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“Serial,” the Mainstreaming of Podcasting, and the Re-invention of NPR


There have really only been, up until now, two types of people in the world: those who listen to podcasts and those who, despite all coaxing and prompting, have no interest in listening to podcasts whatsoever. There are no people walking around in our society thinking to themselves “I really want to get into listening to podcasts; I’m going to do that at some point.” People who listen to podcasts love them — and people who do not listen to podcasts have no interest in it, because they haven’t ever really delved into it, and don’t think it’s going to be something they’d get into. A lot of people out there don’t really understand that the podcasting landscape is becoming increasingly like the television landscape — there’s a lot out there, a lot of it’s terrible, and some of it becomes “appointment listening” to you, depending on your interests.

In case you haven’t noticed, NPR’s Serial has changed that. Let me get you up to speed, in case you are old and/or don’t follow media whatsoever: in the beginning of October, This American Life regular Sarah Koenig began telling the story of a high school student named Adnan Syed. Syed has been in a maximum security prison in Maryland for the last seventeen or so years after being convicted of killing his ex-girlfriend, a Korean girl named Hae Min Lee, and burying her in a shallow grave in a Baltimore park.

I’m not going to keep telling you about the story of Serial, suffice to say that as Koenig investigates the circumstances around the day of Hae Min Lee’s death she unravels a twisting, turning story full of red herrings, odd characters and gigantic holes in the case. Also, you should totally be listening to it. It’s absolutely riveting and amazing and Koenig’s reporting is so affable and accessible that Serial sounds just as much like sitting at a dinner party with Koenig, hearing her relay the wild tale to you herself. You should listen to it because it’s excellent.

You should also listen to Serial because it will go down in media history as the first “big” podcast of all time. It will be the exact marker and moment where podcasting “arrived” as a medium. It doesn’t matter that it’s been around for a while now, and that there are thousands of podcasts. Serial will be the one remembered as putting podcasting on the map.

Serial has fascinated millions across the nation; it’s watercooler talk and dinner party conversation gold. It also, in a comical way, has created a subculture of people who would like you to believe that they are among the pioneering wave of people who have discovered the greatness of podcasts. Suddenly there’s a new swath of people going on and on about how great podcasts are (in this case, specifically Serial) because it’s their new “thing.”

For regular podcast listeners this is akin to hearing someone go on and on about a great new band that you’ve been listening to for a long time already. But that’s fine; this is a good thing — NPR has both found a way to keep themselves incredibly relevant but found the very vehicle that would keep them alive. NPR just, in essentially one single big idea, found a way to stay alive in the drowning waters of terrestrial AM radio. It’s wonderful for them and exactly what they needed and I love NPR and I couldn’t be happier. Ira Glass and Robert Siegel should be clinking champagne glasses and celebrating a bright future, because this avenue is not only perfect for NPR but, now, everyone knows they do it well.

I’m thankful that Serial exists not because it’s a great podcast but because it’s a rare moment in culture where something big begins — it heralds an age of podcasting that likely will continue in a big way. It’s also become a saving angel for one of the most credible media organizations in the free world, and that’s fantastic for them. NPR took a fledgling medium, found an amazing way to use it, and are reaping the rewards. You know they’re thankful for Serial’s success, and it creates a limitless ceiling for podcasting’s future.

Also, seriously, I’m telling you, just listen to it. It’s really, really good. Really good. And really I’m thankful for it. Happy Thanksgiving, everyone.






Article written by C.M. Tomlin

All I want is a HI-C and a turkey sandwich. @CM_Tomlin

1 Comment for “Serial,” the Mainstreaming of Podcasting, and the Re-invention of NPR

  1. BleedingBlue79
    3:31 pm November 25, 2014 Permalink

    I listen to multiple podcasts regularly, mostly ones by comedians, and I’m not even much of a big NPR fan, generally, but I do listen to This American Life and Serial, and Serial is the only one out of all the podcasts I listen to, that actually makes my day better when I see a new episode posted. I hope future stories are as compelling as this one. As an aside, I’m not convinced he did it…Jay seems super shady.