“For the last year I’ve spent every working day trying to ï¬gure out where a high school kid was for 21 minutes after school one day in 1999. This search sometimes feels undigniï¬ ed on my part.” This is the opening line of WBEZ’s podcast Serial, ï¬rst released in October last year, which followed the story of Adnan Syed, an American man who claims that he was wrongly convicted of the murder of his then girlfriend Hae Min Lee. The show immediately gained widespread media attention and shot to the top of the downloads chart on iTunes, with many hailing the return of audio reportage. Adnan Syed’s story presented listeners with a ‘real-life murder mystery’. However, when the series came to an end there was no perfectly wrapped up conclusion and there were complaints of it being anticlimactic. But what more could people expect from a true story?
Documentary-style reporting has been common throughout American radio for the past few years, with emphasis being placed on ‘real’ voices. This American Life, of which Serial is a spin-oï¬€ show, has been putting together shows of three or four stories around a single theme since the late 90s. Emphasis is placed on the individual, the programme centering on the idea that everyone has a story to tell. This style gives the shows a personal, wide-ranging feel as they gather together widespread perspectives which take all sides into account. Listeners are encouraged to send in their own stories, oï¬€ ering a breadth of views and voices which could not be accessed elsewhere.
The New York based program Radiolab uses a similar format for its show based around science, philosophy and human interest stories. A show centering around the theme of ‘colour’ moves from an interview with a neuro-scientist to a woman’s experience of synesthesia. Invisibilia, also broadcast by NPT, looks at human behaviors and oï¬€ ers a fascinating insight into
the changing view surrounding mental health issues.
What makes these shows so poignant is that they involve personal stories narrated by the individuals themselves. Stories take on the format of conversation and retain a tone of informality. The listener is allowed to hear the click of a scientist picking up his phone at the start of the interview or the sound of cars passing in the street. This is of course part of the shows’ image of ‘true-life’ reporting, but it adds a level of intimacy that engages the audience and makes them listen.
However, as proved by what happened with Serial, reporting on real-life events that continue to unfold can create diï¬ƒ culties in producing a complete story. Whilst podcasts such as This American Life present their program as a perfectly formed whole with their four ‘stories’ on a singular theme each week, the stories have been collected and produced over time and then formulated into a singular unit. Serial was working on a story that as of yet remains incomplete.
It is this imperfection, however, that remains the program’s brilliance. One cannot remain unaï¬€ ected by the show’s host Sarah Koenig as she attempts to uncover Adnan’s story. Like the listener, she moves back and forth between convicting and proclaiming her subject’s innocence as she engages in in-depth conversations with a man who may or may not have murdered his 18 year old girlfriend. Koenig’s voice carries the programme as she refuses to give up on a case which will always have gaps. Whilst at this point the story remains incomplete with no clear sign of resolution, Koenig’s dedication and perseverance in reporting the story of an outsider is admirable.