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‘Serial’: An investigative journalism podcast becomes a cultural obsession

Rabia Chaudry had never listened to a podcast until “Serial.” Now, every Thursday morning, the first thing she does before getting out of bed is pick up her phone and start streaming the latest episode.

It’s not what Chaudry envisioned when she contacted Sarah Koenig last year in the hopes that the journalist would revisit a 15-year-old murder case. Chaudry had stumbled upon Koenig’s long-ago reporting for the Baltimore Sun, and thought some new coverage — or “something like ‘Dateline’” — might help free her younger brother’s friend, Adnan Syed, who is serving a life sentence plus 30 years for murdering his ex-girlfriend, Hae Min Lee.

Koenig, who had since gone to work for public radio, was intrigued, and the seeds for “Serial” were planted. But Chaudry had second thoughts. “I didn’t listen to podcasts and I didn’t know how big they were,” she recalled. “I actually thought: Should I really go with a radio story? I wonder if this is the right thing to do; maybe this won’t have such a big impact. Who’s going to listen to this?”

The answer turned out to be: a lot of people. Chaudry isn’t the only one with a first-thing-Thursday appointment with the multi-part true-crime investigation. “Serial,” produced by “This American Life” and WBEZ Chicago, has reigned supreme on iTunes’ top podcast list since it launched Oct. 3, each episode downloaded or streamed at least 1.2 million times — though that could include multiple listens by some avid followers. Unusual for both a podcast and a work of journalism, it has blossomed into a minor watercooler event, spawning the kind of multimedia chatter and analysis that often surrounds a prestigious HBO drama.

The crime dates back to Jan. 13, 1999, when Lee, a Woodlawn High School senior, disappeared. Her body was found less than a month later in Baltimore’s infamous Leakin Park; she had been strangled. Koenig introduces the story in the first episode as “a Shakespearean mash-up”: Lee’s parents emigrated from South Korea, Syed came from a devout Muslim family with Pakistani roots, and the teens kept their eight-month relationship a secret from their parents. Classmates in a magnet program, they remained on good terms after their breakup — a sticking point for those who doubt Syed’s guilt. The prosecution painted Syed as a jealous, scorned lover and relied heavily on testimony from one of his drug-dealing friends.

Each week, Koenig zeroes in on one element of the case — the prosecution’s alleged motive, Syed’s alibi, the man who found Lee’s body — and tries to untangle a mess of details and characters, many of whom have only foggy memories of what they were up to on a particular day 15 years ago. So far, we’ve learned, among other tidbits, that the man who found Lee’s body had a history of flashing; Syed was dating another girl by the time Lee was murdered; a potentially damning phone call was made from Syed’s phone the day of Lee’s disappearance, at a time he claims he was at track practice; and the crusading Innocence Project has become involved in Syed’s case.

As Koenig uncovers evidence, she also lets listeners in on the process of investigative journalism. She has conversations with herself as she weighs new evidence, all of which sounds familiar to Baltimore Sun crime reporter Justin George. He helped Koenig with a bit of reporting (he shows up in episode three) and wrote a story last month about how Syed’s family has been affected by his incarceration.

“The things that she’s saying on the radio are the things maybe a print reporter would be saying in the newsroom — this kind of talking out loud: This is what I think. Does this make sense? But that doesn’t end up in the finished product,” George said. “As she’s discovering new things, the listeners are discovering new things.”

Koenig is an amiable narrator, not to mention a phenomenal detective. She has broken down a complicated tragedy and distilled it into a coherent narrative while injecting humor and emotion into her storytelling. She’s also honest, apologizing for bad quality on some recordings and admitting to certain biases. Sometimes it seems like she wants Syed to be innocent, other times she wonders aloud if he’s a sociopath, but she doesn’t have the evidence to prove either.

And that’s because, for all of the work she’s done over the past year, each installment gets us no closer to a definitive truth, at least thus far. That helps to explain the fanaticism. Everyone is desperate to know: Did Syed do it?

Koenig still isn’t sure. And what’s more, she isn’t certain she’ll ever find out. While she spent about a year doing research for the series, she’s still producing episodes only about a week ahead of broadcast — which is one reason she declined to be interviewed. So as episode eight comes out, she’s working on episode nine. That sounds like a lot of pressure, but it’s what the four-woman team (plus Ira Glass, who serves as editorial adviser) knows best.

“We all come from the ‘This American Life’ side where we are used to deadlines,” said Emily Condon, the show’s production manager. “We are weekly or biweekly broadcasters so that is how we work. A lot of it was just to bake deadlines into the production cycle.”

The investigation is still ongoing as Koenig continues to report out the story. And while the team behind “Serial” thinks there will be 12 episodes in season one, it’s hard to say for sure.

“At any point that could change, if we come across something big that we haven’t anticipated for instance,” Condon said.

So in the meantime, we just wait for Thursday. But as with other habit-forming series, we don’t have to wait alone. For the first time, a podcast has elicited the same cottage industry of recappers and analysts that have sprung up around TV shows like “Game of Thrones” and “True Detective.” There’s a podcast in response to the podcast, on Slate, not to mention quizzes and parodies. Meanwhile, a “Serial” subreddit has become a destination where listeners with a heightened sense of familiarity — they call Koenig SK for short — debate the tiniest details, hoping for the eureka moment that reveals whether Syed actually belongs in North Branch Correctional Institution in Western Maryland.

