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The storytelling and popularity of Serial

A modern spin on a traditional form of storytelling has captured the attention of millions of people around the world.

Like families in the first half of the 1900s who huddled around their living room radios to listen to news, sports, and entertainment, some 1.5 million weekly listeners have tuned in on their computers and mobile devices to listen to Serial, a true crime podcast by This American Life.

The episodic series focuses on a re-examination by journalist Sarah Koenig of the 1999 murder of Maryland high school student Hae Min Lee and the subsequent conviction of Lee’s former boyfriend Adnan Syed. He is currently serving a life sentence.

Serial debuted in October and is presented in weekly episodes, 10 of which have already been released. It averages more than 1.5 million listeners per episode, making it one of the most popular podcasts ever. The series, which has broken records for iTunes downloads and streams, was recently renewed for a second season.

“It takes us back to one of the most basic tenets of storytelling: suspense,” said Dina Kraft, associate program coordinator of Northeastern’s Media Innovation program. “People appreciate a good story well told.”

Kraft, a longtime foreign correspondent whose reporting has included coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the AIDS pandemic in Africa, started listening to Serial soon after it launched. She said Koenig’s approach to crafting the narrative—which involves only touching on some details in one episode and then exploring them more deeply in others—adds to the listener’s “whodunnit” guessing game.

“You really see the power of the storyteller,” Kraft said. “It’s smart that she chose to explore this particular story in serial form, with its compelling characters and uncertainty. It’s hard to resist a murder mystery, but in Koenig’s expert hands the story rises to another level.”

Koenig delves into many aspects of the case, including witness testimonies, alibis, and courtroom scenes. She even gets Syed’s perspective, which he delivers via phone calls from prison.

“This is an educational project meant to ventilate for the public all the complex factors that go into a determination of a person’s guilt or innocence and demonstrate how difficult that is,” said law professor Margaret Burnham. “The educational mission is incredibly valuable.”

Burnham is the founder of the Northeastern School of Law’s Civil Rights and Restorative Justice Project, which addresses harms resulting from the law enforcement breakdown during the civil rights movement. CRRJ students and professors conduct research on anti-civil rights violence from the 1950s to the 1970s by examining documents and interviewing witnesses and officials.

Like Koenig, the CRRJ asks subjects to recollect particular events or days past. But as time goes on memories become hazy, which is why a case cannot be supported solely by witness testimony, Burnham explained.

“Obviously the older a case gets the more difficult it becomes to remember what happened,” Burnham noted. “But a homicide case should never rely on what people recall seeing or hearing about the events. Human observations need to be corroborated by other evidence, such as forensic evidence.”