Friday, December 19, 2014

Final thoughts on the Serial podcast

**Spoiler Alert**  You probably don't want to read this if you haven't finished the show yet.  

The final episode of Serial just posted, and the ending was what most of us, deep down, have been expecting for a while now--inconclusive. I'm sure that many in the blog and twitterspheres will bemoan that the huge buildup did not satisfy our internal OCD nature to put everything neatly in its place; yes, there is a point to be made there, but there's much more to it.

For several weeks, I've been thinking about why this story, this particular podcast, has exploded through the country and even the world (as I wrote about here). Complicated murder mysteries are as old as western fiction, so there's nothing new there, and the idea of listening to podcasts barely existed out of the technocrat/NPR world. So what was it about this show that culminated in a national experience of waiting for new shows to be posted on Thursday mornings and then discussed, dissected, and theorized?

Let's go back in time for a second: do you remember the movie Adaptation? You know, it was the one where Nicholas Cage was actually really, really good! One of the plot twists was that a struggling screenwriter was unable to make his story work until he wrote himself into it. That has been on my mind lately as I listen to Koenig and her partners move this murder case along. The appeal of this story is not so much the possibility of discovering a truth, but instead, it is Koenig's and ultimately our own connection to the case.

The underlying force and fascination with this story is the confusion, frustration, flip-flopping, and passion of the storyteller. If Koenig did not write herself into this story, Adaptation style, then it would have only been an interesting and currently unsolvable case, and we have thousands of those to choose from. Hell, we have dozens of TV shows about real, unsolvable cases to choose from.

This story has caught fire throughout the world for reasons that any up-to-date low level marketing executive can explain: in the millennial-led world of digital mediums, we expect to be active participants in whatever our attention turns to. And while we are not actively moving this particular story, we are active by proxy. That connection is made possible through the emotional honesty that Koenig delivers throughout the series. From moments of doubt to the very human moments of distraction, such as "There's a shrimp sale at the Crab Crib."

If there were any doubts about Koenig’s ability to masterfully craft a story, and there weren't, this final episode should erase them. The fact that she was not able to uncover the facts to solve the case does not, and should not, ultimately matter. We all jumped onto this story knowing good and well that was a possibility, since we followed their investigation in real time. No one will accuse the crew of not exhausting every lead and possibility. What should be important is how she took a very difficult situation with no definite ending and was able to wrap up this series in the same compelling way in which it started. I tried to imagine how I would put together the final episode with the information at hand, and I wouldn't even know where to start. In my hands, it would have been on par with the disappointment of opening Al Capone's vault.

Thoughts on the final episode and overall case

The other half of the emotional connection that has driven the popularity of this show is everyone's desire for Adnan to be innocent. The further we traveled down the road, the more we believed there would be an "ah-ha" moment of clarity. Koenig mostly tried to remain undecided and objective, but you could still hear the desire for Adnan’s innocence in her voice. She liked him and was cheering for him. So were we, right? Yet the back and forth does not let up, even at the very end, when she admits the possibility of him doing it is just as realistic as any other crazy possibility out there.

The final episode could have been titled “Everyone is lying.”

What was left unsaid that I believe we are all thinking is that Jay’s story is much more fabricated than the small lies he’s caught in. A possible key to this case is who Jay thought was in the van the night he was working at the video store. Jay was obviously scared of whoever killed Hae. He was so scared that there's a real possibility that he would rather lie to convict Adnan than turn over the real killers. I have a hunch that the 3rd party theory ran strong with Koenig and her crew, but they did not have enough facts to back it up and therefore express it on the show.

The other part that was left unsaid and will be a popular criticism is that we probably just spent 3 months listening to a story that didn't even happen. Just like on live TV (which hardly exists anymore) this was the chance we all agreed to take. There's a real possibility that both Jay and Adnan are lying and that most of the story Koenig learned never actually happened.

So instead of concluding the show by successfully identifying who is telling the truth, we ended with an examination of the nature of truth. In the beginning, we all expected to just dig in and find out which of the two stories makes sense and who is lying--a classic Law and Order style wrap-up. But as This American Life has continually shown us through the years, life is messier than that. The truth is not always found in hours of interrogation, by using our gut instinct, or by just applying what we know to be true. Sometimes half-truths are murkier than outright lies. Sometimes ultimate truth will never be found, no matter how hard you look.

But I believe one truth was found in this journey--the power of a great journalist and storyteller to tell a radio-style story is still alive and well in this multimedia world, and this journey was well worth the time.

