‘Serial’ Illustrates Long-Form Radio’s Promise for Education Storytelling

By Mark Walsh — December 17, 2014 2 min read
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So, there’s this radio podcast I want to tell you about. It’s a really absorbing exploration of a 15-year-old murder case in the death of a Maryland high school student. I really think that if people would just give it a chance, it might re-invigorate the medium of the radio documentary.

Before you think I’m completely clueless, of course, I’m taking about “Serial,” the public radio series that has been a certified phenomenon since it debuted early in the fall.

The spinoff of the program “This American Life” and public radio station WBEZ in Chicago releases its 12th and final podcast episode on Thursday. Reporter and producer Sarah Koenig leads listeners through the evidence surrounding the 1999 slaying of Hae Min Lee, a senior at Woodlawn High School, which has a Baltimore address but is part of the Baltimore County school system (as opposed to the Baltimore city school district).

For those completely out of the loop, Lee was found strangled, and her ex-boyfriend at Woodlawn, Adnan Syed, was convicted and is serving life plus 30 years. The pair had somewhat of a Romeo and Juliet romance, coming from, respectively, South Korean and devout Muslim families. Koenig explores scraps of evidence that Syed might not have been the killer, and in the process shines a light (or opens a microphone) on the criminal justice system, investigative journalism, and high school life.

The series has attracted enormous attention on the Web, including a weekly roundtable discussion on Slate, a number of ponderous analyses on The Atlantic’s site (such as “Is It Wrong to Be Hooked on Serial?” and “The Backlash Against Serial—and Why It’s Wrong”), and coverage in various other sites. (Examples: “The complicated ethics of ‘Serial,’ on ThinkProgress; “5 Loose Threads the ‘Serial’ Finale Must Tie Up,” on Vulture; and “With one episode left, will ‘Serial’ land well, or crash and burn?”, on Newsworks.)

Much of the more recent commentary assumes a familiarity with the advanced stages of the series, so there are spoilers aplenty. If you’re coming late to the series (as I did, and I’m still in the early episodes), you might want to be judicious about reading some of the commentaries cited above.

Koenig was on “The Colbert Report” last week, where host Stephen Colbert (whose own show has its finale on Thursday as well) called her “the world’s first superstar podcaster” and asked, “As a journalist, did you always want to do true-crime reporting that people listen to on a treadmill?”

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At This Week in Education, Alexander Russo last week explored some comparisons between “Serial” and “Harper High,” another “This American Life” series that was more focused on inner-city education and won a slew of awards. Russo notes the view of some that “This American Life” has made a “cottage industry of white-privileged cultural tourism,” in the words of one such critic.

Because I haven’t caught up in the series, I have no profound thoughts to offer on “Serial"—yet. But reading some of the commentary cited above was fun. The idea that public radio resources might again be trained intensively on telling a story that relates to American education is promising.

“Serial” has been renewed for a second season. And though the producers have noted that they don’t know what the story will be, one can hope for something as compelling as the first season—and with another education angle.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Education and the Media blog.