Podcasts: murder, “little shit” and the tipping point (?)

All of a sudden people are talking about podcasts. It’s only taken ten years but we’re now in a time where podcasts are being discussed openly on mainstream media and THE hot series of the moment is not a cool Netflix original TY production or some edgy Channel 4 thing but a podcast.

Serial podcast

The podcast that has grabbed the world’s attention is Serial. It’s one woman’s investigation into a fifteen year old murder case. It’s enthralling. And fascinating. And, according to the Wall Street Journal, each episode is currently being downloaded 1.26 million times.

That’s a lot.

I’ve been closely following the world of podcasts for (at least) the last seven years and there has never been a show that people have gone crazy for like this one. Martha Lane Fox told the delegates at the (possibly last ever) Radio Festival that she was hooked. Helen Zaltzman was singing its praises on Emma Barnett‘s new BBC 5 Live show. Patton Oswalt has been holding Serial listening parties. And The Guardian‘s radio critic, Miranda Sawyer, has written about it, been on BBC Radio 4‘s Media Show talking about it and will happily engage any random yahoo she encounters in conversation on Twitter about it.

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Everyone is talking about Serial. It’s the most downloaded podcast on the planet right now. It’s even spawned a spin-off podcast from the talented Slate stable that’s riding high in the download charts alongside it.

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So what is it about Serial that’s so … sticky? Why did this podcast explode where basically every other podcast ever made didn’t?

I think there’s a few factors at play here that have created this “perfect storm”.

1. The pedigree.

Serial is an offshoot of the behemoth that is This American Life. The podcast was launched across all the This American Life platforms and the team that made the show are super-slick and experienced. They also launched with the backing of a quarter of a million Twitter followers and tapped into hundreds of thousands of greedy RSS feeds.

They also created a launch video that was cute as hell and featured a charming grey-haired old-timer who loves podcasts (as well as a nice lady called Mary).

2. The attention to detail.

From the quirky Mail Kimp advert, to the opening montage, to the plinky-plonky music – it’s all on point. There’s lots of what Jad Abumrad calls the “little shit” – the rough edges of interviews and raw bits of tape that add colour and humanise a show. Everything is there and nothing outstays its welcome.

The website is also packed with extra stuff. You want to dig deeper into this stuff and try and figure it out? Go ahead, the website has plenty for you to get your teeth into.

3. The show takes real advantage of the format.

It’s a podcast and not a radio show so it can be whatever length it damn well pleases. Shows range from 27 minutes to 53 minutes long. There’s no real pressure here to squeeze things into spaces or to pad things out. They also deliver regularly and on-time.

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4. The subject matter.

The show’s about murder. And truth. And solving a mystery. And who is right and who is wrong. All good “central to the human experience” type stuff. And Sarah Koenig is a charming and likeable investigator who explores all this material with her humanity hanging out. She’s confused and frustrated and troubled and we (the listeners) like that.

There’s a whole raft of moral questions we should be asking ourselves here. Is it right to be enjoying this stuff? Isn’t this all in bad taste? What good can come of it? I think these questions all add to the attraction here. After all, what is more exciting than involving yourself in something that – deep down – you know you shouldn’t be doing.

Serial has been advertised as a twelve-part series which means that (as I write this) we’re nearly two-thirds of the way to the end of our journey. It will be interesting to see what the reaction of the million or so listeners is at the end of this trip. This does not appear to be a story that will wrap up neatly.

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Koenig has already said “There will be another season, but it might not be a crime story“.

I’ll give season two a shot, no matter what happens with the remainder of this season. Deep down I think we all listen because we all want to solve a mystery.

Not just of who killed that poor girl but, also, why that person can’t pronounce “chimp” correctly…

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