A modern medium for the oldest form of storytelling

Podcasting has been around since the 1980s, but thanks to the launch of true crime series ‘Serial’ five years ago, it’s an industry that could be worth $1bn by 2021. Harriet Marsden speaks to the creators about how the show not only triggered a renewed interest in the medium, but a renaissance in investigative journalism

Wednesday 02 October 2019 18:21 BST
Adnan Syed and Hae Min Lee, the subjects of ‘Serial’ series one, and the case that started it all
Adnan Syed and Hae Min Lee, the subjects of ‘Serial’ series one, and the case that started it all (Woodlawn High School)

Hae Min Lee was a typical high school student in Baltimore 1999. A popular Korean American girl, she was bright, pretty, romantic. On 13 January 1999, she was last seen driving from school to pick up her younger cousin. When she failed to turn up, her parents reported her missing. Police concluded that by that time, she was already dead.

A few weeks later, a known streaker was walking in Leakin Park, west Baltimore, to find somewhere to urinate. Instead, he stumbled on a partially buried body. Hae was found to have died by manual strangulation – hands around her neck. The trail, consisting of later-disputed cellphone tower signals, one singularly unreliable witness, 21 crucial minutes without an alibi and entries in Hae’s own diary, would lead police to her ex-boyfriend: Adnan Syed. The Muslim son of Pakistani immigrants in a majority-black high school, he was athletic, charismatic and hard-working. But despite the lack of definitive physical evidence and, it was later claimed, a negligent defence attorney, Syed was convicted to life imprisonment for first-degree murder. He is still in prison today.

This story might be a canvas of Shakespearean tragedy: young love, cultural divides, family secrets, betrayal, murder, but it was still one case, in one city with an infamously high murder rate. It’s unlikely that it would have received international attention, much less captivated millions around the world some 15 years later. But Hae’s case – or rather, the case against Syed, and where the prosecution might have gone wrong – became the subject of the record-breaking podcast Serial, which debuted five years ago today.

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