Matt McMahon | Tuesday, October 28, 2014
“Serial,” a new podcast spun off from NPR’s “This American Life” and produced by Chicago public radio station WBEZ, chronicles host Sarah Koenig’s yearlong investigation into Hae Min Lee’s murder. Spurred by contact from a friend of Adnan Syed’s family, Rabia Chaudry, Koenig researched the fifteen-year-old case, for which Syed has been incarcerated and serving a life sentence plus 30 years in the North Branch Correctional Institution in Maryland. What Koenig initially found was enough debate amidst the case to warrant both her complete interest and further investigation. Since October 3, Koenig has been crafting her findings into serialized, 30-plus-minute podcast episodes released Thursday mornings at serialpodcast.org.
The story that approached Koenig is one that is to this day filled with mystery and dispute. Syed, heard throughout on recorded phone calls from his correctional facility—Koenig has developed a connection with the convicted party, speaking with him often for details on the day and its surroundings—claims that when put on trial he could not remember the events of that fateful day in January, expressly because it was a normal day like any other for him, not one in which he committed a murder. Meanwhile, interrogation recordings and trial accounts from main witness, and at the time Syed’s pot dealer and acquaintance—or possibly closer friend—Jay posit that Syed had loose, but premeditated, intentions to kill Lee after the two broke up.
The case features many other contentious points, possible mistakes by the police and attorney processes, red herrings and inconsistencies, cementing the human nature and real-life circumstances regarding this investigation. Koenig makes sure to explore every piece of data, coming at each from all angles, hoping to finally suss out the key details to concretely solve and answer the messy case.
Koenig’s own involvement and deep curiosity, as well as her comprehensive reporting, play to the benefit of the show. Examining everything from Syed and Lee’s high school lives to the technical strategies employed in the court proceedings, Koenig extrapolates upon the natural elements of Shakespearean tragedy, high school melodrama, suspense thriller, crime mystery and law procedural inherent to the story. So far across the five episodes that have been released, “Serial” has covered ample material including Jay’s incriminating testimony, the crime scene, Syed and Lee’s relationship and Syed’s potential motive, a possible alibi for Syed that was never considered during trial and even a reenactment of the police’s timeline for Syed the entire day of January 13 to test its plausibility. While remaining unbiased in her report, in many instances Koenig sounds exasperated, so captivated and consumed with the case, confounded by its complexness—yet unable to break it one way or the other. It’s clear that Koenig wants justice, whether in confirming Syed’s guilt, holding the authorities to a higher standard or determining the true events occurring in Baltimore on January 13, 1999.
In fact, now Koenig is nearly as much a player as Lee, Syed and Jay in the investigation. She does well to qualify her interactions with everyone she comes into contact with concerning the case, and often interjects to lay out her view after pivotal breakthroughs. In addition to presenting critical examinations of a high school murder and a possible murderer’s psyche—not to mention our executive and judicial systems—the podcast can also be taken as a lesson in ethical journalism. Koenig is without a doubt very close to the case as a result of her recruitment by Chaudry, but still presents the case and her findings objectively. While she could easily fall victim to anchoring, availability or confirmation biases as a result of knowing the court’s original verdict, the ease in adopting the current account to explain the entire case or her connection with Syed, Koenig remains steadfast in her approach to uncover objective, definite evidence to support an indisputable explanation for Lee’s murder.
The other most exciting dynamic of “Serial”—aside from Koenig’s ability to generate heart-racing suspense and thorough investment in the story, as well as her work to keep the case extremely alive and vivid despite its age—is the unique employment of the medium. By compiling all of her investigation into a podcast, Koenig allows for a fully immersed account and examination. Whereas a non-fiction book on tape hinges solely on written material and something like an hour murder mystery show relies on visuals; a podcast can incorporate narration, taped interviews, phone conversations and previously recorded accounts from the time of the case. “Serial” even provides supplemental documents relevant to each episode through corresponding posts on its website. These elements add life and weight to even the slighter moments, like meetings with dead end witnesses. Meanwhile, the episodic calls with Syed introduced by a prerecording from the prison offer a sobering reminder that everything about this case has happened and has real life consequences.
Koenig has stated that her team completes each episode within the week prior to its release, a luxury—or perhaps crux—of her format, allowing for last minute decisions. As the Serial producers piece together their up-to-the-minute discoveries for the second half of the show, it remains unclear the final direction and reached conclusions, with the case absolutely suspenseful and entirely open-ended.