With ‘Serial’, the podcast grows up

If you’re a public radio fan, you probably already know about Serial, the podcast from the creators of This American Life. It’s been the #1 podcast on iTunes since two weeks before it started, supplanting This American Life.

The series explores the 1999 killing of Hae Min Lee, a popular high-school senior in Baltimore. Her ex-boyfriend, Adnan Syed, is serving time for her murder.

If reported traditionally, it’s just another murder with just another person serving time who says he didn’t do it.

But it isn’t reported traditionally. Every Thursday, Serial issues another podcast, featuring host Sarah Koenig tackling another angle in the story. But here’s the thing: We hear the reporting of the story as she does it, not after she’s finished all the reporting and determined whether it’s a story or not — at least in the traditional sense.

“We have a sense of where we might be going but because we’re still reporting it, we’re open to the idea that it could be entirely wrong and we could take a hard left turn at some point in another direction,” producer Dana Chivvis told NBC News. “We would love to know what happened—whatever that truth is. By the end, Sarah has said she wants the listener to feel they’ve finished a really good book or they were engrossed by the world of the book or the story itself. We’d love to know this is exactly what happened. But if that doesn’t end up happening, I don’t think we’re going to feel dissatisfied.”

The podcast changes the definition of what journalism is — blurring the line between entertainment and “news”, but in a productive and meaningful way.

We may find out at the end that Syed did it. Or maybe that he didn’t. Or maybe we’ll just hit a dead end, since plenty of people in the story won’t talk to Koenig, and the lawyer who represented the then-young-man accused is dead.

At the end of the “story”, we may find that there is no story beyond the thoughts of a person as she tries to report it. And maybe — and this is so public radio — that’s the story.

“The level of stress and anxiety and discomfort that I have lived with for the last year just thinking about this story, I don’t understand how [criminal lawyers] do it all the time,” says Koenig. “If I’ve learned nothing else, I’m glad I’m not a lawyer.”

How obsessed are people with Serial? This obsessed:

No lie. The podcast has actually spawned a podcast about the podcast.

It’s also a regular Google hangout.

“It would be great to do a story and get somebody who is innocent out of jail,” Koenig tells Time. “That’s a wonderful thing. That said, I don’t think that’s necessarily what I’ve got here. At all.”

But it’s not yet clear what she does have other than a hit.

Can we handle a story that ends with “beats me”?