• By: Don MacLean

Talking About a Murder

Why is the podcast “Serial” so popular?

The place of podcasts in the wider culture is still uncertain. I have a few friends who embrace the medium. They might listen to Radiolab or The Partially Examined Life or to CBC podcasts. They think of podcasts as part of a freely accessible and ever expanding universe of knowledge, perspective and storytelling. They also love the medium’s inherent flexibility. Podcasts can be listened to anywhere and anytime, including while going for long runs. However, I’ve talked to far more people – all relatively tech savvy and all invested in various forms of social media – who do not listen to podcasts at all. For them, smart phones or iPods are for listening to music, communicating and browsing the web.

But for those who do listen to podcasts, most are talking about Serial. For those who don’t know, Serial is about a murder. On January 13, 1999, in Baltimore County, Maryland Hae Min Lee went missing. She was a high school senior enrolled in a Magnet program at Woodlawn High School. Her body was eventually found in a park with a notorious reputation–other bodies have been found there–located about three miles from Woodlawn. Hae Min had been strangled to death. On February 28 of the same year, Baltimore police arrested Adnan Syed for her murder. He was a classmate at Woodlawn and her ex-boyfriend. Adnan is an American of Pakistani descent and comes from a conservative Muslim family. These details would prove important. The prosecution’s narrative revolved around the idea that Adnan had compromised himself when he dated Hae Min Lee: she was not Muslim and, besides, Adnan was strictly forbidden from dating. Their relationship was concealed from his parents. When Hae Min ended it he felt so humiliated that he was driven to seek revenge in the form of murder. But the most vital part of the prosecution’s case involved the statements and testimony of Jay, a friend of Adnan. If the strict Muslim family narrative explained why Adnan killed Hae Min, Jay’s testimony explained how he killed her. The jury found this combination utterly compelling. After only a couple of hours deliberating, they declared Adnan Syed guilty of Hae’s murder. He was sentenced to life in prison. To this day he’s in a Maryland Maximum Security Facility and to this day he maintains his innocence.

At over five million downloads, Serial is easily the most listened to podcast ever on Itunes. It is also among the first – if not the first – podcasts to generate a huge listenership and a sustained buzz. People aren’t simply listening to Serial. The various blogs and the numerous written stories about the show attest to a different, heightened level of engagement. Fellow listeners talk about it like they would a must see television show or a great movie with amazing plot twists.

“Who do you think is lying? Adnan or Jay?” a friend asked in an email the other day.

“Don’t know,” I responded. “I’m suspending judgement. Of course, both could be lying. What do you think?”

“I go back and forth,” he answered.

All of this attention and intrigue is over a podcast apparently made on a shoestring budget and consisting of little more than people talking about a murder. There is a musical score that is used sparingly but effectively. Why then is Serial so popular? It’s an interesting question and I don’t know that I have a satisfactory answer. But here it goes.

Serials format in so many key respects runs counter to the way social media generally works. As a friend remarked, we’ve been conditioned to expect instant media gratification. Once a story has been written, we expect to be able to access it, consume it and then move on. We don’t expect our increasingly limited attention spans to be challenged. Part of Serials appeal is that it turns this expectation on its head. Episodes are released once a week–every Thursday. Each episode investigates an important dimension of the case. One week it’s Adnan’s alibi, the next it’s where and how Hae Min’s body was found. Another episode is committed to laying bare the case against Adnan, while another is committed to finding out more about Jay. Once it’s been released, an episode can be listened to as many times as anyone might want. But each episode constitutes only one chapter of a longer story. To know the story’s next chapter, let alone how the story ends, the listener must wait to hear all the episodes still to follow. In an era of immediate media consumption, Serial forces listeners to be patient. Most listeners feel their patience thus far has been rewarded. In this sense, it’s reminiscent of an old style radio drama.

There is also something counter intuitive in the show’s approach to discussing a brutal murder. There’s nothing sensationalized about the production. Listeners are spared lurid details. Instead the episodes consist of the wonderful narrator and producer Sarah Koenig carefully engaging with the issues raised by the murder and the conviction of Adnan. She speaks without pretension and approaches the case in a spirit of openness and objectivity. She declares her scepticism not so much about the guilty verdict, but about the case upon which the conviction was generated. This is hardly surprising: it’s her scepticism that fuelled her initial interest in the case and doing the show. She also makes plain that she likes Adnan. “You seem like such a nice guy,” she says to him in one episode. Nevertheless, Koenig makes clear she is no private detective and that she is quite prepared for the possibility that Adnan is duping her and that he’s guilty. She reminds everyone that no matter how compromised the prosecution’s case might have been, it was strong enough to gain a conviction. At the very least then, aspects of the murder point to Adnan’s possible involvement.

