Move Over TED, Here Comes Serial: A Podcast Blockbuster and Why it Matters

by Kriss Deiglmeier

If you were not one of the millions of listeners raptly following the “Serial” podcast series last fall, you need to know what it was all about.  If you were, like me, addicted to producer Sarah Koenig’s riveting investigation of a 1999 high school murder case in Baltimore and the conviction of victim Hae Min Lee’s ex-boyfriend Adnan Sayed, you’ll agree that the podcast series has powerful implications for how we talk about issues of race and criminal justice in our country.

No one could have expected that Serial would attract such a massive audience. Its approach to nonfiction storytelling runs almost contrary to popular wisdom on mass communications, where soundbytes and 140-word character limits rule. In recent years, TED Talks and their seamless presentation of novel ideas seemed the gold standard, and speakers everywhere emulate TED’s succinct and polished approach.

So why did Serial resonate with so many listeners, and why does it matter?  Over and over again, the podcasts made me think broadly, deeply and beyond each episode’s specific content to grapple with complex questions. Serial took me behind the scenes as Koenig sifted through confusing evidence and contradictory stories to try to get her arms around the truth.

Serial’s format and content offer a few lessons that can advance the way we discuss and build support for the critical social issues of our time:

Lesson 1: We will make the time.

Despite the trend toward tweets, twenty-minute TED talks, and top ten lists, we as a society actually do have the desire to engage in extended explorations of complex problems. Serial’s twelve episodes ranged from 30 to 45 minutes each, and without any visual effects succeeded in garnering the nation’s attention – the full series runs more than 300 hours long.  Something about the content and portability of the series worked with our overtaxed schedules, and I recall many conversations with friends looking forward to their daily commutes, eager to listen to the next episode. This willingness to dedicate prolonged time and attention to a particular topic turns mainstream assumptions about media consumers on their head. It shows that we will give you our time if you make it worthwhile.

Lesson 2: Give us a conversation not an answer.

Serial candidly revealed the producing team’s moments of doubt and frustration. We followed Koenig on fruitless tangents of research and felt her insecurity during particularly frustrating conversations. This behind-the-scenes experience invited us into her process, introduced suspense, and often raised more questions than it answered. This differs vastly from the TED approach, where answers are crisp, presenters are infallible experts, and little is left to question. Serial left us wondering, “Who is telling the truth?” “Why are there so many discrepancies in this story?”  This lack of clarity mirrors the world we live in, which is full of nuance and complexity.  As we work to repair deeply entrenched social problems, we are plagued with paradoxes, dilemmas, and trade-offs. Serial shows us that millions of Americans are willing to wrestle with complexity, and that the dialogue on social problems need not be reduced to oversimplified sound bites.

Lesson 3: We can be unified around a meaningful story.

It’s easy to segment our daily conversations according to the different categories of people in our lives. For example, I talk to my kids about school, friends, and sports.  I talk to my colleagues about work topics.  I talk to my family about family news and events. However, because Serial included all the key elements of a good story – compelling characters, an engaging plot, elements of suspense, and a strong narrator – it appealed to a huge audience. Serial provided a common thread of conversation with people from all parts of my life. It was a topic of conversation at dinner parties, on vacation with my Iraqi relatives, and at the dinner table with my 14-year-old son. Its broad appeal was a springboard for deeper conversations, and the key themes created opportunities to talk about my professional work to advance shared prosperity and social justice with friends and family that aren’t often interested in my work. I can’t help but hope that this broad engagement will bring new voices into the national dialog about race and our criminal justice system, build more widespread empathy for others, and compel new interest in helping craft solutions.

Lesson 4: People will really dig in once they get hooked on an issue.

Not only did Serial have mass market appeal, it also kept people engaged.  Serial has over 60 million downloads, there are 28,000 members of a subreddit online forum talking about the case, and a quick Google search brings in 502,000,000 results. Volunteers transcribed the contents of each episode for further examination by amateur sleuths around the world. Professors and students are using the series as a platform to learn about the criminal justice system and techniques of investigative reporting. Serial was recently awarded a Peabody Award, and the series has been called an “audio game-changer,” credited with having a “major impact on the way we understand truth, reality and events.”[1] The effects of the series and the community of listeners that formed around it continue to evolve. It’s exciting to think of the energy that such a podcast series can unleash, and the potential to influence change if channeled effectively.

So what?

Our world has many challenging and unfortunate realities. Rather than politicize or oversimplify the challenges, Serial shows us that people have the interest and ability to engage with complexity. We are willing to endure the discomfort of ambiguity when solutions are tough to find.

Let’s start a conversation about the tough issues and remember that it’s okay if we don’t know the answer before we start. Let’s remember that even society’s toughest, most intractable and frustrating problems are about real people, real families, and real communities.  If we can care about one story we can care about other stories, too. And if we can be patient listeners, willing to weather the ups and downs as we learn, fail, and keep trying, we have it in our power to find solutions.

Note: Amanda Greco contributed to and edited this piece, a true partner.