‘Serial’ unites podcasting and investigative journalism

"Serial, a podcast investigating a 1999 murder case, uses effective audio production techniques to engage its millions of listeners." Photo credit Serial. Screen shot by Jimin Kim (March 26, 2015).
“Serial,” a podcast investigating a 1999 murder case, uses effective audio production techniques to engage its millions of listeners. Photo credit “Serial.” Screen shot by Jimin Kim (March 26, 2015).

Investigating a murder on the air is a smash hit.

In season one of the hit podcast, “Serial,” narrator and reporter, Sarah Koenig, explores the murder of Hae Min Lee, a high school senior who was killed in 1999. Baltimore police arrested Lee’s ex-boyfriend, Adnan Syed, for the murder. Koenig digs through the past to discover if Syed, who serves a life sentence, is truly guilty of the crime.

Sarah Koenig, host and executive producer of Serial, investigates Lee's murder.
Sarah Koenig, host and executive producer of “Serial,” investigates Hae Min Lee’s murder. Photo credit “Serial.” Screen shot by Jimin Kim (March 26, 2015).

The show meticulously turns the process of investigative journalism into a story, instead of presenting only the basic details of the murder case and the people involved.

Furthermore, “Serial” showcases a plethora of sound bites. In episode one, Koenig includes a phone interview she conducted with Syed who from behind bars, states that he never killed Lee. At the end of the clips of Syed talking, the audio fades out to lead in to Koenig’s narration. The transition is seamless, sustaining the dramatic tension of the story.

Koenig also reads pages from Lee’s diary in the first person. In episode two, when Koenig reads a passage Lee wrote describing her prom date with Syed, ’90s love songs play in the background. Thus, at times when it’s appropriate to the story, Koenig becomes the subjects themselves, talking from their perspective. This technique vividly illustrates scenes in readers’ minds.

Another example of effective audio is Koenig’s delivery. She isn’t melodramatic when explaining her investigative findings and maintains a sense of objectivity. She also reads a very well-written script that presents the numerous details of the investigation in an organized fashion.

The script also adds a sense of mystery and ends each episode on a cliffhanger, enticing audiences to listen to the next installment. For instance, in episode one, Koenig says, “Asia’s story, then, is legally worthless. A witness who says she saw you at the exact moment when the state contends you were strangling a young woman in a car is worthless.” Koenig identifies holes in the testimony of one of the key murder witnesses, encouraging readers to listen on and find out if Syed is innocent as he claims.

It’s no surprise that “Serial” reached more than 5 million downloads and streams faster than any other podcast in iTunes history. The show grips readers, thoroughly investigating Lee’s murder and effectively telling the story through its audio production. The use of smooth audio transitions, old interviews and an original show soundtrack all boost the listening experience of “Serial.”

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