Koenig also understands what should be one of the cardinal rules of a good podcast: do not only use your own voice in the production. A lone voice stretched over 30-60 minutes is among the best strategies for inducing a sense of tedium and boredom among listeners. It just doesn’t work. Koenig expertly weaves other voices into the story. One episode we hear from a lawyer heading the University of Virginia’s Innocence Project. In another we hear from a retired detective whose job now is to investigate police investigations. Throughout we hear not only from Adnan, but from friends of both he and Hae Min at the time. The detectives who investigated the case did not agree to be interviewed for the program, but we hear their voices through out. We hear some of their conversation with the strange individual (listen to Episode Three) who found Hae Min’s body. We hear excerpts of their interrogation of Jay shortly after the body was found. We hear exchanges from the trial, including Adnan’s lawyer’s cross examination of Jay. In another episode a juror explains to Koenig why she believed Jay’s testimony. Adnan’s mother explains why she knows her son is innocent. The effect is to create a rich tapestry of voices highlighting the varied perspectives and competing interests invested in the case.

Those varied perspectives is critical to another strength of the show. Part of Serial’s appeal is the layered complexity of the case itself. On the surface there is every reason to think Adnan did murder Hae Min. Jay’s testimony, for all its inconsistencies, creates a plausible story. He shows the detectives where Hae Min’s vehicle was. As the retired detective remarks, what Jay tells the police “completes a circle of evidence.” Yet those inconsistencies are significant enough as to cause some doubt about the veracity of his overall narrative. The doubt is compounded by the absence of other compelling evidence pointing to Adnan as the killer. There was nothing else tying him to the murder: no DNA evidence, no fingerprints. Moreover, the apparent timeline provided by the prosecution stretches the bounds of credibility. Adnan would have had a small window indeed within which to commit the murder. What’s more, he had an apparent alibi that his lawyer, bizarrely, did nothing to corroborate. The lawyer’s failure in this regard was arguably part of a larger pattern of questionable judgement and ultimately poor legal defence. There are then a series of details about the case that create conflicting impressions on the listener. We don’t know what to think. We’re left wondering if a fact revealed in the next episode will tip the scale in one direction or the other. One of the show’s great strengths, in other words, is to demonstrate how even the most straight forward of cases can be more complicated than we initially imagine. We thus need to be careful not to rush to judgement.

When listening to Serial it’s impossible not to consider the wider political and cultural moment in which America finds itself. The Michael Brown and now Eric Garner cases expose once again America’s systemic problems surrounding crime and race. The case examined in Serial, it must be stressed, does not fall into the category of police abuse typified by the deaths of either of these young Black men. There was no unarmed young Black man shot multiple times. There was no unarmed young Black man choked to death by police for selling knock off cigarettes. Likewise there were no grand juries who failed to indict white police officers responsible for such killings. Adnan is not Black, although he is part of a racialized and religious minority. The detectives who arrested Adnan and the prosecution who made the case for his conviction do not strike the listener as nefarious or incompetent. Nevertheless, as more than voice heard on Serial suggests, racial profiling was evident in the case against Adnan. His Muslim faith was too readily assumed to be a likely motivating factor in Hae Min’s murder. In this way and in others the detectives appear to have used tunnel vision to develop their case. Their preoccupation with Adnan, for example, was at the expense of a proper investigation of crucial pieces of forensic evidence found near the body. Koenig is excellent at exposing these sorts of patterns and weaknesses in the detectives’ investigation. At the very least, her investigation highlights their potential fallibility. In these subtle ways, Serial taps into the current of mistrust of police and judicial authority swirling through America.

Serial does have its critics. Perhaps the most legitimate criticism is that the show is exploitative. The murder being obsessed over, it’s worth recalling, isn’t fictional. A young woman’s life was ruthlessly snuffed out and someone was convicted of the crime. Yet that person–Adnan Syed–is being given this opportunity to declare his innocence. Is there not something unseemly about such an opportunity? There have been moments too in the show that may strike the listener as a violation. There are stretches in an early episode where Koenig reads at length from Hae Min’s diary in a bid to understand her relationship with Adnan. In a recent episode, Koenig highlights the extraordinary lengths she went to to contact the Lee family. They refused to speak with her. One can only assume that her persistence only exacerbated the family’s anguish. They likely take serious exception to the creation of a show listened to by millions about their murdered daughter.

Such criticisms are understandable. Indeed Koenig must constantly negotiate a delicate balance. As an investigative journalist she must dig deep into the case without further victimizing Hae Min’s family. It is no easy task. Nevertheless, for all the sensitivity that must be accorded to the family, there are legitimate reasons to examine the conviction of Adnan Syed. The case against him, for whatever its strengths, has crucial weaknesses. Nothing legally is at stake in Koenig’s investigation: for all the debate about how the show will end everyone knows it will not be with Adnan’s exoneration. Still Koenig deserves credit for creatively engaging a new medium to investigate the age old themes of crime, punishment and injustice in America. This is why so many of us will be listening.