--Brian Paul Swenk

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Wednesday, December 10, 2014

The Year of the Podcast: Why Serial is the Elvis of Podcasts.

2014 could be "The Year of the Podcast."

It does seem that the term has been around for a very long time (actually it's just 10 years old), but this year was the first time we've seen a "podcast" grow out of the niche techie world into the mass media zeitgeist.  The moment that the bugle call announcer of all things popular, Rolling Stone, gave the freshman podcast Serial a full, color page in its magazine, I knew these little intellectual nuggets would no longer exist solely within their underground aural strata.

For the last decade, podcasts have existed for their own niche markets, each catering to a specific, and often specialized crowd. Cooking, religion, fitness, sports--you could make a podcast on anything, do it inexpensively, and if you produced good content you could gather several thousand faithful listeners.

While some shows grew to over a million listeners, such as the always compelling NPR based "This American Life," there was no single podcast that connected huge swaths of the country together in a shared experience until Serial. Serial is the Elvis Presley of podcasting.

Serial reopens the case of the murder of a 17 year old girl in Baltimore Co in 1999, for which her ex-boyfriend is serving a life sentence for and has always maintained his innocence. The podcast is released weekly.

Whereas most shows are produced for specific target markets, this one connects everyone with a real story, told in real-time discovery, by an impassioned Sarah Koenig. But most impressively, it has developed an audience of listeners who have never listened to a podcast before. This American Life took 4 years to reach a million listeners; Serial did it in 6 episodes. High school teachers across the country are adjusting lesson plans to include Serial, in one case even replacing Shakespeare's "Hamlet." (English snobs may be revolted by this idea, but imagine the teacher's happiness with just finding something teenagers will actually engage with. It's hard to blame them.)

According to an article in the Wall Street Journal, Serial is the fastest podcast to reach 5 million downloads in iTunes history, and is the top podcast in the U.S., Canada, the U.K., and Australia, and in the top 10 in Germany, South Africa, and India.

Sara Koenig surrounded by Serial producers
Serial is serious, addictive, sobering, revelatory, and keeps you guessing throughout. It's a classic whodunit crime drama that unfolds with every answer leading to another question, which Koenig and her crew exhaustively and honestly chase down. But most importantly, it's a true story, and I think that's where a lot of the magic of podcasts lies. There is something both refreshing and captivating about combining the idea of the turn of the century old time radio shows with true, American stories, that can and do happen in our hometowns. There's a power in just hearing a voice tell a great story and comparisons to the golden age of radio are justified.

The reason I love particular podcasts so much is they are both a bastion of independent journalism and an efficient communication tool for smart, passionate people. Sending your voice to millions of listeners has never been this easy and cheap, so there is an inherent freedom for journalists to dig deep into stories without the over-the-top commercial pressures of other mediums. These people are driven by their passion and insatiable curiosity, which is more than worth the once a year fundraising or minute long sponsor recognition at the end of the shows. Cheap does not mean free.

If Serial opens the door to millions of people harkening the golden age of radio, then here are a few "must listen" podcasts.  (If you're confused on how podcasts work, here's a how-to link.)

While many of the most popular podcasts are NPR shows that serve both mediums, there is one pure podcast that also has an impressive buzz around it: Dan Carlin's Hardcore History

Carlin's fresh take on history and masterful storytelling rise above almost everything in the podcast world. The stories are anywhere between 2 and 15 hours long, which seems daunting at first, but once you're into them it feels more like binge-watching your favorite TV show than a history lesson. Again, it's the passion that drives the success of the show, which was recently recognized as the best classic podcast on iTunes. Load one on your device before leaving on a long drive and the hours will fly by as he explains how the red scares of the U.S. in 1920 and the 1950's are descendent of the French Revolution, or using the ideas of Planet of the Apes and biker gangs to describe the beginning of the so-called "Dark Ages." I've only listened to 2 shows, but I'm hooked.

My two other favorites are the aforementioned This American Life and Radio Lab. Similarly using the format of taking an idea and digging deep to see where it takes them, both are also driven by the unique and sincere personalities of the hosts. Each episode is about an hour long and each show is a compact nugget of intellectual curiosity that can range from funny, intriguing, amazing, and compelling. You never know what you'll get, and be warned, especially in This American Life, the show that doesn't sound interesting in the description can be unexpectedly heart-wrenching.

We have the ability to surround ourselves with music on a near-constant basis, which is both nice and exhausting. Personally, I've started making long drives with these great stories, and the hours fly by for me. If you've never tried a podcast, just go into iTunes and explore the options. Let me know if you find one that you love.

--Brian Paul Swenk

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