Adnan Syed was barely a legal adult when a Maryland judge sentenced him to life in prison, plus an additional 30 years, for brutally murdering his ex-girlfriend Hae Min Lee.
The problem is, he may not have actually killed her.
Syed’s story and case are profiled in Serial, a podcast hosted by Sarah Koenig and developed by This American Life.
Jamie Gilbert, associate director of student media advising at North Carolina State University, said Serial was the beginning of a new age of media.
“They just found a fascinating topic and had true, in-depth, entertaining reporting and good production quality,” Gilbert said. “It was marketed so well that people were hooked, just like a serial television program where you have to come back week after week after week.”
Though podcasting originated in 2004, it was not until a decade later that Serial was downloaded more than 5 million times. Today, more than four years after its debut, the podcast still ranks 16th on the iTunes Podcast Chart.
“It was just a super fascinating topic,” Gilbert said. “They chose a young man who was incarcerated in Baltimore for murdering his girlfriend, but there’s so many holes in the story. It’s just a really fascinating story. He can’t account for his time accurately and he can’t fully remember everything that happened. He claims he’s innocent but it’s really not clear.”
Though Serial certainly was not the first podcast, Koenig’s investigation started a new era of podcasting and left audiences wanting more, according to Gilbert.
Musical beginnings create podcasts
Ten years before Serial, an MTV DJ was looking for an easier way to get music for his weekly sets.
Gilbert said the DJ, Adam Curry, would have to transfer music from the internet to his computer to his iPod before he could use any of it.
“He researched and researched and he found out there wasn’t a better way and so he made one himself,” Gilbert said. “He made something called a podcast which previous to that did not exist.”
To create podcasts, Curry first had to create a podcatcher program, similar to today’s iTunes, and then develop Really Simple Syndication Code in order to feed the files into the podcatcher.
With Curry’s new creation, he could now write RSS codes, tag them and have his audience subscribe to the feed. Once subscribed, the newest upload would be downloaded directly to the subscriber’s machine so they could listen to it immediately or take it with them to listen later.
Nearly 15 year later, Curry’s original idea has transformed into a way to get content even easier than he could have imagined.
“It’s a lot easier to get podcasts on the go where previously you would listen to it on your computer or your iPod,” Gilbert said. “Now you can listen to it on your phone, on your wrist.”
This portability of podcasts is yet another innovation to come from Curry’s frustration.
Before, having a wide catalog of content to listen to meant either having a portable with an extreme amount of storage – which could get pricy – or staying connected to a desktop to download the content and listen there.
According to polls conducted by Edison Research, 81 percent of monthly podcast subscribers listen on some type of portable device such as a smartphone or tablet.
Gilbert pointed to this increase in technology as a factor of Serial’s success.
“You want to come back week after week,” Gilbert said. “That’s why you subscribe to it and when the new episode came out you would automatically have it downloaded to your device. It’s just a lot of things coming together.”
Stepping away from radio
Bursts O’Goodness, one of the minds behind The Final Straw Radio, a weekly anarchist radio show based in Asheville, worked in radio since the late 1990s.
O’Goodness said when he moved to Asheville from California to work with AshevilleFM, his college radio experience allowed him to be comfortable behind a microphone and podcasting was a natural next step.
“I moved here from the Bay Area where anarchist events and engagements are a constant and wanted a higher level of engagement with ideas and activities,” O’Goodness said. “I was already doing a weekly radio show with a couple of friends and having a reading group format and airing the discussions was our idea. But the show stayed a mostly music-format show so I split.”
After leaving this first show, O’Goodness developed The Final Straw Radio. The first episode was simple: The host talked to a few LGBTQ+ people who had been the victims of recent beatings. O’Goodness said he was happy to use his talents to give those people voices.
“Those things drove me,” O’Goodness said. “A desire to share conversations about struggles people engage in and ideas that excite me.”
What makes The Final Straw Radio different from other podcasts, though, is that it originally airs as a radio show and is then re-edited for syndication.
Still, unlike traditional live radio, much of O’Goodness’ show is pre-recorded and edited, leaving only small points to be added in during the live broadcast, leaving The Final Straw Radio somewhere between radio and podcast.
O’Goodness said he started podcasting so other radio stations could pick up his shows for free, leaving them in the in-between area.
For O’Goodness, the concepts between radio and podcasts are similar.
“Like good radio, it’s audio that makes the listener stop and focus,” O’Goodness said. “To take away insights and affinity they wouldn’t have had before.”
According to the FCC, radio stations must obtain licenses in order to broadcast. Podcasts, however, are not required to do so.
O’Goodness said he will typically spend up to an hour and a half editing a single hour of audio just cutting out pauses in speech and any words or phrases that are against FCC guidelines.
Other podcasts, such as Serial, are free from these limitations because they do not operate under an FCC mandated radio license.
These license-free podcasts are on the rise. Edison Research reports in 2018, 26 percent of Americans aged 12 and older listen to podcasts on a monthly basis, up 2 percent from last year’s report.
Still, while podcasts are growing, the same study reports 82 percent of Americans prefer listening to the radio while in the car compared to the 23 percent of podcast listeners.
For O’Goodness, the medium does not matter as much as the content.
