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Remember Jeremy Lin?

In April 2012 I wrote a blog post about the excitement surrounding the emergence of Lin, the Asian-American Harvard graduate turned starting point guard for the New York Knicks.

By then the “Linsanity” that had overtaken New York City and the basketball world for a few months over the winter had all but died down. Lin would miss the rest of the season with a knee injury and later eventually sign with another team, where he performed well below Linsanity levels.

I got to thinking about Jeremy Lin as I was thinking about the upcoming final episode of Serial, the country’s most popular podcast about a 1999 murder. Serial’s final episode will be available for download on Thursday morning.

The series has elevated the audio format, and has generated interest of all kinds. Besides the Reddit community and others like it, who have no shortage of theories, we have others debating whether Serial is ethical. Whether it’s technically journalism. Whether it should exist at all. (Also, whether it’s okay for a brand to joke about it on Twitter.)

From what I’ve been reading online, most listeners believe there will be no real closure to the story. Serial’s host Sarah Koenig will likely end the show’s first season having accomplished nothing—i.e., nothing but entertain her audience for the last three months.

(Speaking of the end of Serial, here’s my own crackpot theory: Jay had a far bigger role in the murder than he admitted to police, and quite possibly framed Adnan knowing Adnan was an easy target. I say easy target because Adnan was Muslim in a mostly non-Muslim Maryland area—which was clearly a factor for some of the jurorsand Adnan was the victim’s ex-boyfriend. Also, Jay could count on the state’s star witness—himself—to push the investigation away from himself and towards Adnan, meanwhile getting himself a plea deal (and free lawyer) for cooperating with the state. Not crackpot-y enough for ya? I also feel like the popularity of the Scream movies back in the late 1990s somehow played into the idea of this real life 1999 high school murder where someone else may have been framed for the crime.)

Like Jeremy Lin, Serial will go on to play another season. (Thanks to listener donations the show can fund another Serial story—that is, if Sarah Koenig can ever recover from the first one.)

Jeremy Lin hasn’t come close to approximating the excitement he created in New York in 2012; he’s been extremely average as a basketball player. For Serial’s part, I think a second season with an equally specious story—maybe another intriguing cold case, maybe something else entirely—could be great. Will it be great as the first season? Maybe—but probably not.

Perhaps Serial’s legacy, more than its Linsanity-like excitement in the fall of 2014, will be that it opens the door for other would-be podcasters to create long-form, high quality, episodic, intellectual content that people will actual listen to, without producers having to worry about trying to sell audiences on a new (if not recycled) concept. “It’s gonna be the next Serial,” would be their oft-repeated—if slightly exaggerated—mantra.

As for the last episode of Serial’s first season, I haven’t been as pumped for a finale since Breaking Bad’s last episode in 2013. Serial won’t be wrapped up as neatly as I’d like it to be, i.e. Adnan is clearly guilty or clearly innocent based on new evidence Koenig has been holding back from us.

But that’s not really the point anymore.

Got a Serial theory? Let’s hear it.

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A few weeks back I blogged about my latest audio obsession, the new Taylor Swift album the Serial podcast.

At that time I made a couple of predictions about the podcast, which have since come true.

My first prediction was “plot” driven—with plot in quotes because this is actually a real-life murder, not a prime time procedural. (It’s also WAY more provocative than the average prime time procedural.) I said that the story Serial’s Sarah Koenig is telling would evolve as people familiar with and/or involved in the case hear the podcast and reach out to her with their input. Sure enough, in episode #9, this happened.

A former classmate of the then-teenagers involved in the case contacted Koenig to refute, with confidence, the prosecutor’s timeline for the murder. This “witness” coming forward was a direct result of her hearing the podcast and wanted to contribute some information she believed Koenig (and the police) didn’t already have.

For the man who sits in jail convicted of murder, Adnan Sayed, it’s not clear whether these out of court testimonies 15 years later will ultimately help or hurt his case, but I suppose they can’t make things much worse for him.

