by Crystal Zhao
Last fall the creators of the most popular podcast in the United States, This American Life, released a new podcast hosted by journalist and producer, Sarah Koenig. It spun a true story—a murder mystery that developed with many unexpected twists and turns as new information came to light, through both research and interviews. The podcast, entitled Serial, was a huge success, reaching even the mainstream audience.
The broad influence of this podcast was an amazing accomplishment for both Serial and podcasts in general. For the first time ever, broadcast journalism was being recognized and appreciated in a generation that had been largely oblivious to its existence. Solid proof of Serial’s notoriety with the younger generation can be observed in the Reddit theories that began to circulate. Granted, as the murder was a real occurrence, the fan theories were shut down quickly in deference to the victim’s family, but the podcast’s presence on social media was confirmation of its following among young adults.
Aside from being a gripping and morally complex story, the murder of Hae Min Lee was also beautifully and skillfully reported. Serial is a 2015 Peabody winner in radio/podcast, the first serial installment show to receive this honor. The way Sarah Koenig reported the story, Serial was much more than an interesting case. Koenig quickly peeled back the material facts and revealed the more sensitive and troubled nature of the story. Ultimately, it is “about the basics: love and death and justice and truth. All these big, big things,” she has commented.
Dr. Jeffrey P. Jones, Director of the Peabody Awards, acknowledged “new avenues and approaches to storytelling can have a major impact on how we understand truth, reality, and events.” Podcasts based off of journalism and in-depth reporting exist, as seen with This American Life, Radiolab, and more recently, Invisibilia, but there are many styles with which to tell the story. A producer could chose to simply read a scripted story, as in the case of The New Yorker Fiction, or to share it through faux news reports like Welcome to Night Vale. Now, Koenig has proven that serial installment storytelling is a timeless practice, as old as Dickens. Catch the next season this fall on iTunes or any podcast streaming app!