Servant of Pod Revisiting The Legacy of Serial
Thu, 4/8 11:03AM • 26:35
podcasts, serial, laughter, people, listening, phenomenon, episodes, fun, season, written, white, crime, feel, reporter, critique, case, investigative, reported, mystery, true
Sarah Koenig, Dan Taberski, Tyler, Sarah Larson, Nick Quah
Sarah Larson 00:01
I don't remember if it was you I've had this conversation with, but I thought of it at some point, I think it's my idea--who knows, who cares--that Serial was the Hamilton of its time. Just the way that everyone fell crazily in love with this thing they might not have expected, plenty of people who were not into Broadway musicals became obsessed with Hamilton. It made people fall in love with it, and just invest in it, in a way that if it had just been like more people were listening to This American Life on their phones, wouldn't have been quite the same thing.
Nick Quah 00:44
In 2014, the first episode of Serial was released. That first season, you might recall, revolved around the murder of Hae Min Lee, and her accused murderer--and ex-boyfriend--Adnan Syed. It would become one of the most successful and influential podcasts in the history of the medium. It's been a little more than six years since its debut. And so much has been said and written about the investigative podcast that changed the industry. But what kind of impact did it really have? From LAist Studios, this Servant of Pod. I'm Nick Quah. This week: looking back on the legacy of Serial with the New Yorker's Sara Larson.
Nick Quah 01:46
So Sarah, what do you think is the first thing that people talk about when they talk about the first season of Serial?
Sarah Larson 01:54
I think the excitement that everybody had that it was happening, and how good it was, and how fun it was--I mean, almost like the phenomenon itself, was as exciting. People were thrilled by it, and they were thrilled to be thrilled by it. And I think that that feeling carried with us for a long time. I was just looking at what I wrote about it, and I went into the studio, the day it was coming out, and I met with them, and I interviewed them, and I saw their maps and all that stuff. And I titled what I ended up writing about it "Serial, The Podcast We've Been Waiting For." [Laughter] And I don't even remember what I had been writing about podcast-wise before Serial. I know I listened to podcasts, but it was like I was presuming that we were all waiting for this amazing podcast, and it'd finally come. But I don't know. I mean, it just made everything explode into people's consciousness. And I think the excitement and the nostalgia of that podcast moment is kind of what its legacy is, in a way.
Nick Quah 03:04
Do you remember what it was like listening to the show for the first time?
Sarah Larson 03:10
I totally do, and it was so exciting! [Laughter] I was housesitting at this beautiful apartment in Brooklyn Heights, this big, sunny place, and I just remember sort of puttering around the apartment doing whatever the hell I was doing--cooking, or something--and just being totally riveted by the sound of this podcast, and the narrative itself, and the way it was being told. And it all felt so inclusive and kind of urgent, and fun, and sympathetic to its subjects. And I mean not fun in a freewheeling way, but it...
Nick Quah 03:49
Sarah Larson 03:50
It felt warm and... yeah, yeah. What about you?
Nick Quah 03:54
I actually don't remember, the first two episodes, of where I was. I do remember that I was in the gym, like a Planet Fitness in Brooklyn somewhere, and I was listening to it and I was like, "Holy ****! What the hell is this?" [Laughter] And I was working in a job I didn't particularly like at the time, and it was kind of a validating moment of like, I had to sheepishly talk about podcasts before this moment, and that was the sort of the first time when I went like, I think I can show this to somebody, and I would not have to explain myself, and this would be somewhat self-evident. So I want to sort of start drawing the lines here of what Serial directly contributed, how it directly contributed, to the podcast world we have today. And I feel like the very first note we have to start talking about is, basically, it is the ground zero of the true crime boom. And I think for a lot, a lot, a lot of people, true crime podcasts are the sort of default mode, I think, for a lot of these casual consumers.
Sarah Larson 04:56
Nick Quah 04:57
When you listen to, I don't know, a Wondery show, or something, or like... [Laughter] Or any of the other true crime podcasts, do you hear that tradition linked back to Serial?
Sarah Larson 05:06
Nick Quah 05:08
How so? How so?
