Serial is the podcast that put the medium on the map. It’s the audio broadcast that spawned a thousand others, won a Peabody Award and had the world talking when it debuted in 2014.
Jump ahead four years, and it’s back in the news because Adnan Syed, the guy this entire serialised documentary is about, has been granted a retrial in the US state of Maryland.
If you weren’t one of the estimated 175m people who downloaded Serial, the crux of the first season is this: the producer of radio programme This American Life Sarah Koenig, and her team were invited to investigate the 1999 disappearance and murder of Baltimore high schooler Hae Min Lee, and the subsequent conviction of Lee’s former boyfriend, Syed, for robbery, her kidnapping and murder. Syed has been incarcerated since February 2000.
During the course of the 12 episodes of the first season, Koenig interviewed a host of people involved directly and peripherally with the case, and tackled all kinds of angles relating to the crime, broadcasting her findings to the world every Thursday.
Thanks to the team’s incredible investigative prowess (and obsessive listeners of the show who conducted their own amateur sleuthing online), Serial was able to uncover a slew of new evidence and a possible new witness.
The season wrapped up in an opened-ended fashion: Koenig seemed unconvinced of Syed’s guilt or innocence. But the podcast clearly prompted further investigation by the state.
This is not the only time a podcast has had real-life consequences for those involved. A Swedish show called Spår was the first podcast investigation to unearth evidence that led to a conviction being overturned. The podcast’s makers uncovered evidence that discredited the testimony of a key witness in the case against Kaj Linna, who had been found guilty of murdering a man and injuring his brother on a farm in the far north of Sweden. Linna was released last year after spending 13 years in prison.
Whatever the outcome of Syed’s new trial, this turn of events highlights the power of journalism and the media, even if the way we consume both is changing.