Full disclosure – I am a public radio junkie. I listen to it all the time. Just ask my friends. When people talk about something they saw on TV, or read, or heard about from someone, I’m always talking about something I heard on NPR (and occasionally the CBC). So you know where I’m coming from. Now the world has become obsessed (or it seems that way to me since I listen to so much public radio) with the Serial podcast, produced of course by public radio people. Everyone seems shocked that five million of us have downloaded and listened to what is essentially an old-fashioned weekly radio series. “How can that be?” they marvel. “In this day of 140-character missives and nano-second attention spans?” People have been actually listening to (not watching) an-hour long, complicated, exhaustive narrative and impatiently waiting for their weekly fix.
I don’t understand why people are so surprised. After all, it wasn’t that long ago that everyone was hooked on Breaking Bad and anxious to know the fate of Walter White and Jesse Pinkham. But wait, that was TV: a medium where you are presented with all the visuals, leaving nothing to the imagination. Not the case with Serial. Aside from the compelling music intro, we listened mostly to the lucid voice of Sarah Koenig talk us through her painstaking investigation of a 15-year old murder case. So we had to concentrate to keep track of the reams of evidence she uncovered and the countless people she met up with in her search for the truth.
Now that Season One is done and Sarah’s story of Adnan Sayd is complete (I’m not going to recount it here since online recaps, opinions and parodies abound) we’re getting lots of suggestions as to what we can listen to (or watch) next as we await Season Two. Most of these recommendations focus on true crime dramas, mysteries, detective procedurals and whodunits. For me, these are totally divergent from the story-telling triumph that is Serial. What appeals to me are the same elements that I appreciate in good literature: nuance, query, thoughtfulness, character development. And yes – plot.
The added bonus to Serial is the ‘serial’ part – you must wait for a whole week to find out what happens next. In that time you can mull things over, think about what was presented and consider what might follow. So much for our insistence on instant gratification. This type of diversion that engages us in an intelligent and challenging way looks good on us. We put aside our BuzzFeed lists, reality television and cat videos to become absorbed in a story that considers our problematic justice system, the failure of memory, our perceptions of character and whether it’s possible to find truth. All this while we listen.
One more confession – in addition to my public radio addiction, I also listen to a lot of audiobooks. Because of my living arrangements I end up driving a great deal and spend many continuous hours in the car. I have found the best way to make the drive less onerous for me is to hear a good story. As a result I have listened to many books that would have seriously challenged my attention span were I to try reading them. For example: Anna Karenina, Middlemarch, The Mill on the Floss. Okay, I also listened to Not That Kind of Girl, but that’s beside the point. Which is – it’s possible to create a compelling narrative that goes viral if it has all the elements I mentioned before – along with the kind of dedication, tenacity and brilliant story telling that are the hallmarks of this new Serial.
– Miria Ioannou
Listen to an interview with Serial co-creator Sarah Koenig here.