spoof, and on top of that, Jay who had refused to be interviewed by Koenig, has come out and talked to a reporter for The Intercept. The three interviews were posted between Christmas and New Year’s and have opened new lines of thought while continuing to fuel everyone’s obsession with the show.
What makes Serial so fascinating? It’s not only a thrilling plot that involves real people and real lives. It’s also about media and new forms of entertainment. It’s about journalism, objectivity, and perhaps the uniquely American custom of transparency when disclosing the identity of victims and suspects. It’s about the ways in which stories are disseminated and go viral on the Internet. And it’s a cultural spectacle that seems to be revealing something new and exciting about American culture — and that should be on everyone’s radar for 2015.
Christiane Steckenbiller is an Assistant Professor of German at Colorado College in Colorado Springs. Her research focuses on contemporary Anglophone and German literature and film, cultural geography, and feminist and media studies. She is also interested in race relations and American pop culture.