Breaking the Rules: How the Serial Podcast Achieved its Insane Popularity

You’ve heard of Serial by now, right? Oh, I’m sorry, you haven’t? Now that you’re out of your cupboard under the stairs, you’ll find what I’m talking about here.

Yes, that’s Serial. Doesn’t look like much does it? It’s a smaller relation to This American Life, which is a podcast reporting slice of life stories with a Garrison Keilloresque spin. From its unassuming appearance you’d imagine Serial would fit neatly into the same folksy niche. You’d never imagine by November last year over 5 million people had downloaded it. You wouldn’t suppose that in so doing, Serial could claim to have changed the face of true crime reporting. You’d be hard pressed to believe that far from being a folksy little podcast, Serial might have the muscle to reopen a murder case and, just possibly, get a man out of jail.

But let’s go back to the part about changing the face of true crime reporting, because what I want to talk about isn’t the rights or wrongs of the case which Sarah Koenig and her production team investigate in the series (although I do have an opinion about that, because Serial has a way of forcing you to have an opinion about the case, even if you don’t want to). What I want to talk about is why this podcast succeeded and succeeded so well.

And as you might guess from a podcast which looks unassuming but isn’t, Serial doesn’t succeed because of the rules it follows. Serial succeeds because of the rules it breaks.

Broken Rule #1: Concentrate on the facts not the people

True crime shows tend to focus on the facts: the where and the how and the when of a case, but sidestep the who — the character of the people involved in the crime. You can see why this might be: you can’t argue with a fingerprint or a DNA test, or so the reasoning goes, but people…people are slippery. People are changeable. Rather than tease out the complexity of motivation, honesty and denial, when it comes to the who of crime, most shows give us little more than stock statements and clichés to base our judgments on.

Serial embraces the slipperiness. It makes the slipperiness of who a person really is the heart of the show. In a way you could say it has no option but to do this, because in the case of Adnan Syed, currently jailed for the murder of Hae Min Lee, hard evidence is thin on the ground. This is a case all about people — why they do stuff, how they feel about things, what might provoke them to kill. It’s also, crucially, about the slipperiest aspect of people — when they lie and when they tell the truth. Serial looks at the key characters from every angle – where possible they speak for themselves (in the case of Lee, through the diary she kept before her death) — but added to this are the viewpoints of a multiplicity of others: friends, family, teachers, members of the community, neighbours.

The result of this is to build a relatable picture of ordinary people who get caught up in an extraordinary event. We get invested in the kids of Woodlawn High School and the Baltimore community which surrounds them. We feel we know them. They smoked pot and hung out, just the way we did at age 17. They sneaked around and had sex in cars. We want to know more about them. We want to know why one of them died.

Broken Rule #2: Force everyone to wear a suit and tie

This concerns the bit where real people get to talk and there’s probably a technical term for this staple of the true crime show, but basically what it consists of is a headshot of a interviewee (a real person) speaking to an off-camera, silent interviewer. Soundbites are delivered in a measured, serious manner. Emotion is allowed, but only in carefully calibrated doses. The interviewee, if male, wears a shirt and tie.

Serial does not give us interviews. Serial gives us conversations. When talking to the people involved in the case, Koenig, the show’s presenter, interjects and asks questions. Her respondents sound like real people: they um and aw and forget the point of what they’re saying. There’s no sense of rehearsal or preparation – if Koenig contradicts someone, as she occasionally does, you get their reaction. Sometimes, when trying to capture a tricky point, they’ll double-back on themselves, or explain further, or search for the right words.

Which isn’t to say that the interviews used in Serial aren’t edited. They’re cleaned up and excerpted and presented out of sequence, so that the story can be told in the best way. But Serial also manages to not edit out the character of the people telling the story. They can wear any clothes they want, not just suits and ties.

Sarah Koenig

Broken Rule #3: Keep yourself out of the story

From the featureless interviewee, we move to the featureless presenter. Many crime shows rely on the faceless narrator technique, but even those fronted by a personality – usually someone with a vague claim to expert status – prefer the ‘Greek God’ approach to presenting: the talking head who offers comment from the lofty heights of Mt Olympus on the antics of the mortals down below.

When Koenig- not an expert- gets involved in trying to solve the case’s puzzles it hits us that we could solve those puzzles too.

The Serial production team is the opposite of a Greek God (and I mean this in a good way). In her progress through the case, Koenig expresses all the doubt, confusion and frustration experienced by any normal person trying to understand the messy stuff of real, true human life. There are dead ends. There are contradictions. There are conflicting points of view which cannot be resolved. Koenig gets annoyed at the way the original investigators tidied up a key witness’s statements. She admits to the mind-numbing boringness of some of the technical detail the story involves – the cell phone records, the blueprints of shopping malls. She even questions the central premise of the story itself, allowing herself to ask the normally unaskable. Is it possible, she wonders, if Syed, who has always protested his innocence and who she finds likeable and plausible, actually has her completely fooled?

Allowing the presenter to have reactions and emotions allows us the audience to have those same reactions and emotions. Stirred, we become hooked on the story. We want more. We want answers.

Broken Rule #4: Leave the hard stuff to the experts

I’m going to get back to Koenig’s doubts below, but let’s pause at the blueprints for a moment, because here’s one of the key reasons Serial became so popular. As I said in Broken Rule #1, the murder investigation had little to go on in the way of hard evidence, but there was some, notably Syed’s cell phone record for the day of the murder and how it matched the statement of a key witness, but also the presence or absence of a phone booth at a particular shopping mall and the minimum possible driving time between the High School and where the murder took place.

