I listen to podcasts. Among my favorites: Radiolab, Star Talk, I Should Be Writing, and Astronomy Cast. And now, I’ve added a new favorite: Serial. In April of 2015, it became the first ever podcast to win a Peabody Award.
Serial spun off of the popular This American Life podcast and is hosted by Sarah Koenig. It explores a single non-fiction story over a multiple-episode season. The first of twelve episodes of season one aired in October 2014.
Before I tell you what season one was about, let me tell you how I came across the podcast. I first listened to it in December 2015, as its second season was beginning. I stumbled across it while researching serial fiction. I was thinking about trying to turn one of my stories into a serialized fiction, in which I would publish a single scene or chapter at a time. Through my searching, I came across the podcast, Serial. Same idea, except in audio, rather than written, form. I subscribed to the podcast and listened to the first episode of season two to see what it was all about. I immediately became hooked.
The second season is about Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, the US soldier that was imprisoned by the Taliban for five years before being released in a controversial swap for five prisoners held at Guantanamo Bay. It’s built around numerous hours of audio of Sgt. Bergdahl telling his story to Academy Award-winning screenwriter Mark Boal.
The tagline for the first episode of season two is:
In the middle of the night, Pfc. Bowe Bergdahl grabs a notebook, snacks, water, some cash. Then he quietly slips off a remote U.S. Army outpost in eastern Afghanistan and into the dark, open desert. About 20 minutes later, it occurs to him: he’s in over his head.
I listened to the 40-minute episode and was impressed with how well it was produced and how engaging it was. It would be a week before the second episode aired, so I went and listened to the first episode of season one. It was just as beautifully crafted and I ended up listening to the entire season in two days.
Season one investigates the 1999 murder of Hae Min Lee, an 18-year-old high school student from Baltimore, Maryland. Her ex-boyfriend Adnan Masud Syed was eventually, over the course of two trials, convicted of her murder and sentenced to life in prison. Adnan has always insisted his innocence.
Throughout the twelve episodes Sarah Koenig and her team investigate the case, turning over evidence and following leads that both the prosecutors and defense in the 2000 trial over Lee’s murder failed to investigate. Sarah interviews dozens of players in the case, including spending dozens of hours speaking with an Adnan Syed himself, who has been in prison for the past 15 years. Episodes focus on issues such as the prosecutor’s lack of evidence, the variation in the witness testimonies, the personalities of all the players, and all of the grisly details of what we know (and don’t know) about Lee’s tragic murder.
The story plays out so well, that I was constantly finding myself questioning my personal instincts and beliefs about what happened. Twelve episodes–more than eight hours of listening–and for the past week I can’t stop thinking about the case. I hardly have a hunch about what actually occurred. There are times I think the right person is prison, that Adnan Syed committed the crime and is either such a fantastic liar or he has somehow been able to convince himself that he actually didn’t murder Hae Min Lee. Other times, I think about how bizarre the evidence against him is and how he had to have been framed somehow. Syed doesn’t sound like a murderer (whatever murderers sound like) and he does sound convincing is his declaration of innocence, but at the same time there’s no motive for anyone else to commit the crime and make it appear that Syed did it.
I won’t tell you where Koenig eventually settles on the story, but for me, I can’t say.
In an interesting update to the case, following the airing of season one, it was announced that in February of 2016, a month from when this post was published, Syed will be back in court for a post-conviction hearing in which his lawyers are expected to present an alibi witness and raise questions over some of the evidence that was used to convict him 15 years ago. Because of Serial, not only am I familiar with this case, but I’m looking forwarded to how it all pans out beginning next month.
Back To Season Two
Three episodes of the second season have been published thus far, with the fourth episode set to drop this Thursday, January 7. Thus far, we’ve heard about Sgt. Bergdahl’s disappearance, his capture by the Taliban, his multiple escape attempts, and the nightmare US troops went through trying to bring their fellow soldier back home. The story, we’re learning, is much deeper and interesting than you might have already imagined.