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Janna is a staff writer for The Hudsucker. Born and raised in a small Ontario town, she made her move to Toronto for university and immediately fell in love with the excitement and pace of the big city. She holds an Honors Bachelor of Fine Arts in Film Production from York University, specializing in editing and screenwriting. She currently works as an assistant editor for a television production company. Janna loves stories told in all mediums, especially film, and takes herself to the movies as much as she possibly can. She can generally be found taking a Zumba class, exploring some of Toronto’s lesser-known gems, or relaxing with her fluffy feline roommate.

Serial: The Podcast Phenomenon

“It’s really hard to account for your time – in a detailed way, I mean. How’d you get to work last Wednesday, for instance? Drive? Walk? Bike? Was it raining? Are you sure? Did you go to any stores that day? If so, what did you buy? Who did you talk to? The entire day, name every person you talked to. It’s hard. Now imagine you have to account for a day that happened six weeks back. Because that’s the situation in the story I’m working on, in which a bunch of teenagers had to recall a day six weeks earlier.”

– Sarah Koenig: Serial, episode 1

Reporter Sarah Koenig. Credit Time Magazine.

This is how reporter Sarah Koenig opens the first episode of Serialby putting the audience in the shoes of the teenagers involved in a 1999 murder case in Baltimore, Maryland. She frames their circumstances in a way that makes listeners relate and identify with the position these teenagers were put in, pulling us into the story immediately. And from there, she goes on to unravel a case containing lies, conflicting reports, and mountains of questions—all of which serve to make the story incredibly interesting. Serial’s story is captivating, intriguing, multi-faceted… and true.

Serial is a weekly podcast from the team at This American Life, hosted by reporter Sarah Koenig. Each week, the podcast looks deeper into a 1999 case from Baltimore, Maryland, in which a high school senior named Hae Min Lee disappeared after school in January and was found strangled to death six weeks later, buried in a shallow grave. Her ex-boyfriend, Adnan Syed, was subsequently arrested, tried, and convicted for her murder, and is currently serving a 30-year sentence in a Maryland prison. However, Adnan has always maintained his innocence, and last year, family friends reached out to Koenig to ask her to take a look at his case—to see if, as they believe, he may have been wrongfully convicted. Week after week, the audience gets to listen to Koenig dig further into the story, as she provides police reports, trial testimonies, interviews, and phone calls from the people involved in this case fifteen years ago. Koenig is developing a captivating narrative for her audience, and with only two more episodes remaining (as of today, ten episodes have been released), listeners tend to have more questions than answers about the whole case. But the number one question that’s repeated over and over again is both the simplest and the most difficult question of all: did Adnan Syed really kill Hae Min Lee? And, if he didn’t… who did?

Adnan Syed as a student at Woodlawn High School. Credit Serial Podcast.

It’s a question that, according to the podcast, Koenig doesn’t yet have an answer for. And that’s one of the most frustrating things for listeners of Serial: with the nature of the narrative and the case, we may never get a final, true verdict. Talk to those who listen to Serial, and chances are, you’ll hear a wide range of opinions on the topic. Some believe Adnan is guilty, while some believe he’s innocent. Some want his friend Jay to be examined more closely, and others suspect that the secondary players in this case—people like Adnan’s best friend Stephanie, or Jay’s friend Jen—are more important to the whole story than we realize. Others wish that third parties were explored more closely. There are so many theories, so much speculation, so many possibilities out there for the way this murder truly took place that they can make a person’s head spin. It’s no wonder that, with the storytelling skills of Sarah Koenig and the compelling and intriguing nature of the case, Serial has become the most popular podcast in the world, with over five million downloads on iTunes alone. But with popularity also comes scrutiny, and Serial has certainly faced its share of scrutiny in the past couple of months —scrutiny that may be well-deserved, depending on who is asked.

The fact of the matter is, Serial is covering a real case. The people who are interviewed are real, and a high school senior named Hae Min Lee really was murdered on January 13th, 1999. There really is a man named Adnan Syed in prison in Maryland, serving time for her murder. In all the speculation and debate, it’s important for people to keep this in mind—that this isn’t another episode of CSI or Law and Order. Real peoples’ lives were affected—and, tragically, taken away—by the events that Serial is describing. Generally, fans of the podcast have been pretty good with this—for every person out there who is throwing around ridiculous theories, accusing people who were never found guilty of anything, and possibly crossing some lines, there are many others who will step in and tell them to have a little more respect. The episodes of Serial themselves work to try and paint a humanizing picture of all of those involved—we get to hear about the various sides of all of the main players, and the podcast leaves it up to its audience to determine what these facts say about each person. While some may criticize that it’s taken the podcast too long to show compassion for some of the people involved, it’s important to note that they have done so, period. The podcast isn’t sensationalizing the story, and the issues are touched on with respect.

Hae Lee’s yearbook photo. Credit Serial Podcast.

Serial is understandably difficult for the people involved in the case to swallow—Hae Lee’s family is not affiliated with the podcast at all, despite the hundreds of attempts made by the podcast team to contact them, and are quite justified in feeling uncomfortable with having that terrible time in their lives brought into the public eye once again. However, true crime tales have existed long before now, and it’s only natural for the public to become interested and compelled to explore a complicated case that’s presented to them. While some of the theories speculated on during Serial’s episodes themselves may be questionable or upsetting to those who were involved with the case back in 1999, they don’t come off as slanderous. Koenig and her team have a story they wish to tell, and a way in which they want their listeners to experience the case – and they’re doing so the best way they know how. It’s quite likely that they’re learning with every episode they produce, and that the perceived flaws of this season will be remedied or improved come Season 2.

Complicated ethics and all, Serial is a compelling, captivating listen for anyone who enjoys humanizing stories, true crime, well-built narratives, and whodunits. The story may not have a resolution in the way that a crime novel or procedural show would, but maybe that’s all right. Maybe the important part of Serial isn’t the conclusion, but the journey we all take to get there.

To listen to episodes of Serial, download the episodes from iTunes or visit serialpodcast.org. New episodes are released Thursday mornings.

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Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. 5 Podcasts To Kick Off Your Summer | The Hudsucker - June 13, 2016

    […] Life.” The non-fiction journalistic, award-winning podcast (and parent of “Serial“) remains one of the most popular in the country and sees an increase in listeners every […]

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