Following my visit to Barcelona, I wrote that I started listening to podcasts and made a few suggestions. These were humorous podcasts, all of which I’ve been listening to this day. Like an addict. However, not all podcasts I listen are comedy and I did promise more suggestions. It’s time to deliver.
Enter Serial, a podcast hosted by Sarah Koenig, and produced by the team that also created the award winning podcast called This American Life. Fun fact, when I mentioned I was listening to podcasts, a colleague told me about This American Life. When I started listening to Serial, I already knew about it without listening to it! Anyhow, in their words, “Serial unfolds one story — a true story — over the course of a whole season. The show follows the plot and characters wherever they lead, through many surprising twists and turns. Sarah won’t know what happens at the end of the story until she gets there, not long before you get there with her.”
Apparently, the podcast was more successful than expected, earned yet another Peabody to producers. There is criticism of course, especially when it comes to ethical side of things. It’s an interesting subject: Is she allowed to uncover so much? In the end, there are laws and protocols on investigations, the hot modern topic of privacy etc. But also, there are screw-ups, cover-ups and in the end, it’s not like she’s hacking into secret files: She investigates to discover the truth she doesn’t know.
Serial episodes are narrated by Koenig, who is objective by being openly subjective: She will openly say that she may be biased on some things. She will admit she thought in a certain way for whatever personal reason. She will interpret things and share her chain of thought without being strongly opinionated. She has her opinions, but she doesn’t try to manipulate or coerce you. Obviously this means her investigation may have some biases that aren’t visible to us (e.g she may try harder to find clues to justify the way she thinks) but I’ve trusted her enough not to believe she’d do it consciously. I think that you could listen to the podcast and just disagree. She leaves that door open.
The podcast isn’t just Koenig speaking: She will record her chat with relative people and include those. Sometimes the voices will be altered and names will be changed for privacy on request of the interviewees. Other times, Koenig herself will simply tell us what was spoken.
Koenig is articulate and in her voice you can always hear a hint of curiosity. I think this is one of the best and most connecting parts of Serial: She’s there with you. Trying to understand. Trying to discover. Trying to make sense of things. Every time I listen to Serial, I feel like calling her and joining the investigation.
Of course, the most obviously interesting part of the podcast are the stories: Season 1 is about the murder of a teenager called Hae Min Lee, from Baltimore, in 1999. Her ex-boyfriend Adnan Syed was charged a life sentence for the murder, but the case on him doesn’t seem well-done. Season 2, which I just started listening, is about the USA soldier Bowe Bergdahl, who disappears from a camp in the middle of a dangerous region in Afghanistan and gets kidnapped by Taliban. 5 years later, he’s returned, but circumstances of his disappearance is foggy. Season 3, I’ll let you read because I don’t want to get curious before I’m done with Season 2.
One other thing that I like about this podcast is simply discovering human mind and psyche. We always think we are logical, but we aren’t. We know that already: We talk about cognitive biases, we talk about emotions, mental health… There are many dimensions to it. But we are rarely mindful of these things. We judge ourselves and others quickly while not realizing the different sides of a coin for each situation. “What a stupid decision” for someone is “I did what I was forced to” for someone else and “He’s evil” from yet another perspective. More importantly, we only know ourselves. We only judge from our side. And that’s where Serial shines. During her investigation, you’ll hear people talk about their side, surprisingly genuine. You’ll hear them realize their mistakes. Realize what a bad decision something was in hindsight when it looked very different at the time.
There is a lot to talk about Serial, especially about the episodes, but I’m only here to give you a suggestion. If you are going on a train ride, if you have a flight somewhere or simply a long enough time to work, give Serial a chance for a couple episodes. Let Koenig grab you by the ear, let it turn into an embrace and soon you’ll find yourself craving for more. And hopefully, you’ll understand more about people and about yourself.