Love and murder: Insight on the gripping ‘Serial’ podcast

“Serial” is a week-by-week true-crime podcast investigation story

Nabila Pathan

Published: Updated:

It has been widely described as a cultural phenomenon, downloaded and streamed more than five million times since its release. In the past two months it has become the world’s most popular podcast, according to Apple.

“Serial,” is a week-by-week true-crime podcast investigation story, hosted by journalist Sarah Koenig. It re-opens the 1999 murder case of 17-year-old student Hae Min Lee, whose strangled body was found in a shallow grave in Baltimore’s Leakin Park in the United States. Lee’s ex-boyfriend Adnan Syed, also 17, was convicted for the murder and has been serving a life sentence ever since. As Koenig pieces together a more complicated story than what the trial originally produced, the question gripping the podcast listeners is: did Syed really do it?

In the first episode, Koenig explains how the case “On paper...was like a Shakespearean mash-up — young lovers from different worlds thwarting their families, secret assignations, jealousy, suspicion, and honor besmirched ... and a final act of murderous revenge.” Now on episode 8, the “Serial” podcast is piecing together the different characters and details involved in the 15 year old case. Each week, Koenig focuses on different aspects; whether it’s the motive put forward by the prosecution, exploration of Syed’s alibi, or details about the man who found Lee’s body.

The podcast’s overnight success has been a trending topic of analysis across the international media. The salon has noted that for some “it’s the serialization itself, the way Koenig doles out the story to her subscribers one dose at a time, tantalizing them with cliffhangers that leave them craving more.” The Washington Post described the phenomenon as “unusual for both a podcast and a work of journalism, spawning the kind of multimedia chatter and analysis that often surrounds a prestigious HBO drama.”

Rabia Chaudry, a lawyer and family friend of Adnan, has for the past 15 years viewed the case as “weak and set-up.” Describing Adnan as “gentle, kind and thoughtful,” she says she hasn’t “met a person in the entire community who would say he was ever violent.” Committed to Adnan’s innocence, last year, Chaudry, tracked down Koenig and presented her with the case that has consequently inspired the online podcast .

“Serial has been tremendous and all credit is to Sarah and her team. They are showcasing the case for what it is - ambiguous, difficult, fuzzy. [It’s] hard to nail down facts - that’s the reality of the case the state presented...it was.... ambiguous... any decent attorney who had actually prepared a defense could have beat.”

Whilst Chaudry was originally skeptical of the podcast format, speaking to Al Arabiya News she explains: “The show has already had a legal impact by bringing the Innocence Project to the case, prior to this we weren’t able to get a response from them. That’s a major development and I’m really thankful. The Innocence Project has the resources and experience to find evidence that hasn’t been identified before, they are one of our best hopes at exoneration.”

The podcast has been widely applauded for breaking down a complicated story into a storytelling style that includes humor, emotion, as well exploring the process of investigative journalism (biases and flaws) in addition to unfolding facts. Working round the clock to research and deliver each weekly installment, the creators of the podcast themselves remain uncertain of the outcome. Whether audiences agree or not with whatever final outcome “Serial” produces remains to be seen. As hooked audiences continue to tune in every Thursday, the risk remains that the podcast may never answer the definitive question of whether Syed is guilty or not.