Morbid Addiction or Stunning Storytelling?

At Leith, we often consider how stories and storytelling can contribute to compelling communications. Here, Claire Wood, one of our planners, explores the appeal of Serial, possibly the story of 2014, and asks what we can learn from it.

Serial is a podcast, birthed by parent radio show, This American Life. It tells a twelve part story of a journalist investigating a case.

The season lasts eight hours, thirty-three minutes and thirty-three seconds.

It didn’t launch with any great ceremony. But in next to no time, it became the world’s most popular podcast.

On average, each episode attracted 1.5 million listeners.

It achieved 5m downloads on iTunes faster than any podcast in history.

In early December, BBC Radio 4 Extra announced they were going to air the podcast, initially retrospectively and then as the episodes became available.

It’s even (surely the mark of any great cultural phenomenon) inspired parodies.

Serial producers: (left to right) Dana Chivvis, Emily Condon, Sarah Koenig, Ira Glass and Julie Snyder. Image credit: Meredith Heuer.

So why all the excitement?

Why were hundreds of thousands of smart sensible adults enthralled enough to share Serial logos on Instagram, to speculate endlessly about the evidence on their blogs, to demand justice when US retail chain, Best Buy, tweeted a tongue in cheek reference to the show and to devour innumerable Reddit discussion groups?

Reddit’s Serial page received 8.5 million page views last November. The world’s biggest water cooler.

For those who spent the autumn with their head in a hole, Serial isn’t any old Archers equivalent.

Radio producer Sarah Koenig undertook to investigate a murder case that happened in Baltimore some fifteen years hence. On 13 January 1999, 19 year old Hae Min Lee was murdered and buried under 6 inches of earth, three miles away from her home. More than a month after she went missing, her ex-boyfriend, 17 year old Adnan Syed, confessed to her murder. He was convicted of murder and has been in jail ever since. Koenig, over 12 episodes, speculates about whether this judicial verdict was correct.

People used to queue outside newsagents when a new instalment of a Charles Dickens story was due to appear in the paper in Victorian times. The Archers claims over 5 million listeners. But Archers episodes last approximately 12 minutes. A Serial podcast lasts upwards of 50 minutes.

Charles Dickens and The Archers (who surely don’t appear in the same sentence very often) both offer great stories but both are works of fiction.

When fact meets fiction

I’m interested and a little bit horrified that a true story about a murder has attracted such mass morbid interest. But has the podcast achieved anything positive? Adnan is still in jail. Lee’s family still miss their daughter.

The Guardian published an interview a few weeks ago with Adnan’s family. Although disconcerted by the attention, they are broadly pleased that the case for their son’s incarceration is being scrutinised by so many millions of eyes. They believe he’s innocent. As does Rabia Chaudry, a legal practitioner whose (beautifully named) blog is now dedicated to her campaign to free Adnan.

Jay Wilds was at school with Adnan, not a particularly close friend of his, but ended up assisting Adnan (he claims) with disposing of Lee’s body. Adnan was convicted on the strength of Jay’s evidence. Jay chose not to be interviewed by Koenig as part of the podcast but irrespective, his life since the podcast aired has become extremely difficult, as he explains in an exclusive interview with The Intercept.

He still lives in Baltimore, now with his wife and two young children.

“My wife is a normal, suburban type of person.
She’s not used to being petrified, or doing laps in the cul-de-sac, or taking a different route home, because she thinks she’s being followed,” says Jay.

The attention given to the case has been such that the case prosecutor was recently compelled to offer his thoughts about the guilty verdict in another exclusive online interview, refuting statements made in the podcast that Adnan was unfairly convicted.

A peculiar thing, this quest for justice and its repercussions.

Tragedy as entertainment?

I can’t help wondering whether it’s morally right to take a real life story, a family’s tragedy (potentially several families’ tragedies), and turn it into something that, for a substantial portion of its listeners, is a Sherlock Holmes story with an additional thrill imbued by truth.

But listeners have enjoyed the story so much — or found it sufficiently gripping—that they’ve contributed enough money to guarantee a second series of Serial, featuring a new story, will be produced sometime in 2015.

Why the fascination? Because we’re all frustrated detectives? Or frustrated problem solvers? Because we have a prurient interest in avenging lovers? An unhealthy appetite for murder? Or an innate hunger for justice?

I’ve been tussling with this question for weeks and conclude that it isn’t any of the above.

In his book, The Storytelling Animal, Jonathan Gottschall says:

“We are, as a species, addicted to story.
Story is for human as water is for a fish.”

Serial might have a morbid pretext. It might leave all sorts of victims, for all sorts of reasons, struggling to take their life off the pause button in its wake. But for most of its listeners, first and foremost, it was a perfectly polished, endlessly enthralling story.

What can Serial teach us about storytelling?

Lessons for us advertisers who make a living from trying to attract people’s attention?

People love a story. Tell it well and your audience are putty in your hands.

A linear story is good. With a beginning, middle and (ideally), an end. Presented in that order. With accompanying evidence to support your case.

Don’t expect attention. Though if you work hard (Serial was a year in the making), you can sometimes earn it.

And if you capture it, if you attract an audience’s attention by offering a story they haven’t heard before, they’ll be yours for the duration.

And potentially beyond.