Here’s my theory for why the podcast Serial is supposedly so popular: (1) People love true crime dramas, and they love them even more when they believe a main character may be innocent, it’s the American spirit of rooting for the underdog and believing that the system is flawed, but ultimately works; in short, people want to believe Adnan Syed is innocent, if for no other reason than we’re hearing this story through his perspective, and (2) Most people had never really listened to podcasts, or had only done so intermittently like a DVR for missed episodes, and suddenly it was socially cool to do so, it was on trend; listeners very quickly realized the potential of a new medium despite the fact that the medium wasn’t new at all.
Serial is a good podcast. The journalism is expertly done, and should make us all miss what great reporting (whether on the radio, online, or on TV) can do to/for us. The voices of the characters are varied, engaging, and always surprising. Describing why she should start listening to the podcast after I was already seven episodes in, I told my wife “because literally every person they talk to has a differing view of what happened.” Like great pieces of literature, such divergence makes us question everything. And, of course, a podcast has the advantage over print literature that the production can be professional and slick. The sound editing is well done, the balance of commentary versus evidence is well timed, each episode goes along at its own pace, ending delightfully with cliffhangers that keep us coming back.
But beyond that, for regular podcast listeners like me, it’s just a good, solid podcast. No more no less. Well, perhaps with a slightly better than average story. Despite this, it’s nothing revolutionary. The idea of telling a story over several episodes over several weeks is nothing new (see Dan Carlin’s meandering, epic, and ongoing series Hardcore History). There are no bells and whistles, either literal or figurative, to supplement of the minimal narration (staying with history, see the contagious BackStory with the American History Guys). There is a clear storytelling element, with an uncertain narrative arc, but again, nothing new (see The Truth.) And even the host program—This American Life—seems to me have jumped the shark years ago, yielding the top spot of “best podcast” to the loved-or-hated brilliance of Radiolab.
(Though to be fair, I saw Ira Glass give a talk two years ago and he spent a considerable amount of time detailing how Radiolab was his favorite podcast, too, and how he’d love to make his show that good if only they had the time. That being said, it was also during this talk that I realized that I didn’t really like Ira Glass. He talked for two hours and swore like a pre-teen who was trying to impress the big kids. It was these and other observations that made me glad he was confined to public radio in hour-long segments; sometimes all-you-can-eat still isn’t worth the price.)
I say all of this not to be cynical. Nor claim any ownership over the apparent podcast phenomenon we currently find ourselves in. After all, if/when there is a second season of Serial will people still be interested? Will a less sympathetic main character translate into the same public professions of passion and binge listening? More than anything, once it goes dark at the end of the year, will people suddenly take an interest in other series? Other podcasts?
We don’t know. I don’t know. And, again, I’m trying not to be cynical. But this is all very curious, and I have a feeling that the podcasting class I’ve been teaching for years will get a lot more looks this coming winter. All for better or worse. It’s all entertainment after all.
Which is all to say that I’ve resisted reading most articles about the series, especially the blogs and commentaries where relative nobodies explain what they think about the show (insert self-aware irony here.) But I’ve likewise resisted looking up any background information—like photos—about the main “characters.” I’d rather they exist in my mind, between my headphones, mostly on the bus, train, or car ride home from work. Like for most radio voices, my imagination has been set free by missing stimuli. Without fully being able to articulate the details, I have rough sketches of the people’s faces, wardrobes, and surroundings. It’s a landscape at once blurry and fine-grained. It’s mine, and mine alone, without the interference of fact.
Which is perhaps a third part of the theory I haven’t mentioned yet: (3) For all the talk about the cultural phenomenon of Serial—of people listening to it together, talking about it with friends, being on trend for downloading it—it ultimately is a very intimate experience; it’s mostly us, alone, with our thoughts and these outside voices. Everything else—all the things that are ready-made for us day to day, from TV programming to web and Word templates, to predictable status messages—in our modern lives is prefabricated in all its shiny detail, giving us at best only an illusion of surprise. This, though, is undefined. We don’t know the history (really.) We don’t know the future (and I’m not sure we really want to.) And, for people like me, we don’t even know exactly what the people look like beyond their voices.
This all relates to Sharon Van Etten, I swear. When I first became aware of her two years ago, I was likewise listening to her on headphones on rainy cross-town bus rides. She was brooding, moody, and dark. She was a badass who at once was singing my story, but also taking it to a much deeper place where even I in my worst days didn’t dare go.
And then I met her. (Well, actually I met her with my friend Christian, who it should be said, is also a bigtime podcast listener.)
She was so small. So cute. So welcoming and funny.
You might expect me to say that the seeming contradiction in aural persona and in-person character was disappointing, or disarming. But that’s not quite it. If anything, I liked her more. She was so much more complex for this gap in perception. She was more like me: a real person, which—even though I always thought I wanted a caricature of someone strumming my depression—turned out to be exactly what I wanted.
And she was still a badass. In concert, when I first heard her play this song, she drawled, “I washed your dishes/ But I shit in your bathroom” and people kind of laughed. Not because it was funny, but because it was such a juxtaposition. Such an honest juxtaposition.
Neither one thing nor the other. Both.