Sarah Larson 05:09
I've been thinking about this so much. When we went into listening to Serial, we brought with us the authority of This American Life, and the great journalism that they have been doing for decades, knowing that we could just trust whatever this was going to be, and also that it would be entertaining. So we didn't really have to worry about... And of course Sarah Koenig had been a journalist in Baltimore, and she had written about this defense attorney, and it came with a lot of authority. And then it was quite fun to be brought into the process of being a detective, with those credentials, re-exploring this old case with very appealing protagonists and victims, and going into that world. So it automatically granted legitimacy to the idea of doing that.
Nick Quah 06:03
Sarah Larson 06:05
And so many podcasts, I don't need to tell you, that came after that did similar things, but did them very shoddily, or did them in a sort of seat-of-the-pants way, but they were not journalists who had worked for This American Life for decades. They were just actually amateur detectives. And I always felt that podcasts that did that, because of the prestige of Serial and This American Life, kind of got some of the prestige of those shows because they were doing a similar thing, even if they were not that quality and were not made by people as skilled, or as credentialed, journalistically.
Nick Quah 06:44
Sarah Larson 06:44
So, to me, that's a problem. And I wouldn't say that it's their fault, of course, but it certainly happened. And it's still happening.
Nick Quah 06:51
So essentially what you're saying is like, the wrong lesson was taken?
Sarah Larson 06:55
Several wrong lessons.
Nick Quah 06:56
Yeah, it's the "Did he or she do it? Did he or she not do it?" questioning.
Sarah Larson 07:00
Nick Quah 07:01
That sort of mania of pontificating, and over-speculating, about somebody's guiltiness or innocence, that is such a constant trope in many, many, many of the true crime shows that have come afterwards. I went back and listened, really listened, to the first three episodes over the weekend before taping this. And I am struck by how the show is still very good. It's still miles away better, better written, better considered. And there are a couple of really important critiques about it, which are, I would argue, critiques that extend to most other single investigative or true crime-esque narrative podcast that came after it, but it is shocking how it is still better than most things that come up today. I don't really know how to wrap my head around that, as to... [Laughter]
Sarah Larson 07:47
What is it that you think makes it better?
Nick Quah 07:50
Part of it is simply how it sounds, right? This thing has a flow that's still pretty rare, I feel. I think a lot of podcasts, particularly narrative ones like this, they don't really have a rhythm to them. The narration is still mechanical; scripts are read, not performed. And also the writing, even listening back to it, it's still sensational, right from the first episode, at the very beginning, when Sarah Koenig asks, "I want you to think about the way you remember things." It's like a magic trick that immediately brings you into this puzzle.
===Excerpt: Serial, Episode 1: “The Alibi”===
Sarah Koenig 08:26
Before I get into why I've been doing this, I just want to point out something I'd never really
thought about before I started working on this story. And that is, it's really hard to account for
your time--in a detailed way, I mean. How'd you get to work last Wednesday, for instance.
Drive? Walk? Bike? Was it raining? Are you sure? Did you go to any stores that day? If so, what
did you buy? Who did you talk to? The entire day, name every person you talked to. It's hard.
Now imagine you have to account for a day that happened six weeks back. Because that's the
situation in the story I'm working on, in which a bunch of teenagers had to recall a day six weeks
earlier. And it was 1999, so they had to do it without the benefit of texts, or Facebook, or
Instagram. Just for a lark, I asked some teenagers to try it.
Sarah Koenig 09:10
Do you remember what you did on that Friday?
No. Not at all. I can't remember anything. [Laughter]
Sarah Koenig 09:18
No. I can't remember anything that far back.
Sarah Larson 09:22
It sort of makes you the detective along with her, or she's putting you in the sidecar of whatever she's doing, and it's kind of a fun place to be. And that's such a smart way to bring us in.
Nick Quah 09:35
Yeah, though as much as I like what they did right off the bat, I do think that one slightly annoying side effect of Serial being the breakthrough podcast is this situation where I think people assume "prestige podcasts" are supposed to sound exactly like this, right?
Sarah Larson 09:52
Yeah, for sure. And another thing that it did, I think unintentionally at first, was that it made the world safe for very in-depth narrative podcasts that don't have a conclusive ending. There are a lot of podcasts that came afterward that don't have a conclusive ending--I don't necessarily want to say what they are, because if people haven't heard them, it's kind of a spoiler. [Laughter]
Nick Quah 10:17
It's like a spoiler? Well, why don't you just give, like, two examples. [Laughter]
Sarah Larson 10:20
Well, like West Cork.
