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Posts Tagged ‘NPR’

Of all the entertainment media competing for my attention–hundreds of cable channels, Netflix, YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter–its a modest little public radio podcast that’s got me completely consumed.

You may have heard of Serial (more likely you haven’t), a  podcast off-shoot of the more well known National Public Radio (a.k.a. NPR) show and podcast, This American Life (TAL), hosted by Ira Glass.

I’m a regular TAL listener, so when I downloaded episode #537, “The Alibi,” I was expecting the usual radio magazine-style fare TAL produces each week–that is, four or five stories tied to that episode’s theme. But this time TAL was trying something a little different.

The episode was actually Serial‘s first episode. Rather than producing a new episode around a new theme each week, reporter and Serial host Sarah Koenig tells a new chapter of the same story, one about a high school kid named Adnan Syed who in 1999 was convicted of strangling his classmate and ex-girlfriend Hae Min Lee.

Koenig was made aware of Adnan’s story by a friend of Adnan’s family last year. Once she started digging, she couldn’t stop. So as Adnan Sayed sits in jail for a crime he (maybe) didn’t commit, Koenig has been working to uncover any fishy details about the case that might prove his innocence–or guilt.

With what I’ve told you so far, the show admittedly sounds like something from a network TV legal drama. But if you listen to the show–and I’m urging everyone who reads this to listen to the show–Koenig’s tireless investigation and simple-yet-compelling storytelling style will hook you in, and you’ll be like me–waiting around for Thursday mornings, when the latest episodes of Serial are available for download.

As we listen to Koenig’s investigation unfold each week, we’re still not quite sure what to think about Adnan. Koenig is going about her reporting professionally and impartially as far as we can tell, but I would guess she wants Adnan to be innocent of Hae’s murder. (I would guess a lot of Serial listeners feel the same way.) And some–but not all–the evidence she gathers suggests that maybe, just maybe, the police and the court system got it wrong and Koenig is a few weeks of research (and podcasts) away from cracking the case wide open and springing Adnan from his prison cell, where he’s been for 15 years.

I’ve spoken to a handful of people about the show–I’ve also avoided most of the media around it, for fear of spoilers–and the sense I’m getting is that Sarah must know more than she’s letting on. She must have everything neatly laid out on a storyboard and is rolling information out in bits and pieces to keep us tuning in each week. And why wouldn’t she? How could she go into this thing telling this true story of a (possibly) wrongly convicted man without knowing what the ending is?

Well perhaps this is the biggest twist in the series so far: she doesn’t know what the ending is.

In an interview with Vulture published on Thursday, the same day Serial‘s sixth episode became available, Sarah admitted that she doesn’t know where the story is going. Here’s what she said in the Vulture interview:

I am not playing all of you. If you guys only knew how this is put together. I’m not far ahead of you. Episode Five just aired, and I just did a first draft of Episode Six this afternoon, so I am pretty much creating this thing in real time now. Yes, I could say, there was a point where I thought I knew the truth. And then I found out that I didn’t know as much as I thought I did, and I did more reporting, and now I don’t know what I don’t know again! Are you mad at me? Don’t be mad at me!

That’s nuts! It also might be genius.

I’ve railed on many a fictional TV show for not knowing where the story ends and making dozens more episodes than the story actually needs simply because it’s profitable. But in the case of Serial, a non-fiction series, not having an ending (yet) might be the smartest thing they could do. For one, they’ve eliminated the chance of spoilers online because A) Koenig likely knows more about this case than anyone in the world and even she doesn’t know everything; and B) it brings tremendous credibility to the series in that Koenig is reporting a lot of these as she learns them herself rather than having a chance to over-produce and edit the crap out of it, like you see on so many “reality” TV shows these days.

What’s also fascinating about the show is what it’s doing for the medium of radio–or more generally any audio platform. Serial storytelling is a throwback to the olden days before TV. I find myself amazed at how engaged I am while listening to Serial, which is nothing but talking and some sparse background music. I’m not quite ready to cancel my cable, but it’s nice to be reminded that if the story itself is good enough, it doesn’t really matter what the medium is. (By the way, Serial is the #1 podcast on iTunes in the U.S. right now.)

(I shouldn’t be giving the Serial people any ideas, but they probably should be thinking about monetizing right now, if not for this season/story than the next. TAL relies heavily on donations, along with a handful of advertisers. If ever there was a time to start charging per episode, or per series, it’s now. Hell, I’d pay it.)

Of course Serial‘s uncertain status (re: its ending) is a tremendous risk. If Koenig makes 12, 15, or even 30 episodes of the series as the story continues to become more and more complex–I can also easily see more potential witnesses coming out of the woodwork when they hear the show–and at the end of it all there’s nothing but speculation about Adnan’s guilt, what was the point?

In my estimation there are going to be two schools of thought if the Adnan Syed story ends without a resolution:

  • The people who will have enjoyed the ride so much that the unlearned truth won’t matter as much as the journey to get there.
  • The people who will be furious because they “wasted” so many hours waiting for some absolute closure that never comes.

Like many listeners out there, I want to see Koenig’s indefatigable efforts lead to Adnan’s conviction being overturned–while also finding Hae’s true killer. (Or, if Sarah finds enough evidence against Adnan that it’s impossible not to believe he did it, I’d be okay with that, too.)

But I don’t know if we’ll get that. And I don’t know what a lack of an irrefutable ending will mean for the next season of Serial. Will we demand that Sarah gets all the way to the finish line before we start listening to how she got there? Or will we double-down on Serial, knowing that Koenig is as much along for the ride as we are?

I highly recommend you check out Serial at http://serialpodcast.org/ (Don’t know how to listen to podcasts? Watch this video in which Ira Glass teaches his elderly friend how to do it: http://serialpodcast.org/how-to-listen)

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