If you’re unfamiliar with the podcast medium you’re missing out on a subsection of entertainment that is quickly becoming one of my favorite ways to consume information.
Podcasts, which essentially have manifested into the revival of a long-dying format – talk radio – come in many lengths and genres, and unlike the majority of radio content they’re not regulated by stuffy executives with mandates forcing them to appeal to the widest audience possible. This allows the subject matter to splinter off into deeper and deeper subcategories for listeners to dive into. Podcasts run the gamut from more standard fare like WTF With Marc Maron, which interviews entertainers in a more probing and revelatory fashion than anything on television, to Song Exploder, a show that literally deconstructs songs for the audience, isolating specific musical elements to drill down to the core of an artist’s work. Even the editors here at GB once captained a podcast back in our Geek days. It’s an interesting medium.
The most talked about podcast of the last few months is something atypical in the podcast world, even considering the aforementioned variety: Serial is a 12-part investigation into a real 1999 murder case, wherein Adnan Syed was convicted of strangling his ex-girlfriend, Hae Min Lee, at the age of 18. Syed, now 34, has maintained his innocence through his 14 years in prison, where he’s currently serving a life sentence. The series, hosted by Sarah Koening, a spin-off of the popular This American Life, delves into the entire case, from the crime to the prosecution, and asks the question: What if Syed is innocent?
On January 13, 1999, a girl named Hae Min Lee, a senior at Woodlawn High School in Baltimore County, Maryland, disappeared. A month later, her body turned up in a city park. She’d been strangled. Her 17-year-old ex-boyfriend, Adnan Syed, was arrested for the crime, and within a year, he was convicted and sentenced to spend the rest of his life in prison. The case against him was largely based on the story of one witness, Adnan’s friend Jay, who testified that he helped Adnan bury Hae’s body. But Adnan has always maintained he had nothing to do with Hae’s death. Some people believe he’s telling the truth. Many others don’t.
Sarah Koenig, who hosts Serial, first learned about this case more than a year ago. In the months since, she’s been sorting through box after box (after box) of legal documents and investigators’ notes, listening to trial testimony and police interrogations, and talking to everyone she can find who remembers what happened between Adnan Syed and Hae Min Lee fifteen years ago. What she realized is that the trial covered up a far more complicated story, which neither the jury nor the public got to hear. The high school scene, the shifting statements to police, the prejudices, the sketchy alibis, the scant forensic evidence – all of it leads back to the most basic questions: How can you know a person’s character? How can you tell what they’re capable of? In Season One of Serial, she looks for answers.
There’s a lot to Serial that could explain why it’s so highly acclaimed. The quality of the show is impressive on its own – Sarah Koenig has not just produced an addictive and intriguing true crime story here, the investigative journalism is incredibly thorough. She pulls police records, court statements, plays audio of actual testimony and interviews of persons involved in the case. She even speaks with experts who specialize in different areas of murder investigation to add their own analyses.
Yet the most gripping element to the podcast is the fact that Hae Min Lee’s murder is a true story, and one that is incredibly grey. Crime investigation shows seem to air every other hour on network television, but this is not a scripted work of fiction. There is no structured poetry in the resolution to this story, which means mistakes could have been made, and Koenig pokes enough reasonably sized holes in the case to leave the listener frustrated and unsatisfied. Coupled with this, Adnan Syed is a very convincing character. True to the way his supporters and condemners describe him throughout the series, Adnan is a charismatic and intelligent man who endears himself quickly to the listener, and even Koenig herself. It’s very easy to slip into the belief that Syed is innocent, only to stumble onto a piece of information that triggers suspicion all over again. And Sarah Koenig does it too, multiple times. Whether Adnan is a fantastic manipulator or an unlucky victim of the judicial system might not ever be discovered, and that can be infuriating, but it’s a mystery that naturally demands our attention.
It’s a show that shines a light on human nature, the intrigue and taboo of murder, the American justice system and the question of how well can you really know a person? Serial’s final episode on the case of Hae Min Lee airs Thursday December 18th, and while it likely won’t tie itself nicely in a bow, it will certainly be an hour of radio we’ll be thinking over for days.
If you’re not familiar with the show and interested, allow us to get you started…
Images: Serial, Chicago Public Media & Ira Glass