To Podcast or Not to Podcast?

And does anyone listen to those things, anyway?


The first question that came to mind when I contemplated putting together a weekly podcast: Is it worth my time?

Case in point: Turn around wherever you’re reading this column and ask the person next to you if s/he ever listens to podcasts. Most will say no. Some will ask what a podcast is, even though they’ve been around almost as long as blogs and certainly as long as iPods (out of which the word “podcast” evolved) — we’re talking somewhere around 2004, more than a decade ago.

And yet, most people don’t have a clue what they are. For the ones that do, the  concept of podcasting is so eye-rolling they probably didn’t make it this far into the column or didn’t get past the headline. The only thing that kept some of you reading was the prospect of picking up even the tiniest morsel of new information about Serial.

Serial is the National Public Radio-produced podcast that swept the country last fall in a media tidal wave. The series, hosted by Sarah Koenig (one of the producers of NPR’s This American Life), delved into the facts behind the 1999 murder of Hae Min Lee, a Baltimore high school student who went missing before turning up buried in a city park. 

Throughout the course of Serial‘s 12 episodes — one new episode was released each week beginning Oct. 3 — we met the guy convicted of the crime, Lee’s ex-boyfriend Adnan Masud, who is either completely innocent or the most charming sociopath since Dr. Hannibal Lecter. The difference, of course, is that unlike Lecter, Adnan Masud is a real person, rotting away somewhere right now in a state prison. 

Serial already had finished its run by the time I got swept up in the hype. So many people were talking about the podcast in the media and on Facebook that I had to at least try to listen to an episode to see what the fuss was about. I got hooked in the first 10 minutes, and by the end of the first episode had committed to binge-listen to the entire series over the next two days. Though the series was criticized for producer and narrator Koenig’s inability to tie up all (or any) of the story’s loose ends, listeners got more than enough info to draw their own conclusions. 

If you’re a fan of true-crime detective stories, you really need to seek out Serial. Despite the 15-year gap since the murder, Koenig brings the dreadful story to life thanks to countless interviews with Lee’s classmates and friends, the suspects and the legal experts, as well as recounting all the testimony that led up to the trainwreck of a trial. All the while, Koenig weaves in her personal take on every bit of evidence as she desperately tries to get to the truth — or at least the truth she wanted to hear. The jury is still out as to whether Serial was a podcast about a murder case or a journalist’s obsession with finding the truth.

Before Serial went online I pretty much ignored podcasts. The only one I listened to regularly was The Dan Patrick Show, which isn’t so much a podcast as a recording of the former ESPN anchor’s daily radio broadcast, which I miss because it airs while I’m at work. But the fact is, most of the top podcasts aren’t created exclusively as podcasts. Six of the 10 most downloaded podcasts in 2014 were NPR radio shows like Fresh Air, hosted by Terry Gross, and the amazing Radiolab from WNYC. 

If you look at those statistics, it’s easy to conclude podcasts are merely a convenient way to listen to what you missed hearing on the radio. Serial, which never aired on NPR, was and is the game changer. The series became the fastest downloaded podcast in the history of iTunes, with more than 5 million downloads, according to an article in last weekend’s edition of The Independent that talked about new ways to listen to podcasts. 

Because after all, isn’t that podcasts’ biggest problem? People don’t know how to use them or where to find them, even though every smart phone is equipped to bring podcasts right to their earbuds. 

Another problem — podcasts require listeners’ time and attention. Unlike a printed article that can be skimmed over in a few minutes, a podcast demands listeners pay attention for an extended period of time — more time than it would take to simply read the content. And podcasts require focus — you can’t soak in a podcast while clicking around on the internet or watching TV, but you can listen to them while driving to work or making dinner or going for a run, which is when I listen the most.

What I learned from Serial is that if the content is compelling enough, people will obsessively seek it out and find it. Lord knows I did. So much so that it inspired me to create a music-focused podcast for The Reader, which, if everything goes as planned, will be available every Wednesday at thereader.com. 

The podcast’s reporting, recording and editing is easy. Listening to myself over and over during the editing process is hard. Painfully so. Perhaps the only thing harder is finding fresh content every week. Certainly that is a problem for Serial

After Season 1 concluded, Koenig asked listeners to speak up if they wanted a Season 2. The response was overwhelming, and NPR quickly agreed to sponsor another season. But as of just a few weeks ago, Koenig had yet to identify a topic for her next story. It would be a shame if the Serial serial left us without another cliffhanger.

Over The Edge is a monthly column by Reader senior contributing writer Tim McMahan focused on culture, society, music, the media and the arts. Email Tim at tim.mcmahan@gmail.com


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