Is Serial Over? A New Phenomenon on Public Radio

By Christiane Steckenbiller

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, 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.


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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.