Serial Podcast, a gripping plunge into murder trials and investigative reporting, broke records on iTunes and gave families a topic to debate just in time for the holidays. Is Adnan innocent? Sarah Koenig, the reporter telling the story seemed to think so…until she didn’t…and then she did again. And we were right there with her–sure he was wrongly convicted then doubting his innocence again. And what about Jay? Jay was fishy, but also had a solid alibi and no real reason to lie. But Adnan, polite, sweet, devout…could he really have killed Hae?
If you haven’t become engrossed in Serial, you should. As a quick recap, the podcast is about a murder that happened in Baltimore County, Maryland in 1999. On January 13, Hae Min Lee, a senior at Woodlawn High School, disappeared after class. Her body was found about a month later in a park, and it was determined she was strangled to death. Adnan Syed, Hae’s fun and popular ex-boyfriend, also of Woodlawn, was arrested and sentenced to life in prison plus 30 years. Adnan has always said he’s innocent, but Jay, a friend from school, said he helped Adnan bury Hae’s body in the park. Serial goes from there, picking through the past and poking holes in the story. By the end, we’re sure someone is lying, but we’re not sure who it is.
I don’t know what really happened 16 years ago in Baltimore County (though I’m leaning towards Adnan’s innocence), but I do know who I think the winners of Serial Podcast are, in no particular order:
Mr. Syed is still in jail, but his charming voice and pleasing personality have won the hearts of many. More importantly, the facts against him, or lack thereof, caught the attention of the Deirdre Enright, the head of the Innocence Project at University of Virginia Law School. Enright found another possible suspect in December, and she and her students are tracking down additional potential suspects and other information while waiting for DNA samples. TIME had a great interview with Enright that delved deeper into her work and theories on Syed’s case.
Hae Min Lee was allegedly murdered in a Best Buy parking lot, so of course Best Buy is mentioned over and over throughout the series. Even bad press can be good press, proved by a recent Stanford study, and Best Buy is getting lots of free name placement. After a Serial episode where Jay claims Adnan called him from the Best Buy pay phone and another witness swears the pay phone never existed, the Best Buy on Security Boulevard in Windsor Mill, Maryland, apparently received flocks of visitors, all searching for evidence.
I’ve long been a Sarah Koenig fan. I like her clear, unpretentious yet authoritative voice. She sounds like a journalist you can trust, but also like someone you could bond with over a glass of wine. Already a respected reporter and producer of This American Life, Koenig didn’t need something to catapult her career. Even so, with Serial she has become a star. She’s like a real-life Nancy Drew for grown ups, guiding us intimately through the case and letting us in on her doubts. Because she’s doing the story in real time, she can’t promise a solid ending, and while in many cases this could be disastrous or a giant let down, in Koenig we trust and it’s impossible to blame her when she hems and haws in the final episode and comes short of a solid conclusion. Adnan seems innocent and Jay’s story is strange, but she can’t say for sure what’s right. “As a juror, I have to acquit Adnan Syed,” she says. But as a human? “If you ask me to swear that Adnan Syed is innocent, I couldn’t do it. I nurse doubt.” This honest approach and a desire to understand where every character is coming from and what exactly their motives are, as well as her attention to detail and ability to walk us through facts as mundane as cell phone tower records in an understandable, surprisingly entertaining way, have helped Koenig make a name for herself as a reporter, a producer, and now as a true-crime drama superstar.
Radio serials, once a waning art, and radio in general, are possibly the biggest winners in Serial’s success. Radio has been reborn, now with a younger and more diverse audience. Older generations remember radio dramas with nostalgia, but for many of us, it’s always been about TV and the Internet. In an age where YouTube series are hurting television, it’s amazing that a radio serial could attract and bewitch such a massive audience. Serial has an average of almost three million listeners per episode, and has shot past This American Life as the most downloaded podcast on iTunes. I’m thrilled at this revival of radio storytelling, and betting that season two of Serial will draw just as big a crowd.
Listen to the Serial Podcast on Audible Gold, and get one free audio book each month.