While television has become the entertainment medium du jour -- bolstered, no doubt, by binge-inducing services like Netflix -- the hysteria surrounding a new podcast called Serial would seem to point to latent opportunities within a storytelling medium that feels both rife with potential and oddly old-fashioned.
Serial, which has held steady at the top of the iTunes charts since its debut last month -- and was the fastest podcast in history to clock 5 million downloads -- has become an undeniable cultural phenomenon. Each of its eight episodes has been downloaded roughly 1.2 million times.
The series recounts the 1999 murder of Baltimore high school student Hae Min Lee, for which her then-boyfriend, Adnan Syed, is serving a life sentence despite some ambiguities in the case.
Serial host Sarah Koenig -- a This American Life producer who became obsessed with the story -- has undertaken her own investigation and is releasing hour-long episodes that depict her team’s findings in near real-time.
"Our hope is that it’ll play like a great HBO or Netflix series, where you get caught up with the characters and the thing unfolds week after week,” explained This American Life creator Ira Glass in announcing the spinoff series. “But with a true story, and no pictures. Like House of Cards, but you can enjoy it while you're driving."
Though podcasting is hardly a new medium, the fervor surrounding Serial -- as well as its unique episodic structure -- has broken fresh ground. In addition to spawning a host of podcasts about the podcast and an avid community of crime solvers on Reddit, everyone from Mandy Moore to David Carr to House of Cards creator Beau Willimon has tweeted about their unbridled enthusiasm for the series.
And while Serial is based on actual events, the acclaim also feels like a bit of a full-circle moment, harkening back to radio’s golden age, where serialized shows were ubiquitous.
Koenig and crew are still in production for Serial’s first season, which is expected to feature roughly 12 episodes. A second season is also likely -- though Koenig has said that it probably won’t focus on a crime story.
Ultimately, however, the show’s wild success would seem to point to new opportunities for content creators, marketers and even audio streaming startups like Audible amid a seeming groundswell in the podcasting industry. “When I first proposed the idea of a serial show that you couldn’t binge on and had to wait for every week, some people thought I was insane,” Koenig recently told New York magazine. “I might still be insane, but at least all my listeners are now crazy with me.”