‘Serial’ Wisdom

EDITOR’S NOTE: This article was originally published in TALKERS magazine on December 23, 2014. The release of Adnan Sayed from prison last week put the investigative podcast “Serial” back in the spotlight. 


By Bill McMahon
The Authentic Personality


EAGLE, Idaho — I first learned about “Serial” the podcast from my Twitter feed. It was a day I was thinking a lot about the future of radio and audio entertainment. I was feeling pretty pessimistic. The current crop of news and talk programming on radio wasn’t giving me much hope. The headline style news delivered by most radio stations has become a commodity available on demand on multiple platforms. The superficial reports of common crime, ordinary human misfortune, politics and political process that dominate the radio news menu aren’t distinctive, interesting or relevant to the lives of most listeners. Talk programming is limited to conversations about sports and politics from a conservative political perspective. Digital audio initiatives from radio broadcasters are primarily repurposed radio programs offered as podcasts. The lack of imagination, innovation, and variety in audio content created by radio broadcasters left me feeling depressed about the future of the business to which I’ve dedicated most of my professional life.

It took hearing one episode of “Serial” to completely change my mood. It rekindled my love of audio entertainment and my belief in its power and appeal. It took me back to the experiences that made me fall in love with radio and audio entertainment. I remembered listening to my first Seattle Rainiers baseball broadcast. I’d never been to a game or met any of the players, but Leo Lassen’s enthusiasm, excitement, and colorful descriptions allowed me to visualize them in my mind. It felt like I was right there in the stadium. I remembered Lan Roberts, the morning personality on KJR, and his fascination with and belief in UFOs. His vivid descriptions and recorded sounds of his midnight experience waiting for a UFO and its passengers that he expected to land in a field east of Seattle were unforgettable. My imagination allowed me to see what he saw and feel his anticipation and then disappointment when it didn’t happen. It was magic. I felt that same sense of magic listening to “Serial.”

It’s no accident “Serial” has attracted so much media attention and millions of listeners for each of its 12 episodes in just three months’ time. For creators of audio information and entertainment content, especially journalists, news reporters and storytellers of all kinds, there is so much that can be learned from the success of season one of “Serial.” Here is some of the wisdom revealed by the producers of “This American Life” and Sarah Koenig’s experiment in audio storytelling:

  • The ideal length of a story should be determined by the time it takes to tell a complete story that is meaningful to its audience. Sarah Koenig decided it would take nearly 8 ½ hours and 12 episodes to meaningfully tell the complete story she chose for season one of “Serial.”
  • Humans have an insatiable appetite for “truth.” We have a natural yearning to know and understand what is real, honest, and true in our lives. It’s what attracts us all to solving mysteries. It’s the goal and fundamental appeal of great journalism. It was the search for “truth” about the murder of Hae Min Lee and the trial of Adnan Syed that was a primary attraction of “Serial” season one.
  • Crazy curiosity and imagination are essential to great journalism and meaningful storytelling.The “truth” is often found beneath the surface. Sarah Koenig’s insightful, incisive, probing and seemingly endless questions produced the fuel for her truth seeking and storytelling. Her imaginative ability to connect the dots of what she learned from her questions revealed and lighted the trail to the “truth” and exposed the meaning of her story.
  • Listeners love participating in the search for “truth.” Sarah Koenig shared her process in every episode. It’s not something journalists usually do, but Sarah did and others probably should. She constantly revealed her questions, theories, suspicions, speculation, doubts, frustrations, conclusions, successes and failures. It made her storytelling far more interesting and real. It allowed listeners to follow along and contribute if they so desired. Which they did providing some perspectives and details Sarah would likely not have discovered on her own.
  • Journalists and news reporters are often trapped in the current “news cycle” when determining what is news. If it didn’t happen in the last 24-48 hours somehow it’s no longer news. How about adopting some new guidelines to define news. If it’s new or unknown to you or your audience shouldn’t it be considered news? Sarah Koenig discovered all kinds of stuff that was new, interesting, and meaningful to her and “news” to her audience when she began examining a murder that occurred in 1999.
  • News reporters frequently focus on events and often miss the related stories. Events are episodes in stories. Events are obvious and easy to report. Stories not so much. Hae Min Lee is murdered. Adnan Syed is arrested and charged with the murder. Adnan Syed is tried and convicted of the murder. Adnan Syed appeals the conviction. The appeal is denied. All events with obvious conclusions. All reported in 1999. Along comes Sarah Koenig in 2013. She examines these events and notices the untold story of a trial where “something went wrong.” A story that reveals and explores imperfections in our justice system and mysteries of life and human behavior.
  • News consumers want more than a quick superficial headline summary of complex and/or controversial stories. The main facts of these stories and opposing sound bites are available on demand on every smart phone and computer from multiple sources. “Serial” demonstrates the desire for and appeal of complete stories that provide context, analysis, informed commentary, insight and a sincere search for the “truth.” The real meaning of these stories to listeners.
  • Human behavior is a subject with universal appeal. Why do people think and feel the way they do? Why do people do what they do? These real-life questions and mysteries are things every human being wants to answer and solve. Season one of “Serial” examined and tried to understand all kinds of human behavior in every episode.
  • Vivid, concrete, descriptive language and sound is essential to effective audio storytelling. Words and sounds that allow listeners to see, hear, taste, touch, smell, feel and fully imagine what is going on. Sarah Koenig’s use of language and sound is masterful and makes full use of the “theater of the mind.” Witness this reaction to Adnan Syed after her first in person meeting with him: “The thing you can’t miss about Adnan is that he has giant brown eyes. Like a dairy cow. That’s what prompts my most idiotic lines of inquiry. Could someone who looks like that actually strangle his girlfriend? Idiotic. I know.”
  • Audio entertainment isn’t going away. Its shape, size, and delivery methods are changing but not its appeal. It can’t be ordinary to compete in a world addicted to “screens.” When done well, “Serial” showed us what it can do. This experiment in “audio storytelling” delivered by podcast attracted a larger audience than many prime time television programs. Lots of people reported replacing their television viewing with listening to Sarah Koenig tell her story “week by week.”
  • Audio is a superior method for storytelling. It compels the listener to use his or her imagination in the “theater of the mind” to participate in the telling of the story. This creates unequaled intimacy and connection to the story and a uniquely personalized experience with the story.
  • Contrary to conventional wisdom among radio broadcasters and PPM data from Nielsen, consumers of audio entertainment don’t all have ADD. They are discerning. If what they hear is not interesting or meaningful, they discard quickly. Enrich their lives and they will definitely listen longer than 10 minutes per “occasion.” The average run time for an episode of “Serial” is 42 minutes.

Talkers Bug at the End of the Story

Bill McMahon, CEO of The Authentic Personality, is a longtime talk radio station and talent consultant who has played a role in the development of the careers of many leading hosts over the past three decades.  He can be phoned at 208-887-5670 or emailed at Bill@AuthenticPersonality.biz.