The final episode of Serial is out, marking the end of a series that has single-handedly revived the podcast as a cutting-edge medium, with over 20m downloads. For the past two months, the world has been gripped by the case of Adnan Syed, who was convicted in 1999 for the murder of his high-school sweetheart, Hae Min Lee, in Baltimore County. The show has been produced by This American Life, a weekly staple at NPR which has told a self-contained story in an hour, presented for the past twenty years by Ira Glass, who has also been involved in Serial. BBC Radio 4 Extra has just picked it up for broadcast in the UK. However, it has gained its huge following primarily through word of mouth.
Over the past two months, I have heard countless versions of the following conversation:
“Have you been listening to Serial?”
The listener tends to look baffled at this point, as if they have been asked whether they eavesdrop on their breakfast.
“Serial with an S.”
“Oh, like serial killer.”
The way that the show’s producer and narrator Sarah Koenig tells it, the idea was to tell one story over a number of episodes, unpacking it gradually and building up a detailed picture of each aspect of the story. “We’ll follow the plot and characters wherever they take us and we won’t know what happens at the end of the story until we get there, not long before you get there with us,” she said on the Serial website. But it’s certainly not the only meaning that the word ‘serial’ evokes, and although the producers were keen to emphasise responsible reporting, true crime has an uneasy relationship with its subjects, profiting from and publicising a crime while simultaneously claiming to stand apart from it as a neutral investigator of truth. As the podcast gained in popularity, online speculation proliferated on sites like Slate and Reddit, of the kind one might expect of a fictional series like True Detective, with some listeners trying to contact the people involved against their wishes.
Koenig has found herself reporting details of the private lives of those relevant to the case (“I’ve had to ask about teenagers’ sex lives – where, how often, with whom?—about notes they passed in class, their drug habits, their relationships with their parents”), and although she has occasionally expressed discomfort with this role, there is a real public interest, because each episode has explored the very real possibility that Adnan is innocent. It turns out that several pieces of the prosecution’s evidence are incoherent and Adnan’s lawyer didn’t use his best alibi (which is significant enough that the Maryland court of special appeals has now shown an interest).
In later episodes, Koenig has been receiving new information from people following the podcasts – people who say they knew what Adnan’s alleged accomplice, Jay, was really like, or that there wasn’t a phone booth where the prosecution claims Adnan made a call. It turns out that there was, in fact, a phone booth there, which raises questions about who might have been calling in, and what their own motivations are. Perhaps the podcast is the best way to call for further witnesses; perhaps it is an open invitation for third parties to manipulate the case by offering false evidence.
Koenig herself has been remarkably restrained. As she points out in the first episode, “I’m not a detective or a private investigator. I’m not even a crime reporter.” She doesn’t presume innocence, as one does in a court case, nor, crucially, does she presume guilt as we do in cop shows, because of the inevitability of their resolution. She found out about the case a year ago from Rabia Chaudry, a lawyer who knows Adnan, and, agreeing with her that the prosecutor’s case had some important inconsistencies, has investigated every piece of evidence with an attitude of cool agnosticism. Koenig has obsessed over its minutiae, spending longer than many lawyers or prosecutors could afford to spend on a seemingly shut case in the quest for a piece of evidence that would reveal what really happened on the day of the murder. But she has also kept a relentless focus on the problems with trusting witness accounts, the difficulty of remembering and accounting for one’s time, the fallibility of any apparent proof, reinventing rules of true crime that have remained largely unchallenged since Truman Capote.
Adnan has now requested a DNA test, which for some reason was never taken by prosecutors at the time of trial, and agreed to participate in Koenig’s series, which does seem to suggest that there’s a chance he may be acquitted. Perhaps having one’s life framed as entertainment, sponsored by MailChimp, Audible, Squarespace and Trunk Club, is the price that the innocent have to pay to interest the world in an old case.
It will be interesting to see what Koenig and her team pick for their second Serial. It could be another murder case, but it doesn’t have to be: it could be a missing person; a lost artefact; a purported art forgery. Her listeners have been fascinated by the case, but not because its details were especially grisly or salacious – rather, it is a testament to her storytelling ability, to have introduced complexity into the story so gradually, guiding the reader through the evidence with so many twists which overturn our assumptions and keep us guessing. (Or, as Adnan puts it to Koenig in a rare loss of composure, after she asks him about stealing money from his mosque as a teenager, “You go from my saviour to my executioner just, like… flip flop, flip flop, like Mitt Romney.”)
The next series will engage a ready-made audience of millions, and whether she likes it or not, that will have a bearing on the lives of her subjects. They are real lives, and that is why we have been gripped, why the stakes are higher, why it’s so important to be responsible. “We don’t know yet what the story will be,” she said in her call for donations, “but whatever it is, we’ll make it good.”
p.s. Any lovers of the Serial theme by Nick Thorburn should check out fafu’s mashup with Notorious BIG on Soundcloud.