Thursday, October 30, 2014

"Serial": Your New Podcast Addiction


Did Adnan Syed really kill his ex-girlfriend in 1999? How did a jury convict based on the sketchy testimony of his former friend, Jay-- who seems like a pretty obvious suspect himself?

If you've been listening to Serial, the new weekly podcast from This American Life, you've been obsessing over this case in recent weeks. And waiting, impatiently, for Thursday morning, when a new episode arrives.

My pal Maria Elena Fernandez, over at NBC News, just posted an excellent story about why "Serial" has quickly become the No. 1 podcast on iTunes. An excerpt:

"Serial" -- the podcast co-founded by “This American Life” producers Sarah Koenig and Julia Snyder -- is a daring living piece of serious, journalistic work.

In her friendly, conversational tone, Koenig, the host, takes listeners along on her investigative ride—a journey that began a year ago when she became interested in the death of Hae Min Lee and thought it might be worthy of an episode of "This American Life." In each episode — released each Thursday morning — Koenig and her team continue to probe Lee's death and the conviction of her ex-boyfriend Adnan Syed, who was tried as an adult and sentenced to life plus 30 years even though he was 17 when Lee was strangled. It is a case built on circumstantial evidence and teeming with unanswered questions, including, as “Serial” is revealing, whether Syed was wrongfully convicted.

Koenig, who came up with the idea for the spinoff, wanted the podcast to sound different than “This American Life” and have a live vibe, which is why she opted not to produce the episodes in advance. She writes episodes the week before they are released as she continues to dig for the truth.

“We have a sense of where we might be going but because we’re still reporting it, we’re open to the idea that it could be entirely wrong and we could take a hard left turn at some point in another direction,” said producer Dana Chivvis. “We would love to know what happened—whatever that truth is. By the end, Sarah has said she wants the listener to feel they’ve finished a really good book or they were engrossed by the world of the book or the story itself. We’d love to know this is exactly what happened. But if that doesn’t end up happening, I don’t think we’re going to feel dissatisfied.”
"Serial" has already spawned podcasts about the podcast. And a growing number of amateur sleuths are doing their own investigations online. It's been heartening for Washington, D.C. immigration attorney Rabia Chaudry, a friend of Syed’s who has been trying to spread the word for years about Syed's innocence.

Is Adnan Syed guilty? So far, at least, there seems to be enough reasonable doubt to bring into question why cops and prosecutors were so convinced that they had their guy. It looks like "Serial" will ultimately end with an unsatisfying conclusion -- Syed is still in jail as we speak, after all, and I haven't read about any attempts to re-open the case. But I'll be listening.

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