Radio gaga: Is podcast binge listening replacing TV?

A weekly US podcast based on a real life murder is the latest cult radio show to attract record audiences

Click to follow
The Independent Culture

If you happened to find yourself on Twitter yesterday morning you might well have read an unusually high number of agitated tweets, all asking the same thing: “Does anyone know when the next episode of Serial will arrive?”

For those not yet in the know, Serial is a highly addictive weekly podcast from the people behind US radio institution This American Life. Revolving around the 1999 murder of school student Hae Min Lee in Baltimore, Maryland, and the conviction of her ex-boyfriend Adnan Syed, Serial sifts through the evidence surrounding the case, unearthing discrepancies, talking to key witnesses and looking at whether Syed is, as he continues to claim, innocent.

If that sounds like an online version of Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood or a serialised Errol Morris documentary, that’s because it essentially is, with presenter Sarah Koenig following false leads down rabbit holes and recasting the evidence again and again, demonstrating how fickle memory is and how two different people can see the same thing in two different ways. The result is forensically detailed and entirely compelling: small wonder latecomers are desperately binge listening as they scrabble to keep up. 

And Serial fans aren’t alone in their desperation for an aural fix. Where once we speculated about Breaking Bad’s latest plot twist or boasted of watching the latest series of Orange is the New Black in only three days, these days the latest cult show is as likely to be something you listen to as something you watch.

Take Welcome To Night Vale. Since it began in 2012, this surreally offbeat drama has been steadily building a dedicated audience keen to follow scientist Carlos’s relationship with the show’s mellifluously voiced narrator Cecil or to uncover just why so many strange things are happening in one fictional desert town.

By 2013, the show, which is scripted by Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor, hit the top of the US podcast charts and continues to build support courtesy of dedicated Tumblrs and links on Twitter. Its success has led to a live tour of the US, and now a sell-out European tour.

Meanwhile, Zombie podcast We’re Alive saw listeners making fancasts dissecting each episode and buying T-shirts proclaiming their love, while podcast network Radiotopia has raised $650,000 (£415,000) through Kickstarter from fans desperate for new shows.

Serial’s impact threatens to dwarf all of these. “It’s the first break-out podcast,” argues Matt Deegan, creative director at radio consultancy Folder Media. “Serial could be to podcasting what House of Cards was to Netflix.”

That that is the case is largely down to Koenig’s careful reporting. In the wrong hands, this tale of small town murder and possible miscarriage of justice could have been a sensationalised mess, but Koenig painstakingly builds up a picture of the relationship between Lee and Syed, the bright children of immigrants, who kept their private lives hidden from their parents. She never forgets that this is a real story with a real victim at its heart. It’s detailed, immersive journalism and listening to it feels like being shown a way in which reportage can adapt and survive in a technology-driven age. “When I first proposed the idea of a serial show that you couldn’t binge on and had to wait for every week, some people thought I was insane,” Koenig admitted in a recent interview with New York magazine.

She’s right that the show encourages an obsessive immersion. Fiercely debated online, where a passionate subreddit dissects every second, and topping the podcast charts on iTunes, Serial is picking up new fans by the hour. “People want to binge listen because they want to be able to immediately scratch that itch of ‘what’s gonna happen?’” say Serial producer Dana Chivvis. “But also because it’s engrossing to live inside of the world of this story, the same way you don’t want to look up from a really good book or go to the bathroom in the middle of an epic movie.”

Yet for all its success, Serial could still be undone by its own conventions. “We have a vague idea [of how it might end] but we also know we could uncover some key piece of information tomorrow, and the whole thing could take a sharp turn,” admits Chivvis, while Koenig went further, saying: “I’m not going to pick a side just because I’m supposed to go for a Hollywood ending… I’m not an attorney, I’m not a judge and I didn’t set out to free the guy.”

What she is doing instead is telling a story – and there are times when that story cuts close to the bone. While the material is sensitively handled, Lee’s family have yet to feature and the question constantly looms: how do they feel about their daughter’s death being raked over once more? Can a real-life murder really be used in this way, no matter how soberly the tale is told? When people start talking excitedly about their addiction to Serial isn’t there something uncomfortable about the way in which we are responding to murder as entertainment?

At these moments Serial raises important questions about voyeurism and the increasing blurring of public and private lines. As Rabia Chaudry, Syed’s close friend, wrote last week on her blog: “It’s ok to be entertained but there is no excuse to forget that the stakes here are much higher than our entertainment.”