In the once-small world of podcasting, “Serial” really got people to take notice. Its first season, a twisty tale on the questionable murder conviction of Adnan Syed, introduced millions to podcasting, and inspired others to tell audio stories in the expanding medium.
In its third season, announced today, the Peabody-winning “Serial” is taking a departure — moving from one dominant character to a series of separate but interlocking stories that take on the criminal justice system. (Here's the trailer). Instead of an extraordinary case like Syed’s, this season tracks cases from weed possession and disorderly conduct up to serious felonies. "Serial" surfaces the machinations, and witnesses a flawed system that often results in prison time that doesn’t fit the crime.
Much of the action takes place in one square block — the Justice Center in Cleveland, Ohio, which encompasses the police headquarters, two jails and offices for city and county court systems.
State law permits audio recording in the courts, a gold mine for a podcast. “Serial” recorded pretrials, bench discussions, talks in chambers, attorney’s offices and even discussions in elevators to tell a broader story.
“Cleveland is a big city that in so many ways feels like a small town. This person knows that person. These stories overlap,” Sarah Koenig, the podcast’s host from the start, says in an interview.
“Everyone involved is part of a larger narrative about the city,” says Emmanuel Dzotsi, a former "This American Life" fellow who moved to the Cleveland area and co-reported this season.
Dzotsi, who went to secondary school in Toledo and college at Ohio State, experienced a weird bit of race confusion at the Justice Center. Because he was black and hanging around the courts, attorneys and public defenders just assigned cases occasionally would come up to him and ask him if he was their client.
Both Dzotsi and Koenig, who commuted weekly from her home in central Pennsylvania, found themselves among the relatively few media representatives there, a result of a shrinking journalistic ecosystem. They gained the trust of attorneys and officials, who would tell them, and give them documents, about wild, unjust cases. “We’d hear, ‘Oh my God, you’re not going to believe this one going across my desk,’” Koenig said.
Each episode, they said, focuses on a different stage of the process, from the start to sentencing, a possible plea deal, when you’re out of incarceration, the juvenile system. This season’s executive producer is Julie Snyder, who also created the popular “S-Town” podcast with Brian Reed.
Koenig knows that this season’s departure from a “formula” carries risk.
“I’m aware that there’s a segment of our audience that wants a whodunit. That’s fine. It’s not what I’m interested in. Sometimes, I’m like, 'Will people listen? Will people care?' It’s a more nuanced story. But we say to each other, at the end of the day, ‘We’ve just got to do what we like.’”
The first two episodes drop on September 20, via Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Pandora, Stitcher and Radio Public.
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