Faced with technical issues like these, most crime shows call in the experts to unravel the details. Cue shirts, ties and headshots. Rarely, if ever does the crime show presenter actually do the investigating themselves, because the crowd-consciousness about crime shows dictates that investigating is what the police and experts do, not ordinary people equipped with no special skills except common sense, and no special tools except a car and access to the internet.

But investigating is exactly what Koenig and her team set about. They dig up cell phone records and match them to tower pings. They get hold of blueprints and try to work out if a certain call could have been made from a certain spot at a certain time. They get in a car and drive from the High School to the site of the murder and time the journey. And this is where it gets interesting for us the listener, because all of the rules above have the effect of distancing us from the investigation, and breaking those rules – making the people real, using natural dialogue, reacting to the story – brings us into the heart of it. When Koenig- not an expert- gets involved in trying to solve the case’s puzzles it hits us that we could solve those puzzles too. From investment and engagement, we move to interactivity. Visit the appropriate sub-Reddits and you will see the results.

Broken Rule #5: Pick a side and stick to it

By breaking the rules, Serial invests, engages and allows interaction, but this is all preparation for its biggest and most profound bit of rule-breaking, a departure from convention that is probably the main reason for its success.

Remember my parenthetical comment in the introduction that Serial forces you to have an opinion about the Syed case even if you don’t really want to? Serial has an effect on you that no other crime show can generate. Listen to this show and you will find yourself shouting at your playing device and afterwards feverishly Googling for that crucial piece of information which proves your particular theory right.

How does it do that? Serial never picks a side. No piece of evidence proves conclusive. No witness statement is treated as gospel. Koenig admits that Syed might be lying, that people’s recollection of events might be faulty, that their assessment of character might be biased. The show almost never asserts one possibility without immediately admitting the converse might also be true.

The effect is at first disorienting. We’re used to being spoon-fed conclusions on shows like this, the alternate scenarios usually being: ‘we got the guilty person and this is how we did it’ or ‘the wrong guy is in jail and here’s why.’

Serial leans towards the latter, but never fully commits to the miscarriage of justice narrative. There’s always room for doubt: even with the physical evidence. Here’s an example: the final episode presents some last exploration into whether a particular damning call could possibly be due to a butt-dial and not due to Syed having his phone when he said he didn’t. The conclusion? Maybe. It’s possible. Perhaps.

From disorienting, the effect of all this fence-sitting quickly becomes tantalizing. We’re invested in these people. We hear their voices and their unvarnished reactions. Koenig gives voice to our own doubts and frustrations. We’re even offered a seat at the investigating table. We need to know the truth about all of this. We want those elusive answers.

This is how Serial really hooks us. By refusing to pick a side, by always allowing room for doubt, Serial offers us those answers; then snatches them out of reach. Because it never picks a side – guess what? – we feel forced to choose for ourselves. Even if we don’t want to have an opinion about the show, having an opinion is what we end up with, like it or not.

And what’s my opinion?

As it happens, I came to the dispiriting conclusion that Syed probably is guilty, around about Episode 8 of the show. Why dispiriting? Because on balance that means Serial did more harm than good: it reopened old wounds and painful memories without the compensatory effect of freeing an innocent person or providing better closure to the relatives and friends of Hae Min Lee.

But that’s just my opinion. If you listened to Serial, I’m pretty sure you have one of your own.

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Deets999's picture
Deets999 from Connecticut is reading Adjustment Day January 14, 2015 - 10:21am

Nice article, couldn't agree with you more on how great the concept and execution was of Serial. I'd never heard of it until Dec (when SNL spoofed it) and then I binge-listened (cause that's a thing) to all 12 eps in less than 24 hours. I thought for sure a NPR product was going to take a hard-line of opinion, but to your point, the production was very, very fair and really let the listener make up thier own mind, which I appreciated. I think another rule they broke was simply the medium they used - a podcast, no visual. It was so refreshing to not have my retinas blasted with images - and I can't really remember a modern, true-crime story that has choosen this avenue. I think that is an under-appreciated strength of the series.

My two cents, I think the greatest probability to explain the murder is that Syed is guilty of the crime. But as a conservative, even I'd have to really scratch my head at the conviction - because the podcast offers up fair and reasonable doubt in my view. Which isn't too say the jury trial did. Or that I share anything in common with the original jurors.

Dennis's picture
Dennis from Los Angeles is reading Necroscope by Brian Lumley January 14, 2015 - 2:01pm

Great article, Cath. 

Cath Murphy's picture
Cath Murphy from UK is reading Find out on the Unpr!ntable podcast January 15, 2015 - 2:07am

Thanks! I agree @Deets - the podcast format made a real difference. It's a much under-exploited medium imo, so I'm hoping the success of Serial will inspire others to try new, cool stuff.

Ryan Peverly's picture
Ryan Peverly from Ohio is reading The AEgypt Cycle by John Crowley January 15, 2015 - 8:03pm

I had an idea like this for a podcast, only fictionalized. I'm sure there's one or two out there by now, and, if not, there will be after someone reads this comment and steals the idea.

Cath Murphy's picture
Cath Murphy from UK is reading Find out on the Unpr!ntable podcast January 17, 2015 - 3:32am

That sounds fab @Ryan and as for stealing ideas, the kind of person who would do that is also the kind of person who lacks the chops to make the thing actually work.

I look forward to listening, once it's ready.