(I also recently came across an article about the complicated ethics of Serial that’s definitely worth a read for fans–even if, like me, you disagree with it.)

The second prediction I made was about the business side of Serial. Serial is a free podcast whose first season has been funded by This American Life, a syndicated public radio show that relies on donations and scant advertising partners (Mail Kimp, anyone?) to keep itself on the air. (Serial is a spin-off of This American Life and debuted its pilot episode on TAL.)

I predicted/suggested that Serial would/should charge something—anything!—for downloads of its episodes. What better time to do it than now, when Serial is the #1 podcast on iTunes? People are clearly into the show, and the mainstream media (plus my blog!) is taking notice.

But rather than charging for episode downloads–now that they have us completely at the mercy of Sarah Koenig’s storytelling (including those bits and pieces she undoubtedly knows but has yet to share)–Serial is doing what public radio usually does: they have asked, rather than required, listeners to contribute money to fund a second season of the show. The suggested donation is $10, which can be done by simply texting SERIAL to 25383.

With the constant debates about how much is too much to pay for content—the cable bundle debate in particular—I think $10 to help fund a show of Serial’s quality is a steal. So far I’ve listened to about five hours of Serial content (all nine episodes of the show) and Koenig has yet to set a final end date or number of episodes for season 1.

Last year I opted not to give money to Zach Braff’s Kickstarter campaign to fund his movie I Wish I Was Here, which was eventually funded without me and made into a pretty good movie. The basis for my decision was that it isn’t my job as the potential consumer to fund the making of creative endeavor such as a film; instead it’s my job to decide, based on trailers, reviews, as well as the creator’s previous body of work (in this case one of my favorite films, Garden State, whether to pay to see the film once it’s made. And that’s what I did.

Serial has given us nine free episodes. Fans have heard enough to know just how good it is. Now it’s on us, by donating a few bucks, to see how good it can be in season two.

Are you a fan of the show? Do you plan to help fund a second season of Serial? Why or why not?

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I wasn’t a lemonade stand kind of kid.

Instead, when I was 8 or 9 years old I told my mom that when I grew up, I was going to own an entire fleet of ice cream trucks. Back then ice cream was the most valuable currency I dealt in. So, naturally, my dream job involved having unlimited access to it.

I would sit in an office above an ice cream distribution center—where the ice cream men went to fill up their trucks on in the summer—and do whatever one does in an office when one owns an entire fleet of ice cream trucks. (This was before the internet and even before computers were ubiquitous, so I imagined some sort of hopper for my papers and maybe even a paperweight.) And the best part, I told my mom, was that she could come visit me at work whenever she wanted and I’d give her free ice cream.

More than two decades later, shockingly, I do not own a fleet of ice cream trucks. I do not have an office above an ice cream distribution center. Hell, I barely even eat ice cream anymore. As best laid plans of third graders often go, this one sort of fell apart after I got really into Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

For Alex Blumberg, the host, producer and subject of the new podcast StartUp, there’s a little more at stake than free ice cream.

Blumberg is best known for his work with public radio, including the program This American Life (producer) and podcast Planet Money (founder, co-host). But he recently quit both those gigs to start his own project: he’s starting his own media company which will focus on producing and distributing high-quality audio content via podcasts. Oh, and the best part–for us, anyway–is that he’s letting listeners in on the process. Here’s how Blumberg describes it on his website:

This show follows what happens next – my difficult journey from man to businessman. It’s a classic start-up story, but one that’s recorded in real time. I’ve documented disastrous pitches to investors, difficult conversations with my wife, and tense negotiations with my co-founder. The result is an honest, transparent account of something that happens all the time, but that we can rarely listen in on: starting a business.

StartUp is not a prescriptive how-to guide to starting a business from the ground up (this, despite several episode titles beginning with “How To”). It’s quite the opposite. It’s a show about a guy who knows very little about starting a business, and what happens along the way as he starts to figure it out.