Nick Quah 10:22
Right. Which is a great show. It's from Audible.
Sarah Larson 10:24
Yeah, yeah. And of course Last Seen, which I mean, we all know that nobody has solved this Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum heist, but I feel like there have been more where the answer is just sort of about the mystery of life and the nature of truth. And part of that is that when they started reporting this, I mean, the day that I visited them in the This American Life offices, I think they they felt very confident, or pretty confident, that they were close to figuring it all out. And I don't know how things would be different if they had waited to release it until after they felt that they had done all the reporting.
Nick Quah 10:28
I get the feeling it would have dulled what made the show interesting.
Sarah Larson 10:36
Certainly other podcasts came out that were sort of reported on the fly and "done as we go." And there is that immediacy that it brings.
Nick Quah 11:17
Well, I mean, Missing Richard Simmons was the one that comes to mind, principally, as the "shooting from the hip" style of running...
Sarah Larson 11:24
Nick Quah 11:25
...a narrative investigative piece, almost--investigative is a pretty strong word there.
===Excerpt: Missing Richard Simmons, Episode 1: “Where’s Richard?”===
Dan Taberski 11:29
Why am I doing this? Because that year I got to know Richard made me even more fascinated
than I was when I first proposed that documentary. I think he's important, so much more so than
his goofball public persona lets on. And also, because a lot of people who know him, and whose
lives have been changed by him, they're worried, or angry, or full of grief. Some want to save
him. Some just want to know he's okay. So over the course of this series, I'm looking for
Richard. I'm reaching out in any way I can, and exploring every theory. The goal isn't to drag
him back. It's to find out why someone like him would ditch the world. This is Missing Richard
Sarah Larson 12:14
And Up and Vanished, which was much longer and very, very popular.
Nick Quah 12:20
And much more problematic.
Sarah Larson 12:21
Much more problematic, yeah, and kind of all over the place, but then sort of got credit for solving this mystery, in part because they just stirred up so much stuff.
Nick Quah 12:33
Just so we're all on the same page, Up and Vanished is a true crime podcast hosted by Payne Lindsey, who said he was directly inspired by Serial. It's basically an archetype of what you think about when you think about a true crime podcast: there's a cold case of a missing person--typically a woman, as it is in this case--and then you have this person, a documentarian, going out and trying to solve that cold case. But it's been my understanding that there's some controversy, especially around the first season, about if the show actually did anything to solve cases, right? And there's also some additional controversy around the show being pretty loosey goosey with its accusations.
Sarah Larson 13:12
They sort of rustled around in the bushes enough until things started falling out, but they weren't aware of those things. So I don't think that's an ideal way to create a podcast.
Nick Quah 13:24
Do you feel like a lot of these newer shows--I'm thinking about Up and Vanished, but a bunch of other... Wondery Productions, a lot of true crime pieces, a lot of true crime shows that, I feel like they're kind of like kid gloves sometimes, like, we're not going to criticize these shows, largely because we have to take it as a given that they're kind of Discovery ID-esque, you know?
Sarah Larson 13:49
I mean, we've criticized them. [Laughter] But I mean, I remember when I first heard Dirty John, and Dr. Death, and so on, I was upset, because I did feel that, whatever the strengths of those those shows, which definitely both have great strengths, they were beneficiaries of the Serial prestige, even though they made some production choices that I thought were quite corny.
Nick Quah 14:19
Sarah Larson 14:19
But to people who are just the casual podcast fan, it's like you finish one true crime, you start another, and you don't necessarily...
Nick Quah 14:26
Yeah, well, it's like candy at that point, right? I mean, that's a lot of these--particularly Wondery shows, but also a lot of the true crime shows in general--are structured as sort of candy, like kinetic experiences almost.
Sarah Larson 14:37
And in a way, I mean, I do blame Serial for some of this, because I feel that they should have known--I don't think they could have known how big they would be.
Nick Quah 14:48
Sarah Larson 14:48
I think that surprised everyone. But I do feel that since This American Life was such a powerful phenomenon already, and had such a devoted listener base.
