Culture Vulture

Hooked on storytelling magic of serialised podcasts

Co-workers at San Francisco start-up Storehouse attending a Serial podcast listening party at lunchtime. The non-fiction murder mystery has been given a new lease of life through the podcast, which has become so popular it is topping the charts in th
Co-workers at San Francisco start-up Storehouse attending a Serial podcast listening party at lunchtime. The non-fiction murder mystery has been given a new lease of life through the podcast, which has become so popular it is topping the charts in the US, Australia, Germany and even Singapore.PHOTO: STOREHOUSE

Serialised podcasts are so gripping and addictive that I now hit the treadmill to binge-listen to them

Call me a masochist, but I recently set myself a goal to run 800km in total mileage before the end of the year.

It is a project that was sparked off back in June, to shed some weight for my upcoming wedding. I was on track to reach my target until the haze came; after which I had no choice but to run indoors on a treadmill, something I hate to do.

But lately, I've discovered a new reason to run and it's nothing to do with my feet. In fact, quite the opposite.

The Serial podcast is a 12-episode American investigative narrative series played out via digital radio.

It is a spin-off of the popular 20-year-old This American Life radio programme, which focuses on non-fictional essays, memoirs and short stories.

Addictive, available on-demand and intimate, podcasts are the 21st-century equivalent of radio dramas, which our grandparents used to huddle next to their transistor radios to listen to.

The series, released last year, follows American crime reporter Sarah Koenig as she details the holes and inconsistencies of the real case of a 1999 murder of an 18-year-old girl, Hae Min Lee, in Baltimore.

Her ex-boyfriend Adnan Syed was found guilty and remains in prison serving a life sentence, but Koenig's investigation casts doubt over the conviction.

Usually, I get bored after running for 30 minutes on a treadmill, but Koenig's chats with Adnan and other parties involved in the case, a full 15 years since the crime, are gripping.

Add to that her candid style of reportage, where she readily admits to flip-flopping over her feelings about Adnan's guilt, and the series has kept me literally on my toes.

I join the ranks of legions of plugged-in fans - the podcast has been downloaded more than 90 million times - who have kept their mobile phones and laptops close by, as they turn over the same question in their heads: "Did he or didn't he?"

When you are stuck wondering whether a person jailed for life since his teens has been wrongly imprisoned, is a victim of a flawed American justice system or is actually a psychotic killer, a little cardio is of no importance.

I have started to find reasons to hit the gym just so that I can get a little downtime to continue binge-listening to Serial. Sometimes, I sneak in an episode before I turn in for the night.

Addictive, available on-demand and intimate, podcasts are the 21st-century equivalent of radio dramas, which our grandparents used to huddle next to their transistor radios to listen to.

But instead of fiddling with antennae or buttons, we're firing up iTunes and plugging in our earphones.

Nonetheless, it is still the voices and music that make the story come alive, and pauses add suspense or reveal more about a character.

I've not listened to an audio book before, but I imagine the experience to be somewhat similar.

While there are a few old photos of the key characters on the Serial website, for the most part, I tend to rely on my imagination to flesh out the characters' looks, actions and remarks as the saga unfolds.

In fact, the podcast has basically been just pure, old-fashioned good storytelling.

There are victims (Lee), there are heroes (or anti-hero in the case of Adnan, who can never provide a good alibi), there are some (questionable) villains and there are loads of characters who fall within the shades of murky grey.

There is even a Shakespearean element - Lee and Adnan's clandestine romance has been compared to that of tragic lovers Romeo and Juliet because of their respective South Korean and Pakistani family backgrounds. Their families would not have approved of their relationship, say friends.

One Californian high-school English teacher even made headlines in June for replacing Hamlet with Serial as required reading for his class. In his blog, he cites the fact that Serial is "hip and fresh" and can sharpen his students' critical thinking skills.

But like Shakespeare, you might need to do some extra reading to make sense of it all.

You have companion books and CliffsNotes for Shakespeare's classic texts.

With Serial, you have Reddit, the user-powered online community, to help fill in the blanks.

Not only is this a real-life story, it is also current - Adnan's case might be reopened this year because of new evidence uncovered during Koenig's investigation.

With the series ending with no clear-cut conclusion, fans have taken to Reddit to continue the discussion.

Alternative theories abound on Reddit. There are even users, known as Redditors, who have been verified as friends and siblings of Lee and Adnan, weighing in on the discussion in real-time.

The success of Serial has spawned reports of a possible television series and two new seasons for the podcast in the works. These will look at new cases, opening up Pandora's boxes for other people and circumstances.

I have finished listening to all 12 episodes of Serial, which means that I need a new podcast to power through the rest of my personal footrace.

I am giving the supernatural thriller Limetown a try, which is about the sudden disappearance of all the people in a fictional American town in Tennessee. The series, produced by American production company Two-Up Productions, is billed as a cross between Serial and The X-Files.

It is hard to get into a fictional tale after the real-life tragedy of Lee and Adnan's story, but I am treating it like I would a marathon - it may be a bit slow-going for now, but I'll give it a try and keep chugging along.

After all, I think I'll be into serialised podcasts for the long run.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 06, 2015, with the headline 'Ready, get set... listen'. Print Edition | Subscribe