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On October 3, 2014, producers of the popular public-radio program, This American Life, released the first episode of an experimental, podcast-only spinoff. The idea for the show was a story that would unfold with new episodes each week—presenting the full narrative over a long period of time. While the show’s producers Sarah Koenig and Julie Snyder weren’t convinced the podcast would “get very much attention at all,” it went on to become a groundbreaking cultural phenomenon. That experimental podcast, of course, is Serial.
What’s especially remarkable is the show’s influence. Since its release, dozens of true-crime podcasts and television shows have launched with similar narration and style. In this article, I’ll explore how Serial turned the podcasting genre on its head—and ignited a podcast revolution
The podcast’s first season featured a brilliantly told true-crime story of a 1999 murder in Baltimore, MD: the city that’s home to intriguing fictional television crime series from The Wire to Homicide: Life On the Streets. Serial unfolded with you, the listener, in the passenger seat. It felt like you were learning about the story—and grappling with its issues—right alongside Koenig, who narrated each week’s gripping new episode.
Within its first few months Serial swiftly broke the record for being the fastest podcast in history to reach five million downloads. The show was one of the most talked about stories of 2014, and it seemed like anywhere you went, you could find yourself in a conversation about cell-phone towers, trunk pops, and the concept of reasonable doubt. By the following spring it had been downloaded over 60 million times. And in April 2015, Serial became the first podcast to ever win a Peabody Award, which recognizes outstanding storytelling in electronic media.
The popularity of Serial catapulted the podcast format into national conversation almost overnight. It gave an audience that craved television shows like House of Cards, Breaking Bad, and Dexter, a way to enjoy that same type of storytelling in their cars or headphones on the way to work. And with an unprecedented number of listeners tuning in to each episode, it changed the way the advertising industry views podcasts.
Serial gave such weight to podcasting, that thousands of individuals, small groups, and businesses immediately had a clear new path to follow and tell their own stories. The original season made such waves that its impact has transcended the online domain and continues to be a part of cultural conversation years after its initial release. In fact, in March of 2018, the Maryland Court of Special Appeals ruled for a re-trial of the original murder case, vacating all prior convictions.
The makers of Serial didn’t stop there. After releasing a second season of Serial in 2015, the team went on to produce the critically acclaimed podcast S-Town. This new long-form nonfiction story was released in May 2017, and told over seven episodes. Unlike Serial, S-Town released the entire season at once rather than over time, and the new podcast became another record-breaking hit with over 10 million downloads in its first four days.
So what’s the formula? How did Serial ignite this wild revolution? For starters, the podcast had some built-in reach. The first episode aired on This American Life, which has an avid listenership of over two million people each week. But the podcast that started in Koenig’s basement “with pillows and blankets thrown around to muffle the sound” (pillow forts are awesome for recording podcasts) had a few other things going for it.
More than anything, Serial’s popularityis a testament to well-told stories. Koenig and her colleagues researched the story behind season one of Serial for a year before they created the podcast. Their intimate knowledge of the case allowed for in-depth and thoughtful interviews. The thorough investigation and preparation led to scripts that offered different perspectives on the show’s central conflicts: what happened to the murder victim, and did the man convicted actually commit the crime? Each show revealed information that invites listeners to engage with the story, develop their own theories, and remain in suspense about what might come next. It all added up to a story that’s irresistible to listen to each week.
Sound design is another essential element to Serial’s success. The show relies heavily on field recordings and recorded phone calls. These gritty unpolished sound-design elements, such as riding around in a vehicle on a quiet Baltimore street make you feel like you’re right there with Koenig as she narrates each episode. Music also plays a huge role in the show. Interludes carry you from one chapter of the story to the next, and signal when Koenig is going to pivot to a new topic. And without fail, whenever you make a connection in the case to something you heard earlier, your lightbulb moment is accompanied by thrilling and suspenseful music.
Lastly, the show became a cultural phenomenon because of the podcast format. It’s easy to create a podcast. You don’t need sophisticated recording equipment to get started. You don’t need a production deal to get your story out there. Podcasts are immediately available to hundreds of millions of listeners around the world. They feel personal, and they’re completely free for the audience. So it allows expert storytellers like Koenig and her team at This American Life to do in-depth reporting in their own style, and make it available to listeners whenever they want. The flexibility and instant distribution allowed Serial to reach millions in a way that few other media formats can.
Even though it was an experiment to start, Serial showed the world that anyone can take a story from underground (literally) and craft a series that makes history and becomes one of the world’s most influential and beloved shows.