Nick Quah 14:58
Sarah Larson 14:58
And they're so good at producing delicious audio, I think they should have known that this was going to be a big important phenomenon--at least to some extent--and that with great power comes great responsibility. I don't know. [Laughter]
Nick Quah 15:23
Coming up: what future podcasts learned from Serial and its biggest critique.
Nick Quah 15:44
So before we get to what has emerged over the years as the principal critique made against Serial's first season, I want to bring up something you said to me, Sarah, about how the show was kind of a net good for the podcast industry in general.
Sarah Larson 15:58
Yeah. Nate DeMaio, who makes The Memory Palace, told me this, that it sort of lifted all boats, that once all these new people started listening to podcasts, and also the technology was changing around then, right? So people were listening to it in cars, and on commutes, and it exploded for a bunch of reasons that weren't entirely Serial, but that these other legacy podcasts that had been doing such great work for a long time, like 99% Invisible and Memory Palace, suddenly these lists started popping up, which you and I are quite familiar with. [Laughter]
Nick Quah 16:32
We're contributors and conspirators in this industrial complex.
Sarah Larson 16:36
So it was like people wanted more podcasts, and people who had good podcasts that already existed, that had been going on for a while, got some of the enthusiasm.
Nick Quah 16:46
Sarah Larson 16:47
That's a great part of its legacy.
Nick Quah 16:49
So let's get to this critique. The most striking one, at least in my opinion, comes from The Awl, which was this great—gone, but not forgotten—independent publication. The piece was called "White Reporter Privilege," which argued that one of the things that made Serial so effective is this situation where the narrative perspective comes from a journalist who's walking into this case and into these communities of color, and is just stumbling through, trying to solve this mystery in a really human way. Which, you know, is the thing that I really love about it. That's also a strong expression of the privilege that comes with whiteness. So Sarah Koenig, who's white, is uniquely able to tell the story in this way because she's able to walk in with all the benefits and protections that comes with her whiteness, and that causes some clumsiness around race, and culture, and ethnicity. It affects the things that she focuses on. And ultimately, all of those things lead to this situation where, I don't know, as a listener of color, one might have anxieties about whether this white person's able to really read the context of the case correctly, you know? And so I thought about this piece a lot. And I feel like I've internalized it for years, and years, and years now. And I feel like I've ultimately ended up in a place where I don't meet the critique all the way. Because I don't think those differences in race and culture are necessarily determinative in a white reporter's ability to read a situation. And also, if pressed, I still think she ended up closer to the truth than not.
Sarah Larson 18:24
Yeah. To its credit, on race, I think, so many true crime stories, as we know, are about white women. Sort of like, it won't generate interest if it's not about, you know, a young white school teacher who disappeared one night. And I do think part of the appeal was getting to know this incredibly cool, interesting community of smart AP kids in this town, Some of them first-generation Americans, very diverse, maybe not like the high school that we went to. I mean, a lot of high schools are not very diverse. They're, as we've learned in Nice White Parents and perhaps in life, they tend to be somewhat segregated. And so even though, yeah, it was a white reporter going into this world of mostly non-white people, I'm glad that it was not about white people, the show that kicked off all this stuff was about a different community. Maybe it should have had a Muslim reporter too.
Nick Quah 19:33
Yeah, absolutely. But there's also this uneasiness, because you could argue that there would not be a lot of Muslim reporters who would have had this opportunity, right? So that's always been what I understood to be the core structural critique of that first season.
Sarah Larson 19:49
Nick Quah 19:49
That, yes, even though it's covering multiple communities of color, it's still doing so from the vantage point of this white person looking in, as an interloper. So, aside from maybe having a reporter of color actively working on the story or something, what else would you have wanted from that first season of Serial?
Sarah Larson 20:10
You know, it seemed like there were a few threads that weren't quite right. And that because it's the iconic podcast, and then it just sort of became the iconic account of that story, I wish they had gotten it a little bit more right. And I don't quite understand why they were so definitive about stopping when they stopped. And they had those follow-up episodes, and those kind of stopped too.
Nick Quah 20:38
Sarah Larson 20:38
I wish the first season had been kind of 10% more reported, and more concluded, and more, you know, as accurate as possible.
Nick Quah 20:48
So I think one of the natural successors of Serial that really did that follow-through was In The Dark, especially in that second season with Curtis Flowers. I mean, they covered his whole case until his release from prison, which was aided in large part by the reporting.
