In this new series from Heard Pods, we will “breakdown the film” to understand how successful podcasts structured their storytelling, production, and promotion to create the greatest impact with their audiences.
Our first subject: Serial.
Serial, produced by This American Life, is largely credited with podcasting’s resurgence over the past six years. The show brought a new level of creative focus and execution that was rare for the podcasting medium. The unique production quality combined with a truly compelling story and the audience’s ability to monitor the real-life implications occurring alongside their listening experience was unprecedented in the podcast space.
What is interesting about Serial is its rapid evolution from a critically acclaimed piece of art with a cult following to a widely consumed commercial success.
Murder mysteries certainly weren’t a new genre when the show was released in 2014, and the particular crime discussed wasn’t notable when it occurred. In fact, the odds of an audience member knowing the story were incredibly low before the show.
So, what drove the raving fans and critical acclaim? Let’s dive in.
At Heard, we utilize the Hero’s Journey to guide our creative process. We’ll use the same structure here to help us interpret shows and understand their storylines.
The Hero’s Journey follows the protagonist as they pursue their quest or adventure and provides:
- Roles for the people they will meet
- The obstacles they overcome
- The lessons they learn along the way
Serial’s choice in subject provides contextual clues as to what the quest entails and who the story’s hero is. By rehashing a case that had been closed for years, the audience member is told something went wrong initially. Otherwise, Serial would be a case of very late reporting as opposed to a carefully crafted thriller.
On the surface, one might assume that the protagonist is the alleged murderer (Adnan Syed), the victim (Hae Lee), or even the audience – a trick many shows use to engage the audience and weave them into the story.
Instead, the hero is actually the host and lead investigator, Sarah Koenig. Her quest is to understand and uncover the truth to a story with which she has inexplicably become obsessed. Using the show, she invites the audience to act as an ally on her quest and provides an audio accounting of her journey. The victims, lawyers, judges, and even reporters who write about the show, all become supporting characters in the narrative of Koenig’s quest for the truth.
Huff Post writer Khanh Ho stated it well, “What I came to realize is that it is the narrator — the journalist stand-in for the detective’s voice — that is the true element that is addictive. And in fact, it is the way that Sarah Koenig keeps asking questions, finding dead ends, and following up leads that are dry.”
Koenig’s dual role as both host and hero hadn’t been featured previously and was routinely criticized upon its release. Critics claimed Koenig could not fairly represent a story about ethnic minorities as a white woman. Still, the tool has successfully been mimicked by many shows since. Serial’s success prompted several attempts to capture similar energy in shows like S-Town, Up and Vanished, Dirty John, and others.
Additionally, both named and unnamed characters are leveraged to help Sarah accomplish her quest in search of the truth. These characters include Adnan (Guardian/Guide through the case), Sarah’s colleagues (helpers), and even the audience as an unseen and supernatural aid which provided extra research, clues, and connections to the hero throughout the creation and release of the show.
While difficult to do, this is an obviously compelling storytelling style that requires extensive research, scripting, and narration. An underemphasized point of Serial’s delivery is the necessity of Koenig’s acting ability. Her performance as host/detective was impeccable.
That’s not to say Koenig was pretending or misleading. I have no idea what her knowledge was before the airing of the show. The point is that you couldn’t tell either way, and that takes an enormous amount of skill to execute effectively.
Serial was produced and released episodically.
Today this is a standard format that storytellers use across any medium. At the time, though, most podcasts were more similar to radio talk shows. The shows that were story-based often released independent episodes. Serial told a continuing story over the course of an entire season, much like a tv series. Hence the name.
Producing the show in tiny segments that required the listener to “tune in” each week was a unique storytelling style for the medium. Doing so allowed each episode to build on the previous and left the audience with some question or cliff-hanging discovery that would pull them in for the next week’s show.
The show also deployed live or semi-live captures of audio from what seemed to be otherwise private conversations. This technique gave the audience the feeling they heard something they shouldn’t have or that some new information previously undiscovered may come out live on the show. Regardless of these being illogical conclusions to make, the combination of the sound quality, Koenig’s narration, and a compelling musical soundtrack drove the impression home.
The genius of the production is apparent in that each audience member felt as if they were Koenig’s ally in discovering the truth.
The show’s real-time capture and publication also played an integral part in Serial’s unique promotional success. The storyline and production style dictated that the show be promoted as an unfolding drama in real-time. Once again, Serial benefited from pushing the podcast medium to act in ways previously unseen.
Tactically speaking, pushing the medium had some very pragmatic implications that are commonplace for shows today. The producers created a full brand that included a gorgeous website, social handles, a PR Tour, blog content, and the show itself. At the time, media tours were reserved for more formidable projects in TV or movies.
As noted in production, the decision to release episodes weekly had a major impact on promotion. Doing so provided ample time for fans and critics alike to ponder and promote the show by releasing their takes on its merits or failures. There were plenty of criticisms. Many critics thought the show voyeuristically wandered too far into details about a real person’s life and death without invitation. As referenced earlier, some critics also questioned Koenig’s ability to recount the story that primarily involved ethnic minorities fairly.
Warranted or not, these discussions speak to the cultural importance the show commanded. The outcome of both the critical and positive feedback was the best performing podcast of all time.
There will never be another Serial. Even the show’s successive seasons have come nowhere close to the initial success found in season 1. Still, the show offers some insightful instruction on audio storytelling’s power hosts can apply elsewhere.
- When possible, make the audience a character in the show. In Serial, the audience members serve as allies to the Hero (the host).
- Provide the audience with tools to participate in the show outside of the episode. Serial did this through an interactive website and blog posts that provided further detail for the engaged audience member/investigator as news comes out even years after the season’s conclusion.
- If you choose to release “serially,” then that decision must impact every facet of the show. From storyline to production to promotion, every decision must ladder back to encouraging serial consumption. Encouraging audiences, critics, and actual characters to participate in the conversation is key to selling the drama as reality.