a killer serial podcast

npr’s new breakout hit

It’s not too late to jump on the bandwagon that is Serial, an NPR podcast that dissects the 1999 murder story of Hae Min Lee. Her boyfriend, Adnan Syed, was prosecuted and found guilty of first degree murder and is currently serving a life sentence without parole. So, why is Sarah Koenig even bothering to broadcast this? Because at the heart of this podcast is a story that hasn’t been told. What was told in the courtroom was the prosecution’s attempt to frame Adnan as guilty. While the facts may be true, the reflection may have been distorted.

Koenig makes it clear that she doesn’t necessarily think that Adnan is innocent or guilty. She simply believes that there is more to the story that wasn’t revealed during the trial, and she is taking her viewers along for the ride.
So, what makes this murder crime drama different from an episode of Dateline or Desperate Housewives? They all deal with a suspected murder and different shady characters who all seem to have some tie in the murder. Dateline is a sensational broadcast, with heavy-handed puns and dramatic music. They present recreations of the scenes of the crime, or voice-overs of past testimony over blurry images of the deceased or the suspect. It’s all wrapped up nicely in the hour that they have. The case is open, closed, and we are put at ease. Dramas like Housewives, or Law and Order do the same. While Housewives took longer to reveal the murder and Law and Order does it formulaically each episode, they always tie things up neatly for the viewers. It’s a fictionalized narrative.

Serial is real.

In each episode, Koenig includes snippets of recorded audio with the convicted murder. Here is where the medium of podcast shines. Voices seem incredibly telling. By picking up on inflections and sentiments through sound, you can help but add another layer of meaning to what’s being said. Personally, I have found Anand to be entirely lax about the entire situation. Granted, he has been in jail for 15 years, so he might not be trying to fight it. But, if someone was trying to convince people that I was innocent, I would be trying as much as I can to prove my innocence.

As a television fan, it pains me to mention that the podcast format is a smarter form of participation. There are so many nuts and bolts to this case, so many twists and turns and different stories and tiny facts, that you can’t mindlessly listen. You have to be an engaged listener, picking up on the inconsistencies and formulating your own questions that you’re hoping will be answered. Koenig is an excellent narrator for the events. She makes sure to back track, fill in past details, and carefully walk you through this case. If journalism ever fails her, she should immediately find a job as a criminal detective.

In some ways, Serial has turned into an augmented reality game, much like the I Love Bees phenomenon in 2004. As viewers, we become active participants in the case. The conversation is a buzz on Twitter with the hashtags #serialpodcast and #adnansyed. In the way that the podcast is structured, with a small piece of the narrative revealed each week, but with a broader picture in mind, the listeners can’t help but try and piece it together themselves. On the website online there are additional visuals, like pictures of the “cast” of characters from back in 1999 and photocopies of the maps and data that Koenig has collected. Though, in my opinion, they aren’t vital. It comes down to the story, a story that will hopefully have a logical conclusion.

That may not be the case. After an interview with Koenig for Buzzfeed, writer Alison Willmore wrote, “ Listeners have to contend with the fact that at the end of a dozen, give or take, episodes, there may not be a neat ending waiting for them.” For a culture currently so rooted in immediate gratification, it’s surprising that Serial has attracted such a large following in its first season. Serial breaks away from the norms of television storytelling. There aren’t cliffhangers besides the obvious—Did Adnan Syed really kill Hae Min Lee? If he did, why?

The synopsis for the podcast asks “How can you know a person’s character? How can you tell what they’re capable of?” It’s easy to see that it’s extremely difficult. At this point in the podcast, everyone seems like a suspect. Everyone has ended up changing their story in one way or another. Some have changed crucial parts completely, and others have claimed to have made simple mistakes. So, which missteps are most telling? Does a misstep equate to a lie and do lies imply a verdict of guilty? Not necessarily.

It’s also a question of time. This wasn’t a case that happened a few months ago or a year ago. It happened 15 years ago. The people Koenig interviews are now in their mid-30s. I couldn’t tell you what happened one year ago today without having to pull up old texts or calendars. Not only is memory’s fallibility an issue in trying to retell the events of this day, technology at the time was also very different. Cellphones are involved in the case, but so are pagers and payphones. How would Koenig be able to retrace those steps? Adnan was supposedly seen at the public library at the time Hae was strangled and killed. The reason Koenig would have bothered to visit that library was a mystery. All she learned was that the security tapes were recycled each week, and that people signed in using a pen and paper. There was no way that the library would have meticulously kept records like that for 15 years.

Koenig does the best she can with what she has to work with. She tracks down people who left Maryland years ago to ask if they remember what they did at track practice in high school, which could say something about Adnan’s whereabouts. She retraces the steps that the prosecution claimed just to make sure it matched up. She calls in analysts to explain logistics. And she calls Adnan, who is sitting in jail with the answers. Whether the answers he’s giving to Koenig are true is what keeps viewers listening each week.

Did he do it? We may never know.