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What ‘Serial’-mania says about the growing popularity of podcasts

December 11, 2014 at 6:20 PM EDT
A weekly podcast has riveted millions with its exploration of a true crime story and its questions about whether the man at its center is guilty or innocent. "Serial" probes the 1999 conviction of a high school senior who was charged with the murder of his ex-girlfriend. Hari Sreenivasan talks to Slate’s David Haglund about the runaway success of the show, now the most popular podcast in history.
LISTENSEE PODCASTS

JUDY WOODRUFF: Finally tonight:  The podcast rises again.

Business is booming as technology has made it easier to listen, and one program in particular has turned into an unexpected phenomenon in recent weeks.

Hari Sreenivasan gets the lowdown on the big surge in downloads.

SARAH KOENIG, Host/Executive Producer, “Serial”: For the last year, I have spent every working day trying to figure out where a high school kid was for an hour after school one day in 1999.

HARI SREENIVASAN: That’s just part of the hook of a weekly podcast called “Serial” that’s riveted millions and spawned fan clubs with its exploration of a true murder case and a felon’s potential innocence.

SARAH KOENIG: It’s “Serial,” one story told week by week. I’m Sarah Koenig.

HARI SREENIVASAN: First released in October, “Serial” is a spinoff of the public radio program “This American Life.”  Each week, the program’s investigation of the case seems to unfold along with the listener.

The focus? The 1999 conviction of a high school senior named Adnan Syed, who was charged with the murder of his ex-girlfriend Hae Min Lee.

“Serial” host and creator Sarah Koenig takes listeners through an extensive reexamination of the alibis, testimony, work of the defense attorney done back then, asking whether Syed really was guilty.

SARAH KOENIG: What grabbed me about this story is, a friend of the family came to me and said, I believe this guy is innocent. This trial was crazy. This investigation has holes in it. I believe this guy is innocent. Can you take a look?

HARI SREENIVASAN: It’s a huge hit in the world of podcasting, garnering five million downloads on iTunes, far more than any other podcast in history.

But the idea of a serial is as old as Charles Dickens, who experienced wild success with “The Pickwick Papers” in the mid-1800s. The notion of podcasting stories has gained steam in recent years, with popular ones such as “This American Life,” which has about a million downloads a week, and “Planet Money.”

Less-well-known ones draw smaller audiences, but still have substantial followings. In fact, last year, Apple reported that subscriptions to podcasts through iTunes reached one billion.

RawVoice, which tracks 20,000 shows, said the number of unique monthly podcast listeners has tripled to 75 million from 25 million just five years ago.

We have only scratched the surface of the obsession some have with “Serial.”  It’s inspired fan clubs, academic and legal inquiries, blogs and, yes, more podcasts about the podcast.

David Haglund is a senior editor at Slate and edits its Culture Blog and is a regular panelist on slate’s podcast about “Serial.”

So now we are having a TV conversation with a man who has a podcast about a podcast.

So why is there this fascination with just one story?

DAVID HAGLUND, Slate: Well, the story itself is gripping, obviously.

You know, any time a murder goes, not unsolved, but raises questions about who actually did it, you know, people get interested. You get interested right away, the fact that it was a young woman supposedly killed by an ex-boyfriend. I mean, there are sensational details that grip you.

But then, on top of that, podcasting is a very intimate form, and the producers of “Serial” and its host, Sarah Koenig, are masters at it. And when you listen to them, you feel like you’re listening to a friend talk to you in great detail about the case, and that’s just gripping. That brings it to you in a way a TV show or a book might not.

HARI SREENIVASAN: And when you said intimacy, it made me think of the fact that a lot of us are now consuming audio here, maybe not even in the big room, right, I mean — or perhaps the car, which is also a semi-intimate space. You’re by yourself.

Does that play into why podcasting seems to be making a little bit of a comeback?

DAVID HAGLUND: It definitely does.

For me, I listen on my commute into Manhattan on the subway. I have my headphones in, and I see other people with their headphones in. And with “Serial” in particular, given its popularity, I’m sure some of them are listening to the same thing I am, but we’re each having our own solitary experience or communing with the story.

HARI SREENIVASAN: I said comeback. I shouldn’t have. I mean, podcasting has been around for quite some time.

What is it that has recently made it more popular? Apple said something about, what, a billion downloads of podcasts?

DAVID HAGLUND: Well, it’s getting easier and easier to download them. There are more apps.

Just about everybody has a smartphone now. So you can get a podcast very easily. On top of that, it’s becoming easier and easier to listen to podcasts in your car, and I think that’s the next big wave. I think not only are podcasts growing in popularity now, but there’s a huge surge in the near future, I would say.

HARI SREENIVASAN: So they’re replacing commercial radio as we know it in the car, especially for the people who are commuting every morning or every evening.

DAVID HAGLUND: For a lot of people. I mean, I wouldn’t want to overstate it yet. More people listen to terrestrial radio certainly, and podcasting remains to some degree a niche form. But I think that’s about to change.

HARI SREENIVASAN: So, what kind of podcasts are more successful than others if you had to look across the entire spectrum?

DAVID HAGLUND: Well, lately, podcasts like “Serial,” real, intensely produced story podcasts, are becoming more and more popular.

Prior to that, comedy podcasts were huge. And I think the reason they hit first is because podcasting is a very loose form. It doesn’t have to abide by time limits in the way that most radio shows do. And so you can kind of let yourself go. And a lot of panel shows are very popular as well for similar reasons. You can talk and talk, you know, as far as the conversation takes you, and then stop.

And because it feels so intimate, the people who are listening feel like they’re part of the conversation.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Yes, speaking of the part of the conversation, especially around “Serial,” there’s lots and loss of conversations in different online forums, conspiracy theories galore. Everybody has a theory about, well, who did it or was there misconduct by this person or that person?

But why do we get so into this narrative almost like in interactive fashion?

DAVID HAGLUND: Well, I think, nowadays, when you can go online and go to a place like Reddit, for instance, and commune with other people who are discussing the case, you start to feel as though you will get to the bottom of it.

And a lot of documents related to the case are also available online, so you can actually pore over the very things that the producers themselves are looking at, not all of them, but enough of them to make you think maybe if I look some more, I will finally find the clue that they have missed.

HARI SREENIVASAN: OK. Is this leading to people discovering other podcasts?

DAVID HAGLUND: I think it is, yes.

I was home for Thanksgiving recently, and my younger brother told me he had just listened to a podcast for the first time, and, of course, it was “Serial.”  And now that he’s listened to that one, maybe he will download another one. Maybe he will get into the habit. I think that’s happening for a lot of people.

HARI SREENIVASAN: All right, David Haglund, senior editor at Slate, thanks so much.

DAVID HAGLUND: Thanks for having me.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And that’s a cue, if I ever heard, one to alert you to the “NewsHour”‘s own podcasts. You can listen to the full program or you can download segments like Shields and Brooks. Simply go to iTunes, find “PBS NewsHour,” and subscribe.

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