Why is 'Serial' the Most Popular Podcast in the Country?


Since premiering last month, the NPR podcast Serial has caused a fervor among listeners, a fervor usually reserved for a hit TV show. It's regularly been the #1 podcast on iTunes since its debut, and is the fastest podcast to reach 5 million downloads only eight episodes in.

If you're not already obsessed with it, you probably know someone who is. From the producers of the well-known podcast This American Life, Serial investigates the 1999 murder of high school student Hae Min Lee. Lee's ex-boyfriend, Adnan Syed, was accused of killing her and sentenced to life in prison. Now, 15 years later, he still maintains his innocence.

Host Sarah Koenig, a former criminal justice reporter, was sent the details of this case over a year ago from a high school friend of Syed's. She soon became enraptured and has been following it ardently ever since. As Serial unfolds week by week, the listener learns more about Koenig's examination of the evidence. She speaks to almost everyone involved, pouring over case notes, police interviews and trial testimonies. She has spent hours on the phone talking with Syed from prison.

Koenig hasn't solved it yet, as she's still putting the pieces together and learning information while producing the episodes. She told Vulture that she doesn't know how the story will end, whether she'll find Syed innocent or guilty or remain inconclusive. The fact that the host doesn't even know the outcome makes it all the more intriguing.

The long-running This American Life tells real-life stories concerning a certain theme each week. Most podcasts are like this: you can choose any one and listen, without having to hear what came before. Others have a continuing fictional narrative (Welcome to Night Vale is my favorite).

Serial, however, takes a true story and presents it like a detective novel, only giving you one chapter each week. People who love crime stories will obviously love Serial. Even those who aren't Law and Order fanatics might find themselves drawn into the fascinating story. Personally, I steer away from crime procedurals because I find them unsettling, but Koenig doesn't dwell on the gruesome aspects of the murder. She even warns the listener before playing a clip that may be disturbing.

Instead, she focuses on gathering as much information as she can, and pointing out the minute details that may have been overlooked. She spends an entire episode recreating the route that Syed supposedly took the day of the murder. Even though she is bringing major attention to a years-old case, she isn't sensationalizing it. Rather, she's deconstructing "scorned lover set on revenge" narrative that sent Syed to jail, to see if there is any truth to it or if it's completely fabricated.

Koenig also looks at the case from all different angles, without taking any one side. Although it's clear she'd like to believe Syed is innocent, what's most important to her is to find the truth. Episode six, "The Case Against Adnan Syed," goes though all the evidence suggesting he was responsible for Lee's murder. The latest episode, "The Deal With Jay," discusses the trial's key witness who claimed that Syed showed him Lee's body. Koenig doesn't have a set conclusion in mind that she's trying to prove, she's just going where the evidence takes her.

Normally, podcasts are something you listen to during your commute; they are enjoyable but mostly a way to pass the time. Serial, however, has listeners hanging on every word, analyzing every detail, trying to figure out the mystery for themselves. It has inspired intense discussion both online and off.

A subreddit dedicated to the podcast has over 10,000 subscribers. Slate even started a podcast of their own, dissecting the clues from each episode. That's right, there's a podcast about a podcast. The friend of Syed's who originally introduced Koenig to the case, Rabia Chaudry, has been blogging about her perspective as someone emotionally tied to the case.

The official Serial website posts supplemental information, and even more facts about the case can be found online with a little digging. With Koenig publicly acknowledging that an answer hasn't been found yet, the listeners can take part in some detective work themselves.

Whether you're trying to solve the case yourself or you're just along for the ride, it's hard not to feel a rush of excitement when a new episode pops up every Thursday morning. Serial has given us something original and unique, and that's the true reason why it's so engrossing. Even if Koenig is unable to come to a definitive conclusion, she's taken us on a fascinating journey that's given us a lot to talk about.

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