Last weekend, I binged on the wildly popular podcast series, “Serial”, in which Sarah Koenig and other producers and staff of “This American Life” investigate the case of Adnan Syed, who was convicted of the murder of Hae Min Lee in Baltimore in 1999 and who continues to claim his innocence.
I say “wildly popular” as if I’d been in the loop about the series while it unfolded last year, like some five million others anxiously waiting for the next installment (there are 12), but that’s not true. I’m aware of its reach after the fact. But even this much later, I’ll admit I feel a strange satisfaction in having participated in this phenomenal thing, to be in the know about it. Aren’t we just funny that way? There’s so much that I’m completely clued out about, which is inevitable and quite fine actually, and a great deal else on the “cultural” front that I access only tangentially. I’ve watched only half an episode of “Mad Men,” for example, one episode of “Downton Abbey,” none of “Orange is the New Black” or “Transparent” and on and on, which is not to discredit the accomplishments of these programs, nor to discredit people who are faithful fans of these series, but just to say that it’s possible to be aware of things, even know quite a bit about them, without actually listening to or watching or reading them.
But I digress.
I came upon “Serial” via an article in Christian Century (“Trial by Podcast” by Kathryn Reklis) and since I trust the cultural mediation of intelligent Episcopalians and other mainliners more than many other sources, I took a listen. I’m generally more oriented to radio and reading than visual forms like television—even reading, to my mind, is essentially listening—and I was immediately beguiled by the narrator’s voice. I don’t mean just her physical voice, but her narrative voice, her intimate and confiding stance, her turns of phrase. I wish I’d written some of the latter down to show what I mean.
It was like reading a book and saying, “I love how she writes.” For as much as this was about an investigation into Syed and the main witness in the case, Jay Wilds, and which of them is lying (because one or both of them have to be), it was about the narrator’s own quest and relationship with the case. It was a kind of memoir-on-the-go, non-fiction that is, but employing the most compelling features of good fiction such as dialogue, setting, telling detail, suspense, and so on.
There’s no doubt that I got hooked in the story itself, that I’ve been mulling the characters, that I’m wondering along with critics about the ethics of the endeavor. But most of all I’m fascinated by this storytelling form. Is it a return in “audible” format to the serialized stories of a Charles Dickens, for example, back in the 19th century, as some have suggested? Is the question about Adnan’s innocence or guilt whizzing endlessly around the internet just another version of the fervor over the end of The Old Curiosity Shop? Then, fans swarmed the harbor to call out to sailors arriving from the U.K. who might have read the conclusion, “Is Little Nell alive?”
My binge seems a bit silly now that I confess it here. But no, I must insist, it was fascinating too. Enough so that I wish to explore developments in podcasting, see what’s out there, and where. Says James Atlas in “Hearing is Believing“, “there is something about the act of listening that invigorates the mind.”