If you haven’t heard of it, “Serial” is the fastest podcast ever to reach 5 million downloads. What’s the appeal? We’re taking about the mega popular “whodoneit” podcast, not the delicious, corn-based flakes that have graced American breakfast tables since the 50s. Serial. The modern Fireside Chat, where people sit in groups and listen to a story – LISTEN – without visual accoutrement, explosions, famous celebrity voiceovers, lofty musical scores, and talented Foley artists.
The podcast is so popular, the protagonist of Season One, Adnan Syed, is getting a retrial, demonstrating yet again, the power of social media.
Mashable says the podcast “has sparked a cult following like no other. It's as if we as a culture are fed up with the super cuts of television, commercial breaks every seven minutes and constant product placement. Maybe…we feel so involved in the case at hand, or maybe it's just a good, true story riddled with mystery — or maybe it's the need for justice in America's justice system.”
I think it’s a little of that, but I think the frenzy speaks more to the saturation of social media and our evolutionary longing to connect with others around a cause – something bigger than ourselves as individuals.
In addition, we have developed a cultural need to “binge” on content. We don’t wait for “serials” to offer new episodes the next week at the same time. We access them all at once and watch or listen to as little or as much as we want.
In fact, 87 percent of people who said they have a subscription video-on-demand service like Netflix, Amazon Prime, HBO Go or HBO Now said they binge-watch at least once a week. So did 74 percent of those without video-on-demand.
We’ve become so gluttonous in other areas of our lives and expect instantaneous access to anything we want at all times, it’s no surprise we also binge on content. Despite the trends, I believe Serial’s momentum can be attributed to three specific things:
Good, old fashioned storytelling
The reality is, a mediocre story can become a monumental success through great storytelling. The magic happens in the editing suite. That’s why it’s so important to have a lot of footage (or in this case audio)”in the can”. The story can’t unfold in a way that leaves someone craving more if there’s no provocative and compelling narrative. The producers and the host, Sarah Koenig, know this, so they eek out elements of the story in a way that captivates the mind and leaves enough white space for some independent thinking, even though the audience already knows the story – and its ending. Ron Howard (Apollo 13, Frost Nixon) Clint Eastwood (American Sniper, Scully) are masters at telling stories we already know. Serial is no different- it’s just a different format.
The Facebook Effect
"The facebook" (as it was originally known) was an online resource that replaced a booklet distributed to Harvard University freshmen that profiled students and staff. It started as a tool to improve the relationships with a network of people that exists in real-life, even if those relationships are tangential.
The Facebook Effect allows people to vicariously participate in other people’s lives, many of whom they barely know. This is, in part, what I believe Serial taps into: The sociological need for understanding people and events closest in and a preference for knowing more about people you already know.
Serial’s seasons are based on high-profile, widely-publicized cases, so people have a vague sense of the people and the story. They crave more clarity, and Serial gives it to them in increments. The consumer is in control of the flow of information and can access actual pictures and evidence from the case.
Serial, then becomes a full immersion experience where the listener becomes part of the story. Very appealing in our current cultural climate. We can be close from a distance.
Cultural fascination with crime stories
Wikipedia tells us Crime Fiction came to be recognized as a distinct literary genre, with specialist writers and a devoted readership, in the 19th century. From the writings of Edgar Allen Poe, through Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, to the Golden Age of mystery novels with Agatha Christie, we have been obsessed with crime novels, detective stories, and mysteries.
Author, Walter Mosley explains, “We are fascinated with stories of crime, real or imagined... I think that we have lots of suspicions in our hearts why things go wrong, because partially, we're involved in what's wrong in the world. And we know that… We need forgiveness and someone to blame.”
Serial taps into this fascination in a way that allows us to become part of the story. Because we “know” the people in the story, and likely know the story itself, it acts as a mirror in helping us understand our own behavior as a society.