Sarah Larson 21:04
That was incredible. Yeah.
Nick Quah 21:06
I kind of see that as one of the greater aspects of the legacy.
Sarah Larson 21:10
Nick Quah 21:11
Sarah Larson 21:12
Nick Quah 21:12
Do you like that kind of genre show, usually?
Sarah Larson 21:16
Oh, absolutely. I mean, I don't even really know what the genre of In The Dark is, beyond "In The Dark," because I feel like they just did everything so well, including the first season, which was so beautifully done. And it really dug into so many different phenomena; rewards to the public for information, and sheriff's departments and whether they communicate with one another, and kind of from the beginning, it set out to be about the system more than about the mystery. And the mystery happened to be solved. It had a totally different relationship to the mystery than Serial did. But it also had different aims. They were able to move to Curtis Flowers's town, and just live among the locals, and really get to know... they were able to really do it justice, and go into those musty, awful basements dripping with God knows what to look into moldy files. And they really just reported it to the nth degree.
Nick Quah 22:27
Sarah Larson 22:27
To an incredible effect. And we still don't know what happened at Tardy Furniture that day, but it's about the miscarriage of justice for Curtis Flowers. I mean, they certainly did a great job with reasonable doubt.
Sarah Larson 22:41
Which also, I have to say, Serial did.
Nick Quah 22:43
I feel like even though it's been six years, and there have been so many more shows that have made an impact since then, Serial is still on this pedestal. Do you think it's worthy of that pedestal?
Sarah Larson 22:55
Absolutely. Yeah. I mean, it brought together a whole bunch of phenomena that were waiting to be discovered and fully realized, like the public's appetite for detail, and for the idea, even, of serializing a story and stretching it out.
Nick Quah 23:14
Yeah, again, was not done before that moment.
Sarah Larson 23:17
Well, it wasn't done in podcasts, because podcasts were just figuring themselves out. But I remember they had, when I went into their office, they had this little piece of art that was sort of an old film poster, or an old pulp fiction kind of poster, and I think that the font that they used for Serial came from that poster. And it was sort of evoking the fun of those cliffhanger types of stories. And that was part of what they wanted to do. Again, I hate to use the word "fun," because it's about an unbelievably sad situation. But no, I think they did a lot of things beautifully, and I'm grateful that they did. I just, in hindsight, you can kind of see what the flaws were. And those flaws got carried through the rest of the phenomenon, which has now exploded into billions of podcasts.
Nick Quah 24:09
Yeah, which takes those same troublesome tropes into their own success.
Sarah Larson 24:14
Nick Quah 24:15
So, I hate this word, but what do you think is the best way to acknowledge and appreciate the legacy of Serial's first season?
Sarah Larson 24:25
That's such a... I don't know, exactly, but part of it has to do with understanding the strange power of the intimacy of the podcast, and the fact that you can hone in on whatever the podcast is about and the people within it, and make this strange phenomenon out of it that people might end up getting obsessed with. I mean, that happened with S-Town, it happened with Missing Richard Simmons, it happens with plenty of things. And it can kind of turn into an invasion of privacy of people's lives. I mean, if you're making entertainment-slash-information out of people's pain, you need to be very aware of what you're doing and very careful about what you're doing.
Nick Quah 25:11
This is not a conversation that can be resolved in half an hour or however long--25 minutes? [Laughter] But I want to thank you so much for just sitting with me on this and helping me unpack this.
Sarah Larson 25:22
Oh, my pleasure.
Nick Quah 25:24
I suspect this is an unsatisfying episode for our producers to cut, but... [Laughter]
Sarah Larson 25:31
We didn't even say "shrimp sale at the Crab Crib!"
Nick Quah 25:35
That's where I cut. [Laughter]
Nick Quah 25:45
Servant of Pod is written and hosted by me, Nick Quah. You can check out more episodes at laist.com/servantofpod. The show is produced by Andrea Asuaje, James Trout, and John Perotti at Rococo Punch. Web design by Andy Cheatwood and the digital and marketing teams at Southern California Public Radio. Logo and branding by Leo G. Thanks to the team at LAist Studios, including Kristen Hayford, Taylor Coffman, Kristen Muller, and Leo G. Servant of Pod is a production of LAist Studios.