Listening to the podcast “Serial”: comprehensive research, or boring and gossipy?

Today, I’ve been listening to the podcast Serial, that now-famous online audio series that’s garnered record numbers of listeners. It has been both praised and reviled in the press.

In recent years, I think that podcasts have taken a back seat to other online media, particularly social media and especially online video. Some reviewers have claimed that Serial has raised the profile of podcasts, attracting loads of new listeners to what was considered an old medium. You know, like from ten years ago, when people still thought iPods were revolutionary.

I’ve enjoyed listening to Serial, but I’ve also found it to be a bit less than formal. It feels unstructured, running along like a continuous conversation that we’re overhearing or listening to from the sidelines. Maybe it’s too conversational in format?

It feels like an editorial piece where the author’s points of view, questions or self-doubts become a major aspect in the story, competing with whatever objectiveness there may be in the story. Despite my concerns,  find myself still listening to it.

The thing is, I’ve loved listening to old-time radio programmes, especially comedies, and detective dramas. The dramas especially tend to put you in the head of the main character, where their thoughts and speech as rendered as equally important. It was first-person, in the “Raymond Chandler” sense.

After listening to the first few episodes of Serial, I found it difficult to stay engaged with the story. There were so many players, people who were involved, or who knew people who were involved, or who might have seen something. I found myself feeling a bit bored at times, drifting off mentally. I began playing episodes while I did other things, picking up the important points, and hoping the rest would just sink in. Maybe all my years of surfing the web for quick answers have destroyed my ability to absorb and enjoy long-form narrative. I’m ready to accept that possibility.

It’s not presented in a sensationalized style at all, but from episode to episode, it’s compelling enough to keep me listening, and like the chapters in a good detective novel, ending with a dangling question – a challenge to the audience – which sets up new mysteries and proposes new possible answers.

I think that many people like to play detective, to listen in on lurid details, gossip-style, and to speculate on all the pieces of a vast puzzle. This format is not unlike the lurid “true crime” detective magazines that you can still see on some magazine racks, and all over the web.

Serial also has a few other marketing and publishing characteristics that have greatly accelerated its popularity: it’s freely available at serialpodcast.org, and being online, it’s easily republished via social media.

Anyway, check it out for yourself, and listen to the first of the 12 episodes:


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