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Considering The 'Serial' Podcast Again Following Release Of Its Subject, Adnan Syed, From Prison After 23 Years

A bearded man in a white shirt and dark tie  leaves a court surrounded by deputies and other people.
Erica Suter, director of the Innocence Project Clinic at the University of Baltimore School of Law and Adnan Syed's attorney, speaks outside a courthouse in Baltimore, Maryland, September 19, 2022.
(Brian Witte
Associated Press)
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It is still unclear whether Serial helped free an innocent man.

What’s irrefutable is that the podcast revolutionized the media landscape.

Do the stories that Hollywood tells about itself really reflect what's going on?

On Monday, Adnan Syed — whose case was the subject of Serial's inaugural season in 2014 — was released from prison after serving 23 years for murdering his former high school girlfriend, Hae Min Lee. Earlier this month, prosecutors said Syed’s conviction should be vacated and he should be given a new trial because “the state no longer has confidence in the integrity of the conviction.”

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Lee’s family, whose loss and whose daughter’s life was not central to Serial, said they were stunned by the news, and received little warning of Syed’s release. Lee’s brother, Young Lee, said in a court hearing on Monday, “This is not a podcast for me. This is real life — a never-ending nightmare for 20-plus years.”

Nonetheless, Serial's investigation into the case, and whether Syed was guilty of the murder, became a hugely popular podcast when it launched in 2014. It helped turn a nascent format into a global phenomenon, and it proved that compelling storytelling could break through all the media clutter, regardless of the familiarity of the platform.

Driven by word-of-mouth recommendations, Serial went from an initially small audience to an average of 20 million episode downloads by the show’s conclusion. How many people recommended the podcast to you? And how many of those exhortations were shared again, creating that logarithmically larger audience?

"I think it's safe to say that Serial had a huge impact on the story, and it had a huge impact on the business as a whole," Nick Quah, a podcast critic for Vulture and the founder of the Hot Pod trade publication, said on KPCC's AirTalk on Tuesday. "And I feel like both of us would not be talking about podcasts without Serial. And so it's quite interesting to take stock of its gravity."

I think it's safe to say that 'Serial' had a huge impact on the story, and it had a huge impact on the business as a whole.
— Podcast critic Nick Quah

Quah pointed out that other journalists and podcasts had followed Adnan's story after Serial, including Undisclosed from Rabia Chaudry.

Eight years after Serial transfixed listeners with a dozen episodes chronicling irregularities in Syed’s case — including the effectiveness of his lawyer, who was subsequently disbarred — there are now at least 2.4 million podcasts, 66 million podcast episodes, with a global audience expected to exceed 420 million listeners by year’s end. (KPCC and LAist Studios produce or collaborate on more than a dozen podcasts currently in production).

In the immediate wake of Serial, between 2015 and 2019, National Public Radio's podcasting revenue grew tenfold; NPR now records more revenue from podcasting than it does from radio.

Serial and subsequent popular shows like S-Town turned the upstart podcast company Serial Productions into a hot property; in 2020, the New York Times bought it for a reported $25 million.

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The podcast’s success can’t be measured just in listeners or profits, though. Serial not only made podcast a household word, but also proved the critical role that journalists can and still play in righting apparent wrongs, and exposing indifference at best and negligence at worst by those in power.

Such investigative work remains a staple of newspapers, magazines and documentary filmmakers (of particular note: The Thin Blue Line (1998), The Jinx (2005), and Paradise Lost (1996).

And now it appears the story of Adnan Syed can be added to the list of delayed justice.

What questions do you have about film, TV, music, or arts and entertainment?
John Horn, entertainment reporter and host of our weekly podcast Retake, explores whether the stories that Hollywood tells about itself really reflect what's going on?

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