The weekly series, which premiered on September 5, is just seven episodes in. So far Blumberg has taken us through a failed investor pitch, the process of taking on a business partner (after realizing he couldn’t do it alone), figuring out how to share equity with that business partner (a very cool insider’s look at emotional side of the process), assigning a value to a company that doesn’t make any money yet, and even picking a name for the company.

As I’ve written about previously on this blog, I’m big fan of ABC’s Shark Tank. On that hit reality show, entrepreneurs come to the sharks (i.e. potential investors) with a fully (or partially) formed companies asking for investments in exchange for shares of their businesses. Some entrepreneurs get deals, others are sent packing. On the show it all seems so simple.

StartUp is, in many ways, a prequel to Shark Tank.* As of episode #7 Blumberg’s company, Gimlet Media (for the origin of that name, check out episode #5), is still “pre-revenue.” On Shark Tank most pre-revenue business don’t get a deal unless the idea is very, very novel.

 *If StartUp is the prequel to Shark Tank, then shows like Hotel Impossible, Restaurant Impossible, and The Profit–all of which deal with businesses gone bad–are the sequels.

For those of us who have dreamed about owning their own business—for the record the ice cream thing is still on the table, though I haven’t figured out what I’d do all winter yet—and those who haven’t, StartUp gives listeners a fresh look into those steps between concept and actually taking those steps towards turning that concept into a living, breathing, (and hopefully) profitable thing.

The most interesting stuff for the listener tends to be that which is most gut-wrenching to Blumberg–from figuring out how much equity to give his partner (episode #3), to the constant self-doubt that comes with starting a business in your forties when you have a wife and two young children to consider every time you make a decision about anything.

In episode #2 Blumberg debriefs with his wife on the phone after an investor, Matt Mazzeo, in Los Angeles. Blumberg has been out to L.A. before, in episode #1, to meet with Mazzeo’s business partner, Chris Sacca. Mazzeo and Sacca are venture investors and business partners at Lowercase Capital. They have successfully invested in the technology space. After talking with Mazzeo, Blumberg is left with a pit in his stomach:

I’m feeling the same shitty way I’m feeling the last way I was out here. … It just makes me feel like I don’t know what I’m doing. … This is the thing: I’m sitting there talking to this guy and I’m describing something that feels like the biggest thing I’ve ever done, a scale beyond my wildest imaginings, something that I can’t even tell if I can pull off, and it’s totally not big enough. Like it seems small to him.

This is a really important insight, and one that I suspect a lot of startup business owners face when pitching investors. Especially in the tech space.

Can you or I invest in companies like Gimlet Media?
Episode #7 was about crowdfunding Gimlet Media. According to the episode, the 2012 Jumpstart Our Business Startups (JOBS) Act allowed for Americans to invest in private companies like Gimlet Media, which they were formerly not allowed to do. This means that through companies like Alphaworks, would-be investors could go online, find a company they wanted to give money to, and in exchange they’d receive equity in that company. (This is different than sites like Kickstarter, where you “donate” money but don’t receive any equity.) A Shark Tank for the Average Joe, right? Wrong.

Due to current Securities and Exchange Commission regulations, only “accredited investors,” i.e. those who make $200,000 a year and/or have a network worth of $1 million, may do so. (Alphaworks covers this in their FAQ.) If you’re an Above Average Joe, invest to your heart’s content. Otherwise you’re out of luck until the SEC loosens those regulations. Fortunately for Gimlet Media, they had enough friends in high places–in part thanks to attention the StartUp podcast has been getting–to get to their investment goal.

New episodes of StartUp are available about every two weeks. Whether you’re a future ice cream magnate or not, I recommend you give it a listen.

You find the StartUp podcast here: http://hearstartup.com/ – or you can use a podcasting app on your phone or tablet and search for StartUp. Happy listening.

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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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