“I feel like I get to talk to people I’m excited to talk to, occasionally getting real gems of conversation and insight that I hope spreads the ideas of libertarian anti-capitalism, feminism and anti-racism,” O’Goodness said. “I help to shape the public debate around issues important to me and spreading information and understanding from around the world.”
Stories, not equipment, make good podcasts
In 2005, a UNC Asheville graduate began her career as a staff writer at HowStuffWorks. In the decade plus since, Tracy V. Wilson made a name for herself moving into a management position and a co-host of the site’s popular podcast Stuff You Missed in History Class.
Wilson said HowStuffWorks began experimenting with podcasts in the mid-2000s and since launched quite a few. Though Wilson was not part of the original team of Stuff You Missed in History Class, she and co-host Holly Frey now produce two episodes a week.
“Our show gives us an opportunity to talk about history that’s really relevant to what’s happening in the world today. Since we and most of our listeners are American, sometimes we choose episodes that shed some light on what’s happening in our world or provide historical context for today’s events and issues,” Wilson said. “I really enjoy spending time on the stories of women, racial and ethnic minorities, LGBTQ folks and others who are often overshadowed or overlooked in history discussions.”
For Wilson, she said there is no proper way to make a podcast but having a good microphone and a quiet place to record helps.
While most agree having good equipment does hot hurt, those like Greg Vaeth, creator of the podcast Experience Asheville and owner of NCLINE Adventures, say the story is the most important part of a podcast.
“You’ve got to keep people engaged,” Vaeth said. “The people you’re interviewing and you have to make it transparent and real. It can’t be too scripted. You have to have the sincerity, you have to know that the people who are talking about it know what they’re talking about.”
To keep his subjects sincere, Vaeth said he likes to meet people where they are. He said he sends his interviewees an outline of questions and when he gets there tries to have a casual and genuine conversation with them.
In Vaeth’s experience, he said he often talks to subjects for over an hour and cuts it down to a 20 minute podcast. He said anything longer and people start to lose attention.
“I just don’t think people’s attention spans with the social media want to hear more than that,” Vaeth said. “If they do, they can go to people’s websites and follow social media on that particular subject. They need to be short, concise and sincere.”
In total, Vaeth spends a few hours on each podcast. In contrast, Wilson and Frey spend anywhere from 16 to 24 hours per episode.
Wilson said she and Frey each tackle the research for one of their two weekly episodes. With an arsenal of articles and historical archives, each member of the team writes notes independently and comes together to record the episode. Once the audio producer edits the episode, it is published and sent to the RSS feeds of their subscribers.
Gilbert said while good equipment is nice and putting in the work is important, it is not what makes the best podcasts.
“What makes a good podcast is a compelling story to tell,” Gilbert said. “You can have shiny production values and all the marketing in the world, but if you’re not saying anything then it’s pointless.”
Gilbert points to Serial as being a great storytelling podcast. She said though she is not as interested in the story of the second season, she still tunes in because she likes the way they tell the story.
For Gilbert, even the most boring of topics can be made interesting by good storytelling. She said Serial does a good job of making the mundane extraordinary.
“One of the episodes they just talk about how you get location data from cell phone towers, which is one of the most boring topics you could ever imagine thinking about,” Gilbert said. “But the producers present the information in such a compelling way that it really makes it interesting to the listener.”
By and large, Serial is an investigative podcast. According to Columbia Journalism Review, these types of podcasts give a different take on traditional investigative reporting.
Meg Dalton of CJR suggests making what would be investigative reports into podcasting makes them more accessible to audiences and easier to digest.
“What’s different about investigative podcasting is the approach,” Dalton writes in CJR. “Like its counterparts in print and video, there are both advantages and challenges inherent to audio. For one, voice matters more to the ear than to the eye. A single through-line character is key.”
Though these types of investigative podcasts are popular, as backed up by endless podcast charts, they are not the only type of podcast.
Gilbert said one of her favorite podcasts at the moment is I Only Listen to The Mountain Goats, where Joseph Fink, creator of Welcome to Night Vale, another popular podcast, to the house of John Darnielle, who largely makes up The Mountain Goats. The two take one Mountain Goats song per episode and thoroughly dissect it and present another artist covering the song.
Gilbert said it is a simple idea, but one that works.
Other podcasts, like Vaeth’s, focus on specific areas. His Experience Asheville podcasts sees him visiting a variety of local businesses to highlight what they are doing in the community.
Vaeth said he does it not to promote anyone or make any money, but because he enjoys doing it.
“I get to interview so many cool people,” Vaeth said. “They’re all things I love to do so to be with the premier dealership in Western North Carolina and the fly fishing outfit and one of the coolest breweries, you get education but you get to hang out with some pretty cool people.”
Wilson co-hosts a history podcast, but she said she tells history differently than other history podcasts. She said she has seen hundreds of different approaches to podcasts, but as long as it tells a good story it does not matter.
Gilbert said regardless of the story someone wants to tell, podcasts are an easy way to get unheard voices to the masses.
“I think podcasts are really exploding because anyone can do it. All you really need is a microphone and something to say,” Gilbert said. “If you really have a message and can craft it in a structured way so it’s not just you and your friends talking about something, but you have a story and you’re telling it in an interesting and structured way I think it can really take off.”