Saturday, April 4, 2015

Serial Listeners with Serious Sadz

In October of 2014, WBEZ Chicago launched a podcast hosted by Sarah Koenig called Serial. In a similar fashion to This American Life, which shares creators with the piece, Serial  is a human interest story. Unlike TAL, however, Serial (as its name suggests) is a serialized program: twelve episodes that chronicle, in nearly real-time, one story over a season. The show's current plans are to cover a completely new story in each subsequent season.

Season one, a huge success in terms of numbers of regular listeners and downloads, centers on a murder investigation and the conviction of 18-year-old Adnan Syed in Baltimore, Maryland, in 1999.

According to Sarah, she is contacted by Syed's best friend's older sister (complicated, I know), who has learned of her work on a piece exposing Syed's former defense attorney (now deceased) for, essentially, throwing cases that will be easy to win, in order to make more money in appeals.

The source insists they meet so that she can give Ms. Koenig the details of Syed's case. She believes that the attorney intentionally lost the case because of the omission of some major pieces of evidence and at least one eye-witness who can verify Syed's alibi during the time of the murder. Koenig takes the bait, travels to Baltimore, and immediately wraps her audience into the murder case of Hae Min Lee.

Hae was a high school senior at the time of her disappearance on January 13, 1999. She was popular, well-loved by teachers, classmates, and the community; by all accounts, Hae was a wonderful young girl with a bright future ahead of her. At the time of her death, she had taken a break from a relationship with her secret love-interest Adnan Syed. Cultural restrictions from both teens' families did not allow them to openly date, and the stress of the secrets eventually broke the two up and pushed them back into a friendship. While there is nothing to suggest that the relationship or the break up were the cause of great emotional distress for either Hae or Adnan, it is the relationship that places Syed at the center of the investigation as suspect #1 when Hae's body is discovered buried in a park three weeks after she disappears from school.

Without giving away too many of the details, let's just say that the case is complicated. In each of the twelve mind-boggling episodes, Koenig guides listeners through the case. A good majority of the story is told by Adnan himself, currently serving a life sentence in a federal penitentiary without the possibility of parole. He is now thirty-three years old. Syed and Koenig form an interesting friendship. For much of the season, it is impossible to imagine this man could be responsible for the brutal murder of young Hae. He is too open, too honest. His voice is steady; his story is logical.

Syed's conviction was essentially the work of one star witness: Jay. By Jay's account, he knows Syed as Hae's murderer because HE (Jay) helped him bury the body. But Jay is a bit of a pathological liar. A small time drug dealer, his motivation behind covering up the crime initially has much to do with saving his own ass. Jay takes the stand at trial and recounts minute by minute what happened that day. Except his story keeps changing.

A lot about the case keeps changing. There are witnesses who come in and out of the picture, cell phone records that (being 1999) may or may not be reliable, a strange call that is supposed to have been placed from a pay phone at the local Best Buy -- a phone which neither Best Buy nor the pay phone company have record of having been in service, or even in existance -- and then there are the notes (both present and not) from police and attorney interviews. The whole thing is brain-bending.

In the final episode, Koenig reviews the case. She outlines the witnesses, the statements made/recounted/made by each. She physically drives the timeline for the murder just to see if the story which sent Adnan to prison is plausible. She talks about her work with a group of attorneys who are looking into re-opening the case against Adnan Syed. And then, she ends the show. There is no resolution. It is unclear as to whether or not Adnan is guilty. There are so many unknowns, so many unanswered questions, missing links. The audience yearns for more. But they'll never get it.

What's interesting about Serial's end is that it's not really the end. The story portion of the show -- the one where we as a group learn about Syed and Lee and all of the players in this twisted and very confusing tale -- is over. Next season, Serial will be entirely new. It is assumed that we will not return to the case. However, as a national story Syed's case has just begun. He is a real person. This is not fiction. These witnesses, Jay specifically, are beginning to speak out about the case again. Jay gave an intense interview telling his side of the story just a few months after the start of the podcast. He wanted to be shown in a different light. He wasn't some drug-dealing thug. And he wasn't a liar. He WAS a scared kid who was afraid of going to jail for selling a little weed. And that interview, for many listeners, altered the way they heard Syed's voice over their speakers.

Much like the radio dramas of old, podcasts offer viewers a unique experience with an audio text. They insist that the audience provide its own visual understanding. The age of the internet certainly allows for "real" visuals to be obtained, but body language and physicality is omitted. The voices of the characters must be taken for what they are -- their intonations and nuances ripe for the picking. In a culture that is only beginning to recover from its love affair with reality television, reality podcasts like Serial offer readers a new addiction, grounded in reality, with more drama than the Kardashians and a lot less Bruce Jenner. Well, at least in the first season.

Listen to the podcast here to form your own opinion about the case:

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