The winners and losers of Serial’s first season (Ira Glass is on both lists)

December 18, 2014
Category: Uncategorized

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Spoiler alert: If you haven’t listened to all 12 episodes of Serial, there are many spoilers below.

As the debate rages on Reddit and Twitter about whether Serial ended with a whimper or a wallop, perhaps we can find more agreement about the winners and losers of the remarkably successful podcast.

Here are my picks:

Winners

Adnan Syed — Even though host Sarah Koenig stopped short of saying she believes Syed is innocent of killing Hae Min Lee, Koenig said she would have voted to acquit Syed. His hopes for an appeal clearly got a boost from the series.

To many of us, Syed came across as humble and appealing. He’s not even bitter about his defense attorney, Cristina Gutierrez, who clearly fumbled his case. If his appeal goes forward, his good demeanor can only help.

Mail Chimp — Whatever the company paid for the sponsorship, it was a bargain. The catchy “Mail Chimp-Mail Chimp-Mail…Kimp” at the start of every show elevated the ad campaign to “Got Milk?” status.

Podcasting — Many of us hadn’t downloaded a podcast since the iPod era, when you had to go through the hassle of syncing with your desktop computer to get a new episode. Serial showed that in the days of Wi-Fi, it’s easy to subscribe and download.

Serial is something of a gateway drug, leading many of us to other podcasts. I signed up for the Slate Spoiler series about Serial, as well as Startup, Alex Blumberg’s honest and funny account of his effort to start a new podcasting company.

The Innocence Project — The legal team at the University of Virginia emerged as an interesting group and could be an important player if Syed is successful with his appeals. The head of the Innocence Project, Deirdre Enright, sounds like a cool lady.

Ira Glass — The creator of This American Life and the editorial advisor for Serial has a voice that I find nearly as grating as that of Gutierrez, Syed’s attorney. But he’s a tremendous talent in public radio and digital media. He deserves credit for bringing Serial to life and bringing new energy to podcasting.

Sarah Koenig — Her relentless digging and smart storytelling created a compelling tale that made people set their alarms to hear the newest episode. She’s been criticized by some listeners for being wishy-washy, but I see that as honest reporting.

Transparency in reporting — Serial showed the twists and dead ends of Koenig’s reporting, which made listeners appreciate the challenge of a journalist trying to find the truth. Koenig’s quest provided the narrative backbone for the series even more than the events she was investigating.

Crab Crib — The restaurant on Johnnycake Road was mentioned in a random comment by Koenig’s producer Dana Chivvis, who said as an aside, “There’s a shrimp sale at the Crab Crib.” It became an Internet meme and even spawned T-shirts.

Losers

The Baltimore PD — Can anyone listen to all 12 episodes and come away with the belief that the Baltimore police did a thorough job investigating the case? I doubt it. Koenig conducted the kind of investigation the cops should have done. Where are Bunk and McNulty when we need them?

Cristina Gutierrez — Syed’s lawyer emerged as the most interesting character of the series, even though many questions about the late attorney (she died in 2004) are still unanswered. Why didn’t she talk with the witness who said that Syed was in the library at the time of the crime? And how can you explain her bizarre behavior, such as her urgent demand for a large sum of cash?

Using lots of interviews, powerful anecdotes and recordings of Gutierrez’s screeching voice, Koenig showed the attorney did a poor job defending Syed.

Conventional broadcasting — Serial would have been a great weekly radio show, but other than its premiere, which aired on This American Life, it was only available in the United States as a podcast. That’s a reminder that the on-demand/streaming revolution that is beginning to rock television will soon impact radio. Listeners don’t want to wait for a show — and Serial showed they don’t have to.

Ira Glass — Koenig is now a superstar and he’s going to have to give her a raise.

Bill Adair is the Knight Professor of the Practice of Journalism and Public Policy at the Sanford School of Public Policy at Duke University and the creator and a contributing editor of PolitiFact.

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