Saturday, 15 November 2014

Serial: Could the crime podcast solve the case for radio's future?

Serial host Sarah Koenig
Ambridge’s cockerels could soon be shrieking their final crow, with former Home Secretary David Blunkett, saying he “was losing the will to live” over BBC Radio 4’s The Archers' plot lines this week. But the phenomenal worldwide success of new podcast Serial
may signal a changing of the guard in audio entertainment as millions of listeners wait on tenterhooks for today’s edition.

Serial, a spin-off from US radio show This American Life, is hosted by former Baltimore Sun journalist Sarah Koenig who sets out the case for and against Adnan Syed, who was convicted of the murder of his ex-girlfriend Hae Min Lee in 1999, aged just 17. Koenig turns the case like a Rubik’s cube in attempting to discern the student's killer, guiding listeners through holes in the conviction and Syed’s story.

Listeners have taken to Reddit to attempt to solve the case and are hosting listening parties for each episode.

Serial producer Dana Chivvis tells me the conclusion is not set in stone: “We have a vague idea, but we also know we could uncover some key piece of information tomorrow, and the whole thing could take a sharp turn. Or not.”

With many in the UK coming to Serial late, this thriller has triggered a spate of binge listening amongst commuters and those attacking the household chores. Marathon DVD boxset and streaming sessions are now a firm part of our televisual culture, but could this be the tipping point for radio and podcasting?

“This is the first break-out podcast,” argues Matt Deegan, creative director at radio consultancy Folder Media. “Serial could be to podcasting what House of Cards was to Netflix.”

Chivvis adds: “People want to binge listen because they want to be able to immediately scratch that itch of ‘what's gonna happen?’ But also because it’s so engrossing to live inside the world of this story, the same way you don’t want to look up from a really good book or go to the bathroom in the middle of an epic movie.”

Serial is not the only podcast charming hordes of fans keen to consume its wares in one gorge. Simon Mayo and Mark Kermode’s long-running BBC Radio 5 live film review show treats podcast listeners to exclusive content and regularly reports missives from listeners stocking up on episodes for long haul jaunts to Japan or Himalayan treks.

“We often get emails from listeners who have discovered us three weeks before and listened to all 300 episodes,” laughs Helen Zaltzman, whose Answer Me This podcast has won a clutch of awards. “Consuming large quantities in one sitting is one of the attractions.

“Video streaming sites were originally worried that putting whole series out at once would kill the sense of anticipation around new episodes. But if you look at Orange is the New Black, people are still dissecting it online months later.”

Radio listening figures remain healthy but the popularity of the traditional drama serial is in question. Podcasters are trying to re-invent the medium and have found their own darling – Welcome to Night Vale.

The deliberately weird drama is set in the fictional town of Night Vale and presented in the manner of a local news broadcast. First released in 2012, its popularity stepped up last year when fans took to Tumblr to share artwork of how they imagined characters, including a levitating cat, would look. It now enjoys more than 150,000 downloads an episode and the show's creators are amid a sold out European tour.

Meanwhile, Zombie podcast We're Alive has enchanted a legion of fans keen to have their brains munched by its audio delights.

Amazon’s Audible, the established player in the online audiobooks market (which also began sponsoring Serial this week), is also making waves, commissioning original content on everything from naughty romance to crime dramas.

But is a Lovefilm-style audio model a commercially appealing proposition? “Audio is still cheaper for advertisers and if they see the success of Serial, they may be tempted in,” says Deegan. “In the US, listeners are also used to stations asking for donations to support high quality speech radio.” Indeed, podcast network Radiotopia is steaming towards success in a $650,000 Kickstarter campaign to release a raft of shows including an edition of The Truth by Groundhog Day screenwriter Danny Rubin.

The radio industry has its ear pressed to the speaker attempting to disseminate the impact of Serial, but one question hangs heaviest in the air, who did kill Hae Min Lee?

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