Why Serial is the future of radio

Plus: I hate the current storylines on The Archers but am listening more avidly than ever

3 January 2015

9:00 AM

3 January 2015

9:00 AM

The fuss may now be over, the last episode of Serial revealed. But if the global success of WBEZ Chicago’s latest weekly podcast is a portent, then the future of radio lies not in static daily programming but in the fleeting pursuit of the latest internet download. No scheduling necessary. Listeners can just choose what they want to hear (based on what’s trending online), sign up for the podcast, and listen to the episodes any time they want, once they have been released for download.

Just imagine how much easier and cheaper this could be for production companies. Non-stop, live, on-air programming would become redundant. The listener would no longer be dependent on the whims and prejudices of those malfaisant programme controllers. All the broadcaster need do is create a stable of thoroughbred programmes (there’s no denying the professionalism behind Serial, although I could have done without the thumping background music, as distracting as the soundtrack to a Bond film). The rest would be up to the listener, to choose what they wanted to harvest. No longer that chance encounter on the airwaves with a voice, a fact, a piece of music. No danger either of being bored witless by yet another dismal comedy show or panel game well past its sell-by date.

The American media company behind Serial is used to podcast success having established This American Life as a weekly listening event (podcasts are by definition episodic, available week-by-week for a week, or other specified time, only). It resurrected the values of old-school radio broadcasters like Studs Terkel and created individual stand-alone episodes that take us inside the heart of what it’s like to live in an ‘ordinary’ American town, where you might think nothing much happens until you take a look from the inside-out. But Serial was designed from the start as a suspense-driven series. It quickly became an internet sensation, ending up with 21 million listeners across the globe, hooked on a real-life version of CSI and invited by the format to become sleuths themselves, piecing together the evidence presented to them each week by the journalist and presenter Sarah Koenig to decide for themselves whether or not the young Pakistani-American Muslim Adnan Syed did kill his former girlfriend Hae Min Lee on the afternoon of 13 January 1999.

The key to what you might think of Serial lies in that date. The podcast was based on what happened in real life, almost 16 years ago. Syed (although we were encouraged by the programme to think of him as a personal acquaintance, a character in a fiction, by always hearing him referred to by his first name, Adnan) has been in prison ever since the night he was arrested, six weeks after Lee’s disappearance and a fortnight after her strangled body was found in a shallow grave, just six inches deep, dug in less than half an hour by Syed and his friend Jay. Syed is still in a maximum-security jail, locked up since he was 17, without recourse to justice, condemned for first-degree murder after a trial that the series claims was botched by his defence attorney, now dead.

No doubt it was that mysterious BBC department BBC Trending that picked up vibes from the massive internet storm and bought into the series midway through for old-fashioned broadcast on Radio 4 Extra. This must have been done on the spur of the moment, a last-minute addition to the schedule, responding to popular demand. It was an unprecedented wireless experiment, created on the internet, reborn on air, and breathlessly announced by that usually unflappable presenter Kathy Clugston as ‘a very exciting radio occurrence’.

But what kind of radio was Serial? It was billed as ‘investigative journalism’ but it was much more like the Netflix version of House of Cards (with Kevin Spacey’s voice-to-camera technique replaced by Sarah Koenig’s confessional style of reporting) crossed with File on 4 produced and broadcast on speed. Was it intended as a campaign for Syed’s release? As I write, WBEZ is advertising that there will be a second series, if enough people donate, which adds a confusing extra dimension. Did Syed’s future depend on how many people were tempted to podcast?

You could say podcasting is now the only safe way to listen to The Archers. Radio 4’s everyday story of country folk, where nothing much happens week on week, has been reborn so efficiently as a serial soap you simply can’t afford to miss a single episode because each one is so packed full of incident and plot development. I hate the current storylines. How can Ambridge survive as a community without Brookfield? Is Adam going to end up having a torrid affair with that scumbag Charlie? And as for Helen and Rob. What does she see in him? Or rather how can she be so stupid? Yet I have to confess I’m listening now more avidly than I have ever done, even if it means catching up late at night via iPlayer. Will Tony, I wonder, still be alive by the time you read this?

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  • Tanya

    I just want to point out that Serial’s second season will not be based on Adnan Syed’s case – the idea is to follow a different story each season. So no, Syed’s story isn’t dependent on the size of the podcast audience.