I had been hearing about it for weeks but didn’t delve into the true-crime mystery that is the “Serial” podcast until Thanksgiving weekend, when I binged on the first seven episodes of this fascinating and thorough piece of investigative journalism. It was enough to become obsessed.
It’s the story of Adnan Syed, convicted more than 15 years ago for the murder of his girlfriend, Hae Min Lee, while they were attending high school outside Baltimore. The host of the show, investigative journalist Sarah Koenig, noted that Syed was convicted on very little evidence — really just testimony from one guy named Jay who said he helped bury the body.
Produced and inspired by NPR favorite “This American Life,” the story comes out in spurts unlike just about every other piece of investigative journalism I’ve ever consumed. By necessity, Koenig does not know if Syed did it or not — he’s proclaimed his innocence to her several times via phone calls from jail — and as a result the listener is kept there in limbo with her, with new evidence and pieces of the puzzle coming together each week.
There are so many troubling details. Jay’s timeline just doesn’t add up — in fact, none of the three versions he offered as testimony do. There are phone calls on Syed’s cell that cannot be sourced, a missing pay-phone at Best Buy and alibis that don’t square up. It’s maddening, especially knowing that the end of the story hasn’t been written yet, but also amazing to hear things unfold in real time.
After listening to last week’s podcast, I delved deeper into the website and found timelines, a character list, correspondence from Syed, deeper exploration of some of the mystery’s nuances and lots of other stuff on which to nerd out.
More than just compelling, original journalism, “Serial” is breakthrough programming for the podcast form, which had become something of a footnote in the digital revolution. Underwritten in its first season by “This American Life,” “Serial” was able to crowdfund enough cash to lock down a second season, which will begin some time after this one ends.
And even the timeline is up in the air. The team pledges this: “We’ll stay with each story for as long as it takes to get to the bottom of it.”
New episodes of “Serial” come out every Thursday morning. Listen to it on iTunes or at serialpodcast.org