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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

‘Serial’ podcast mystifies and hooks listeners

Published: December 5, 2014
Section: Arts, Etc.

This past October, a new podcast “Serial” was released and immediately became a hit. “Serial” is a spin-off of WBEZ’s “This American Life,” which has been on air since 1995. The podcast is released weekly on Thursdays, and is a non-fiction account of one woman’s attempt to uncover the details of a murder that happened 15 years ago.

This woman is Sarah Koenig, a producer at “This American Life.” In the podcast, Koenig is trying to decipher the truth of a real murder case that took place in Baltimore in 1999. Adnan Musud Syed was a 17-year-old high school senior convicted of murdering his ex-girlfriend, Hae Min Lee. Lee was 18 years old when she was murdered on Jan. 13, 1999. The cause of death was manual strangulation.

Koenig learned about the case when Rabia Chaudry, the older sister of Syed’s best friend, sent her an email asking her to look over the case, as she believes he is innocent. Chaudry believes that the lawyer had thrown the case in order to get more money from the appeal. The lawyer has since died, and Syed has been in jail serving his life sentence ever since the trial.

Yet 15 years later, Syed still claims that he is innocent and that he had no reason to kill his ex-girlfriend. Koenig does an excellent job of not jumping right away to believe him and looks at every piece of evidence with an analytical eye.

“On paper, the case was like a Shakespearean mash-up,” Koenig says in the first podcast, “young lovers from different worlds, thwarting their families, secret assignations, jealousy, suspicion and honor besmirched. And a final act of murderous revenge.”

After listening to the first four episodes of this podcast, I am already hooked. While it isn’t exactly a Shakespearean drama, the story is frustratingly complex, yet so simple at the same time. With each episode, Koenig tries to make sense of a certain piece of the case, whether it be the alibi, the crazy story of “Mr. S,” the man who found the body, or the part another suspect may have played.

And I’m not the only one who can’t get enough. “Serial” has exploded, reaching No. 1 on iTunes before it even debuted. And it stayed there. “Combining the drama of prestige-television-style episodic storytelling, the portability of podcasts and the reliability of ‘This American Life’, the show has been, perhaps not surprisingly, ranked at No. 1 on iTunes for much of the past couple of weeks,” said The New Yorker.

Each episode varies in length, usually ranging anywhere from half an hour to a full hour. Each time I am engrossed by Koenig telling her story and am surprised to already hear her say “next time on ‘Serial’,” as the music fades out. The music by Nicholas Thornburn is simple and obviously not the main focus of the show, but it just fits the narrative and Koenig’s voice perfectly.

While the producers of the show had been worried about where the funding for a second season would come from, listeners were so desperate for more that the money needed was donated within one week.

Fans of the show have already dedicated themselves to it, creating a subreddit page for the podcast, even a meme of its sponsor, Mailchimp, calling the meme Mailkimp. “Serial” is a must-listen for anybody who loves podcasts, mysteries or simply good story-telling. It is available for download on iTunes every Thursday morning at 6 a.m. or can be streamed at