Serial, a lesson in storytelling

There’s nothing new about podcasts. They’ve limped on, part multi-media tick-box to online journalism, part easygoing distraction on your morning commute, for more than a decade. But, there’s a new podcast that has gathered its own cult following, a mutual obsession of the kind normally reserved for big budget HBO dramas. It’s a fictional story called Serial, and it’s a lesson in engagement and storytelling.

Serial is the reinvestigation of the murder of a Baltimore teenager, Hae Min Lee, in 1999. Her ex-boyfriend, 18 year-old Adnan Syed is in prison. His conviction was based on apparently scant evidence and the testimony of a single witness. It’s truly gripping stuff, and episode-by-episode Sarah Koenig, an ex-Baltimore Sun crime reporter, asks the question everyone is asking: “Did he do it?”

Serial has managed to capture the imaginations of listeners in a way that no other podcast seems to have managed. It has inspired a BBC news story, Buzzfeed quizzes and has its own Subreddit – an entire subsection of the micro blogging behemoth dedicated to Serial conspiracy theories and the mostly-barmy musings of amateur detectives.

This is the kind of engagement traditional radio can only dream of, is way beyond most factual television and is only attainable for the very best of TV drama. Serial has turned a corner in online storytelling and we should all be taking notice.

Serialising a story is not a new idea. Koenig says herself that the idea comes from Dickens. But this serialised journalism brings her story to life in a way that Podcasts have, as yet, failed to do. In this story she has tapped into the medium’s true power.

Serial is like a 101 in podcasting. You are taken right to the root of Koenig’s process. In her honest and open reporting style the audience feels they are investigating with her. Koenig herself says she doesn’t know how the story turns out, but her enraptured audience will definitely be listening each week to find out.

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