Serial podcast: a strikingly compelling true-crime narrative

With research-savvy storyteller Sarah Koenig at the wheel, Serial investigates crimes and controversies, calling listeners to questions not only the facts at hand, but their very perspective on crime.

courtesy of

courtesy of

by Mackenzie O'Guin, Design Editor

“This is a Global Tel Link prepaid call from Adnan Syed, an inmate at the Maryland Correctional Facility.”

This message, sterilely delivered in a manufactured feminine voice, marks the beginning of each episode of Sarah Koenig’s Serial podcast. Serial, from the creators of This American Life, “tells one story–a true story–over the course of a season,” allowing listeners to unravel said story at the same pace as Koenig herself.

Now, I am no seasoned podcast listener. As a matter of fact, my discovery of Serial went a little something like this: I am bored whilst cleaning my room. What is this never-before-clicked app on my phone? Podcasts? Okay, let’s pick one just for fun. Serial is #1 on the top charts. I locate Season One: Episode 01 “The Alibi.” I hit play. I proceed to spend the next 2 days entirely immersed in the story of Hae Min Lee’s murder in 1999, the potentially wrongful conviction of her ex-boyfriend Adnan Syed, and everything that happened in between.

I spent the entire season-long binge session brow furrowed with the fretful consideration of a grand juror, attempting to answer the big “whodunnit” questions and piece together the provided evidence.”

What so captivated me about Serial is multifaceted. As a crime drama addict, my ears perked at the first mention of murder mystery, sleuthing and the like. I spent the entire season-long binge session brow furrowed with the fretful consideration of a grand juror, attempting to answer the big “whodunnit” questions and piece together the provided evidence.

But, entertaining as it might be, even that probably would have become tiresome after the first several hours. Hae Min Lee’s confusing case may have hooked me, but it was Koenig herself that kept me listening. A former journalist, Koenig’s narration is both beautifully illustrative and bluntly factual, a fine balance of prose and reality. Whether capturing the bubbly teenage tone of Hae Min Lee’s diary or the saddening wisdom of jailed Adnan Syed, I felt that I not only understood these non-fictitious characters, but that I had walked in their very footsteps. I, too, sat in a lunchroom with my friends on some select school day in 1999, witnessed the trial of a nervous 17-year-old Muslim boy. By the end of season one, I felt the same sense of post-apocalyptic shellshock one feels after finishing an extremely engrossing novel.

I immediately started season two, which focuses on the story of Private First Class Bowe Bergdahl’s supposed abandonment of post in June 2009 and his subsequent five years as a Taliban prisoner of war. Though I feared season one may have set my standards too high for season two to compete with,  I am currently as impressed with season two as I was season one. Koenig’s distinct style brings the story to light in a similarly engaging way, and any mixed feelings from a listener could likely be less a question of quality and more a question of subject matter preference.

I especially recommend this podcast for anyone with an affinity for crime dramas, journalism, law, politics, extensive research or storytelling. Odds are, at least one of those things applies to you, reader, even if by a stretch. Practically anyone could find something to like in Serial. The only real condition for listening is to play each episode with an open mind. Throughout the series, you’ll be jerked violently between schools of thought or sides of courtrooms, the very turbulence that makes Serial so impactful. But, in that case, what’s the point of the series? Koenig asks this question frequently from episode to episode. My answer thus far is as follows: sometimes, the law is wrong, people are impressionable, cases are messy, stories get lost and things are rarely cut and dry. What makes this so wonderfully frustrating? There are no right answers or wrong answer, just the facts and utter ambiguity. What’s not to love about that?