Were you a Serial fan? Many of us were – enjoying what most people call the first breakthrough hit of the format.
For those who were not addicts fans, Serial was produced by Sarah Koenig and Julie Snyder, who were producers of This American Life, a podcast that was considered one of the standard bearers before it was surpassed by its progeny (the first installment ran as a This American Life episode).
The subject matter was not pleasant; the twelve episodes investigate the 1999 murder of Hae Min Lee, a Baltimore teenager. Quality storytelling, a trademark of This American Life, in this case delivered in the style of old-school news serials (hence the name) drove the podcast to become a cultural icon. Praise of Serial, examples here, here, and here reflect on the depth of reporting, the earnestness of the host, and even the effective musical score.
Were there haters? Of course. Critics claimed that Serial was not thorough enough, was journalistically lazy, and displayed white-saviour cluelessness about how the legal system worked. Personally, I thought the show was very well done and while there was validity to some of the claims, a lot of the criticism has a twinge of professional jealousy.
We’ve seen pop culture phenomena before, of course. Quick trivia – the first CD to sell 1 million copies? Brothers in Arms by Dire Straits (with fancy DDD mastering). The first DVD? The Matrix – priced to sell for Christmas. The fact is that “owning” physical copies of entertainment products is becoming obsolete. Serial spawned many interesting tributes including parodies, a Saturday Night Live skit, listening parties, discussions on Reddit, and a brilliant send-up of the final episode.
So, will it change podcasting? Here are some thoughts.
- Quality storytelling will build audiences virally. Word of mouth incredibly supported Sarah and her team.
- Leaders can teach an audience how to use a new technology. The Serial team realized that many of its potential listeners didn’t know how to access a podcast and showed them how in a helpful, non-pedantic tutorial.
- Crowdfunding will be effective for an outstanding product. Sarah asks listeners (just this one time, she promises) for funding. The key here is the request was not for her work already done but to fund a Season Two. Listeners responded (I’m not sure how many people clicked on the $1000 button).