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Why is Serial so gripping?

How the true crime series is reinventing the podcast

Emily Condon is the production manager of Serial, a wildly successful podcast from the creators of “This American Life.”Serial via AP

It's gotten to the point that only those who have sworn off all media haven't heard about Serial, the crime podcast produced by the team behind This American Life, the public radio show. Narrated masterfully by reporter Sarah Koenig, its episodes — now in their ninth weekly installment — center on the criminal case of Adnan Syed, a Baltimore teenager convicted in 2000 of strangling his ex-girlfriend, 18-year-old Hae Min Lee. Serial, which this week broke the record for podcast quickest to reach 5 million downloads and streams, tackles the simplest of premises in a problematic criminal case: Who really did it?

There are many reasons why Serial has turned into a cultural phenomenon, even being credited with sparking the so-called renaissance of the podcast. The constant tension of trying to prove whether Syed was wrongfully convicted or not draws in a captive audience week after week as Koenig slowly reveals the elements — and evidence — of the case. Serial has actually spawned its own subculture, as evidenced by the official Reddit thread about the show where more than 10,000 registered contributors discuss and put forward their own theories about Adnan and the case. In the ultimate sign of ubiquity, Serial has generated meta commentary: Slate produces a podcast dedicated to reviewing the crime podcast.


Not surprisingly, this popularity has also led to copious press coverage — every major online news outlet has run a story on Serial. This only exacerbates the notion that the show has essentially brought the podcast back to life. I'd, however, argue that Serial has not so much revived the medium as much as given it a new dimension.

I know of what I speak — I spend nearly two hours in the car every weekday, and Serial is the best thing that has ever happened to my commute. But I'm hardly alone, either. Hundreds of thousands of other people in Massachusetts have similar drives (thanks a lot, MassPike.) By some estimates, 44 percent of all radio consumption happens in the car. No wonder why disruption hasn't come knocking on the radio industry's door to overhaul its perfect and traditional business model.


And podcasts are a big part of that: According to Edison Research, a record 39 million people have listened to a podcast in the last month. The number of podcast users has gone from 11 percent in 2006 to 30 percent in 2014. The hassle-free and customizable nature of the podcast — you can listen on your phone, in the car, during your subway commute, stream it online at home using your computer, etc. whenever is convenient — is pretty attractive, especially to a demographic highly coveted by advertisers: millennials.

But beyond commuting and millennial listeners, the success of Serial resides in Koenig's genius narrative style. She never lets us forget that she is just an ordinary human being reacting to a horrific crime, trying to solve it by figuring out who's lying and who's not. In other words, Koenig is not just a journalist trying to get to the heart of a story — she is every one of us listeners at home. Going against tried-and-true journalistic practices, she is elevating her voice above everyone else's.


And the gimmick is working. Koenig is the true protagonist of the show, not Adnan or Jay, the prosecutors' star witness. She brings the audience into her psyche as she fully expresses her thought process, instincts, and feelings of doubt. Koenig has taken the podcast as a medium and elevated it by using it in an innovative way and thus giving it more range.

Along the way, Koenig's ability to humanize this crime has made it almost irrelevant as to whether or not Adnan is innocent, at least for me. (This isn't really a spoiler, but I'm pretty convinced he's guilty.)

No, I'm much more fascinated by how Koenig processes the enigma of the circumstances surrounding Hae's murder. I'm waiting as much to find out how the reporter will react and express her disappointment when she realizes that it is impossible to say definitively "Adnan is innocent," or vice versa. How is she going to process that? For that matter, how will the rest of us take it?

Marcela García is a regular contributor to the Globe opinion pages. Follow her on Twitter @marcela_elisa.