It’s remarkable that during the season of big awards films, the story that most people I know are genuinely buzzing about is the tale of Hae Min, Adnan and Jay.
If you don’t know those names you aren’t yet addicted to Serial, Sarah Koenig’s weekly podcast that delves - obsessively - into the 1999 murder of a Baltimore schoolgirl, Hae Min Lee.
The podcast is a spinoff of National Public Radio’s This American Life, a popular radio show since 1995. Produced by public radio station WBEZ Chicago and hosted and researched by Koenig, it’s a non-fiction story told week by week “as long as it takes to get to the bottom of it”. Serial has become the most popular podcast in history, with more than 1.5 million listeners per episode (and growing).
I’m somewhat late to the party; as I write this, I’m only a few episodes in but given that it’s hard to stop listening, I’ll probably have caught up on episode 12 by the time this magazine is printed.
Serial’s success is a tribute to the power of storytelling and I’m excited by the feverish excitement around a podcast. No, listening to a podcast won’t replace a trip to the cinema, but there are lessons to be learned for the film-making world from Serial’s success - after all, what film-maker wouldn’t want 1.5 million people paying attention to their film?
Some might say it’s just an update of a Dickens-style cliffhanger or an old radio serial, but Serial feels different. For one thing, the level of listener involvement is huge. It’s spreading like wildfire by word of mouth - I first heard of it when Mike Skinner (aka The Streets) spoke about his obsession during the CPH:DOX conference in early November. Hip friends started asking me if I was listening. Even though I didn’t know if I had 12 hours to spare, I dived in. I’m glad I did.
There is excitement in listening to something that feels like a new format; remember the first time you watched a VHS tape at home, or your first TV box set, or the first time you streamed a Netflix series back to back, staying up until the wee hours of the morning?
So, yes, for me it’s something of a novelty to be hooked on a podcast. Beyond that, part of the must-listen appeal is Koenig’s personal approach to the story, along the lines of how Nick Broomfield doesn’t pretend to be a fly on the wall in his documentaries. This is not straight journalism.
This case is fascinating, but also Serial is not just about a tragic murder. I tune in for Koenig’s explorations of the nature of time and memory, and how anyone can know another person’s character. The drawback for me is the fact that a podcast is usually listened to via a computer or iPod - very much a solo activity. I miss the communal experience. But that’s where the internet comes in.
When people talk about transmedia storytelling, Serial should be the role model. The Serial website (serialpodcast.org) has blogs from the creators, timelines, a map of relationships between the main people in the story, case evidence such as letters and affidavits, and even things like weather reports for the day Lee went missing.
There are Facebook and Reddit groups, and lots of other places online to chat about theories and play armchair detective. Online magazine Slate posts recaps. There are even branded notebooks on which to jot down thoughts.
Listeners quickly committed to a crowdfunding campaign to pay for a second series, without even knowing what story will be told.
Will the mystery of Lee’s killer be solved? I don’t know. But one thing that has been well established is how audiences are rabid for a fresh approach to a compelling story.
The power of words
David Oyelowo is a revelation in Selma.
I had the pleasure of meeting him at a small film festival, RiverRun in North Carolina, about three years ago. I was struck then at what a magnetic speaker he is, you could hear the Royal Shakespeare Company training in his cadence. In Selma, those regal roles of his past come in handy as he plays the best Martin Luther King Jr we could have had on screen.
The UK actor absolutely nails the accent. But more importantly, he has the charisma and confidence of King. The scenes of King’s speeches in Alabama, from churches to the State Capitol Building, are some of the most powerful moments on movie screens this year.
For me, the film wasn’t perfect (the scenes with his wife, Coretta, didn’t quite work), but Oyelowo is certainly the perfect King. And King’s words seem as vital as ever in 2014, as a message for Ferguson or Staten Island or any other place of injustice. As King said in Montgomery, “How long? Not long, because no lie can live forever.”