Wednesday, November 5, 2014


Serial is a weekly podcast. This isn't any different from a multitude of podcasts out there that post a new episode each week. Some, like Wait, Wait Don't Tell Me are just weekly radio broadcasts that are released as podcasts for people to listen to on their own time while others, like Slate's Hang Up and Listen or Freakanomics,  are fresh new content weekly that are only posted online.

So every Thursday for the past month or so, Serial has released a new episode. The only difference is, unlike virtually every other podcast in existence, Serial's episodes are not self-contained. That is, you can't just listen to all of Episode 4 and understand what's going on without having listened to the first three episodes. If I listen to Freakanomics, I'm going to get a single topic for the duration and it doesn't matter if I listened to last week's edition. Not with Serial. In fact, at the beginning of the second episode, there's a disclaimer at the beginning urging listeners to start from the beginning or risk being lost.

You see, Serial is a murder mystery. It's looking at the 1999 death of  Hae Min Lee, a senior in a Baltimore High School whose body was discovered in the woods. Her ex-boyfriend, Adnan Syed was convicted of killing her and sentenced to life in prison. But rather than just take one hour and look at the case, the podcast has so far devoted six episodes looking at the evidence, the timelines and the case for and against Syed. It's a gripping story that reminds me of reading a true crime book.

And that's probably the best way to describe Serial. It's a true crime book in podcast form. But unlike, say, Netflix, which drops its original programming all at once so you can spend a weekend and watch House of Cards, Serial comes out weekly. Once you finish a chapter, you have to wait while next chapter is being written, so to speak. And we're not good at waiting.

But Serial makes us wait. Presumably the producers could have completed the story and released it all at once, allowing those of us who like to binge on things like that to take a weekend an listen. But instead, they've chosen to make us wait. Thus far, I've managed to avoid that because I didn't start listening until last week. But in that time I've caught up on all six episodes, finishing the last one on my way to work this morning. Tomorrow brings a new episode, one I'll likely finish by Friday morning's commute. And then my real waiting begins.

Part of me wishes they'd released them all at once, but having listened to what I have so far, I can see the case for publishing them weekly. The story is gripping, but it needs to absorbed. I need a reminder from time to time that this isn't just a crime story, but it's people's lives. The voices I hear aren't actors reading a script, they're people who are trying to remember a time 15 years ago. A terrible time in their lives that saw the death of a classmate and the arrest and conviction of another of their classmates. That's the kind of story that needs time. Time to let the thoughts and doubts and questions linger as you (and the host, who at this point seems unsure if Syed is guilty or not) run through the evidence presented. If you're not taking the time to think about what you've listened to, (in my case, I never listened to more than one episode a day), you're missing part of the experience of listening.

So I'll wait until tomorrow's episode. Meanwhile, I'll be thinking about what I've heard. Trying to put together a mystery that isn't easily solvable, if it's even solvable at all. After all, if it were easy, it wouldn't be a mystery. By Saturday I'll want another episode. I'll want to know more, to see how the story has unfolded. But instead I'll wait and appreciate the anticipation.

You can start listening at or in iTunes or Stitcher.

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