This Thursday, over 1.5 million people will eagerly tune in to another episode of “Serial,” as producer Sarah Koenig divulges more pieces of a puzzle that has fascinated a record-breaking audience.
A child of the radio powerhouse “This American Life,” Serial investigates the 1999 murder of teenager Hae Min Lee and the conviction of the Maryland girl’s ex-boyfriend Adnan Syed. Koenig dissects each and every detail of the murder, the trial, and the lives that revolve around the tragedy. Fifteen years later, Syed still claims his innocence as he endures a life sentence in prison.
In the world of podcasts, “Serial’s” popularity is unprecedented. Its success points toward an exciting and unknown future for the medium. Before the hit show, the chart-toppers in the category were consistent, with This American Life maintaining a top spot for years. What these popular podcasts had in common was their life spent on the radio. Aside from airing the pilot on This American Life,
“Serial” has remained exclusively in the world of podcasts.
For most producers of public radio, podcasts are merely an afterthought. The common belief is to produce for radio, with fragmented episodes for listeners tuning in and out and recaps along the way, then make podcasts.
The many cliffhangers and synchronous narratives over an entire season of Serial capitalize on this often-forgotten podcast listener. The podcast’s success seems to lie somewhere within this unique format. Jake Brownell, co-host of KRCC’s “Wish We Were Here,” sees the shows success as three pronged.
First, it is a product of one of the most popular radio shows to date, This American Life. “You can’t understate how much of a leg up that gives somebody,” says Brownell. “But obviously, the genius of the show is just tapping into the popularity of this kind of “serial” genre. Which is just a story compellingly told with cliffhangers, week after week. And playing into this sort of “Netflix model,” with the popularity of that kind of content.”
This “Netflix” model seems fitting in this day and age, where we all binge-watch shows. So why not binge-listen to podcasts? The reality is that podcasts like Serial aren’t cropping up every two days because it is truly difficult to produce something as high quality and engaging as Koenig’s show.
Brownell explains, “There are tons and tons and tons of podcasts out there, but there aren’t many that are really well produced and have the resources behind them to make them into something like what Serial is. So if you can do that I think there is a big demand for it.”
This is the foundation of the third prong. Producers Sarah Koenig and Julie Snyder are veterans of This American Life; they have truly mastered the art of storytelling in the audio forum. Nonetheless, Serial seems to be a canary in the coalmine for the potential of the podcasting industry.
Radio producers like Brownell and his co-host Noel Black grapple with this shifting climate when thinking about their own content. “We’ve been very much thinking about podcasting and … it’s a weird tension when you’re working for a radio station and you’re needing to produce content for the radio,” says Brownell. “And what works on the radio when people are tuning in and tuning out makes it a different way of listening than the way that people listen to podcasts.” The radio isn’t dying out just yet, but the popularity of Serial has truly proven the potential in this age-old suspense formula to bring a new success to the world of podcasts.
“I think it’s really hard,” says Black. “It’s really hard because there’s just no way to make really high-quality radio or video or anything. There’s no way to do it for cheap.” Producers like Black and Brownell are dependent on public radio for resources and an audience base, but they still cannot ignore the growing world beyond the non-profit sector. Black’s frustration and excitement seem to blur together, his voice echoes his inner luddite and Serial-addict alike: “You have to have one foot on each side of history. One in the future, one in the past.”
Brownell and Black don’t seem discouraged by the seemingly impending shift towards more “streaming-centric” consumption of audio. Many of their peers in the world of public radio have already taken the leap of faith into pure podcasting.
Take Alex Blumberg, alum of the This American Life team as well as the popular show “Planet Money,” who documented his entrepreneurial endeavors to create a podcasting company through, you guessed it, a podcast. “StartUp,” which has been airing over the past few months and sits alongside Serial in the top charts on iTunes, embodies exactly what Black and Brownell are dealing with. Blumberg is anxious to capitalize on podcasting through his start-up Gimlet Media, producing high quality content purely for the streaming audience. Brownell sees Serial’s success as just one piece of the puzzle, with Blumberg and others catching on to the trend.
“I think that a lot of people are recognizing, and its not just “Serial,” but a lot of different content producers are recognizing that this is sort of a moment for somebody to seize.”
Both Blumberg and podcast host Roman Mars have visions for podcasting in the private sector. Mars, the host of “99% Invisible,” recently started Radiotopia, a sort of podcast consortium similar to Blumberg’s Gimlet Media. The project was almost entirely kick-starter funded, raising over $600,000.
“I think there are a lot of people—Serial, StartUp, and Radiotopia—being the primary examples, seeing that there is opportunity for growth,” says Brownell. These three projects are at the core of a sort of revolution in the world of podcasts, radio, and audio content. All of these projects are taking big risks and —specifically in the case of Serial—gaining big rewards.
For now, 1.5 million listeners and counting will be obsessing over whether Adnan Syed is guilty. The answers are still up in the air, and fans are at the edge of their seats waiting for new details to emerge. It seems like Brownell, Black, Blumberg, Mars, and many others in the world of radio are also waiting in suspense, not just for next Thursday’s new episode, but also for the next chapter in the world of podcasting.