This is a guest post by Gina Watters. Gina lives in Chicago where she writes stories and listens to podcasts (usually instead of whatever it is she’s actually supposed to be doing).
On February 9, 1999, high-school senior Hae Min Lee was found strangled to death in a wooded park in Baltimore County, Maryland. Her ex-boyfriend and classmate Adnan Syed was convicted of her murder and has spent the last 15 years in prison for the crime. Lee’s murder, and the subsequent investigation, is the subject of Serial, a new podcast from the producers of This American Life.
Unlike the sometimes irreverent and droll nature of This American Life, its spinoff has a decidedly more serious tone. Serial is not background noise. It commands the listener to pay attention, to not miss a beat of the compelling story it weaves. It’s the kind of podcast that will make you pause the treadmill, shush chatty interlopers and accidentally miss your train stop. For fans of true crime, Serial is an especially welcome addition to the podcast landscape. There is simply nothing else like it available (or even close) in the genre.
Serial follows a unique formula for a weekly podcast. It takes a single story and breaks it down over the course of a 10 to 20-episode season. In Episode One, “The Alibi”, producer and host Sarah Koenig takes the listener through the facts of Lee’s murder and how Syed became the prime suspect. As Koenig explains, what she essentially has to determine is “where a high-school kid was for an hour after school one day in 1999.” A seemingly simple proposition until you consider that Syed was not arrested until six weeks after Lee was killed. By the time he was questioned by police, enough time had passed that he could not remember his exact movements on the day in question well enough to establish a credible alibi.
If Syed’s memory lapse seems unbelievable, try this exercise yourself. Where were you six weeks ago today? Can you account for every minute of your day? Add in that this was 1999. Could you still trace your steps without the help of social media, Google Calendar or your smartphone? In 2014, we take for granted the digital trail that follows us wherever we go, but in 1999 (save for a few cell tower pings) no such trail existed.
Despite the lack of an alibi and witness testimony to the contrary, Syed maintains his innocence. In each episode we hear his version of events through courtroom testimony, statements to police and phone calls to Koenig from prison. Yet, Serial is not an effort to prove Syed’s innocence. Koenig, a career journalist, comes across as genuinely ambivalent about his involvement in the crime, and her objectivity is one of the most compelling aspects of the podcast. She becomes a true proxy for the listener, who can follow along with her as the investigation unfolds. Koenig and the show’s other producers are still researching the story as the season progresses, allowing each episode to provide a new twist to the story, another piece of the puzzle, making Serial what few, if any, podcasts ever are: suspenseful.
As Season One approaches its midpoint, one central question is forming. When all the testimony has been dissected, the timelines have been reexamined, the witnesses have been re-interviewed, and the facts are laid out anew, will Koenig ultimately come to a conclusion about Syed’s innocence or guilt? And more importantly, will you?