But as a pop culture obsession, “Serial” is an outlier, not because it’s a podcast, but because it’s a true story. And that raises a host of questions, including: How are we supposed to talk about this? Fans use the language of popular television; they talk of bingeing and addiction and fear of spoilers. Yet Hae Min Lee is not Laura Palmer. She was an actual teenager. That gets to Chaudry sometimes. The immigration lawyer has been invested in this very real case for years.

“There’s so much, ‘oh my gosh, I’m hooked, I’m addicted’ that at some point you feel yourself cringing a bit,” she said. “But at the same time, I can’t be thankful enough for the amount of attention.”

Chaudry admits that, if it wasn’t for the entertainment value of the show, people wouldn’t find it as compelling. So is “Serial” entertainment or journalism?

George has seen both sides — Koenig’s reporting, which he said was dogged, and also the blog posts and stories that have followed, some accusing the show of sensationalizing a real murder.

“But I would ask, how is this different from a lengthy New Yorker piece, just in segments?” George said. “Is it journalism? Absolutely. But are you trying to draw the reader or listener in? Sure.”

It’s working, and that’s why George and Chaudry have found themselves responding to curious fans. That’s another difference with “Serial.” When people wanted to clarify a plot point from “Breaking Bad,” they couldn’t just direct-message Walter White. Listeners pose questions to Chaudry on Reddit and Twitter, and she tends to respond or jump in on threads when she wants to clarify something. She’s in awe of the ways Redditors have helped with the case — drawing maps and tracking down information about where a payphone might have been. One user even typed up a transcript of the show to send to Syed, who isn’t able to listen to the podcast in prison. (He also doesn’t know the extent of the popularity, although according to Chaudry, one of his fellow inmates showed him an article about the show from Rolling Stone.)

It’s possible even that Koenig and her team are getting leads from Reddit or other listeners, although Condon couldn’t comment on that since the investigation is still ongoing.

But at the same time, the threads can be disheartening for Chaudry, who admits she’s looking at all of the evidence through a lens of Syed’s innocence. Some listeners hear the podcast and believe Syed is exactly where he belongs.

“After the first week, I realized it was kind of unhealthy for me to be up in it,” she said. “I needed to kind of step out.”

George, meanwhile, is receiving emails from listeners who want scoops, including more information about a character named Jay, the person who implicated Syed back in 1999. The gist of one email was: I know Koenig is going to talk about it in the next episode, but I can’t wait.

“I didn’t respond,” George said with a laugh. “I don’t have an answer to that.”

That’s what happens when you become a character in a popular story, real or fictional.

“I almost feel kind of hurt because I have more Facebook posts about me being on ‘Serial’ than some of the better stories that I’ve written,” George said. “I think I had about five sentences in episode three.”

That’s to say nothing of the characters who might prefer to remain anonymous. So far in the series, Koenig hasn’t mentioned talking to Lee’s family; George, who helped with the search, isn’t aware that anyone has been able to find them. In the comments section of a Vulture story about the podcast, a reader posted a link to the Facebook page of Jay. One of the threads on Reddit has a list of all the characters, some with links to photos. You start to wonder if the interest in “Serial” may go the way of the witch hunt that wrongly identified the Boston Marathon bomber.

Chaudry has tried to exert control on the conversation by writing about the show on her blog, Split the Moon. After each episode, she adds her own information and also responds to other coverage of the show. She recently wrote a post about Slate’s podcast — “Serial Spoiler Special” — which she felt was too flip in its reaction to the latest episode. That installment of “Serial” dealt less with digging for information than with the news that the Innocence Project — the national litigation non-profit that seeks to exonerate the wrongly-convicted — would be looking into Syed’s case. Slate’s writers expressed disappointment in the episode for veering from the more thrilling detective work. This infuriated Chaudry. On her blog, she fired back: “Basically everyone is really disturbed that their precious time was wasted with the irrelevant detail of THE INNOCENCE PROJECT TAKING THE CASE.”

“I hope I wasn’t too harsh in my response,” Chaudry said. “I just want people to be respectful of the fact that it’s not like the latest episode of ‘True Detective.’ And dismissing it as, ‘I was kind of bored?’ You have to elevate the conversation a bit more.”

But even Chaudry is caught up in the cultural implications of being part of a hit show. For example, she knew that the Innocence Project was circling Syed’s case and could have blogged about that, but she chose not to. Although she doesn’t put it in quite these words, she admits that she doesn’t want to be responsible for spoilers.

“I’m trying to honor their work,” she said. “It’s not like I have an agreement with them, but I appreciate what they’ve done and what they’ve created and the incredible amount of work they’ve put in.”

Whatever happens with this season is a big question mark, but the success of “Serial” likely means more seasons to come. Its title is meant to refer to the nature of the show and not murder (Koenig says that future seasons could have nothing to do with crime), so it will be interesting to see whether a new topic can keep listeners hooked. In the meantime though, the producers behind “Serial” have created a show that encourages rabid appointment listening and sustained curiosity.