‘Serial’: How We Make Sense of a Podcast as a Media Phenomenon

By  · Published on November 18th, 2014

WBEZ Chicago

It’s happened. A podcast has achieved the status of a cultural phenomenon.

Where podcasting has largely either operated as a supplementary commentary on culture (from new films to dead authors to linguistics, and probably everything else) or an extension of talk radio (political or public radio-style podcasts), serving as the custodian of our connected watercooler conversations, This American Life’s Serial podcast has now found itself at the center of a cultural conversation and a thing to be witnessed on its own – the type of thing people make podcasts about.

Serial as a phenomenon can be largely credited to its inventive use of the medium – to tell a story over weeks like a must-see television show. And like the way we currently watch television, Serial has inspired a regular output of recaps, conversations, fan theories, thinkpieces, and parodies. Add the stakes inherent in the fact that Serial is one journalist’s episode-to-episode investigation of a complicated 15-year-old murder case, and what you have is the capacities of a storytelling platform transforming real life into accessible, compelling, perhaps exploitative drama.

But the way we’ve been making sense of Serial as a phenomenon says a great deal about how we relate to – and “elevate” – new media phenomena based on prior media phenomena.

Since Serial’s first appearance, it has been compared to television in order to communicate not only its appeal, but what distinguishes it from “normal” podcasts. Dan Fitchette of Vulture, for instance, contends that Serial taps into the drama of Degrassi (or a John Hughes movie) while it outdoes the sensationalist magazine drama approach of Dateline and the like. And as a result of the series’ intricate, socially aware plotting and its Baltimore setting, Serial has also been compared to The Wire, a show that has been nearly exhausted by its use as an ur-text signifying hype-meeting greatness in the televisual medium.

But the first and most persistent comparisons between Serial and existing media is True Detective, no doubt the most repeated reference used to explain what the show is and what the show does. The comparison has been inspired no doubt because of the podcast’s devotion to a single case as its organizing principle (tied with the implication that each “season” will tackle a different case). But this comparison also speaks to the conversations that the podcast has inspired – how it has generated a subculture attempting to answer whodunit along the way. Putting aside for a moment the inherent problems of fixing a formula that implies eventual answers to such questions onto a real-life murder case, comparisons between Serial and True Detective are revealing in terms of how we make sense of supposedly “new” media phenomena.

This past spring, during the fever pitch of True Detective’s popularity and after a particular episode aired that sported an impressive long take sequence, the show started to become widely described as “cinematic,” even “the most cinematic show on television.” The comparison suggests that True Detective broke through the supposed “limits” of television as a medium, incorporating techniques and producing affects rarely associated with the medium. The comparison is meant, unmistakably, as a nod of praise – as if, by being “cinematic,” True Detective had moved up into a more exceptional playing field than what’s most associated with the device that has also given us Entourage and The Jerry Springer Show. Such praise, then, assumes an implied and stable media hierarchy – that cinema is more stylistically engaged than television and, thus, to exhibit concern with style is to function as something other than television.

The comparison was roundly qualified if not critiqued, but that the comparison was made and widely accepted is important, as it shows how we tend to make sense of new phenomena by “elevating” it up an assumed comparative hierarchy, as if the properties of the medium that a thing exists within are not enough to do justice to what it does. True Detective is an exceptional TV show because it is like a movie. Serial in an exceptional podcast because it is like “prestige television” which is like a movie. Cinema exists above television that exists above podcasting, but one can invoke another up this ladder, thereby achieving the status of an entry into a medium that defies the supposed limits of said medium.

But when such comparisons are made, they tend to confuse medium specificity with dominant media practices. The choice of a long take is clearly a choice that can be made within the form of a television show, just as a podcast can draw unprecedented audiences week-to-week based on adopting a seemingly unique organizational structure and a compelling topic. Such phenomena do not speak to a media phenomenon that has adopted the characteristics of another medium – they show how such characteristics were never exclusive to one medium in the first place.

Serial has been described to mark the arrival of podcasting as a legitimate medium worth taking seriously in its capacity to communicate with and compel audiences, portending a new direction for podcasts. But this new direction has been produced through relatively established means – a fact that is staring at us in Serial’s title.

Seriality – that is, the gradual unfolding of a bigger picture story over episodic increments – has been one of the defining ways that acts of storytelling have grown into cultural phenomena. The fictions of Arthur Conan Doyle and Charles Dickens first appeared in newspapers as excerpts, drawing readers into the weekly drama of what might happen next and inspiring conversations along the way. Films from the silent era to classical Hollywood have relied on seriality to draw audiences back in to witness the further adventures of Fantomas or Batman.

Serial drama witnessed one of its most consequential spheres of influences on radio (or, podcasting-before-podcasting). Titles like The Shadow, The Lone Ranger, and Guiding Light transfixed 1930s and 1940s audiences week-to-week, each ending with a cliffhanger that promised both answers and further drama to come. (The true crime drama, Crime Classics, like Serial, attracted audiences to true stories of murder cases, but was never serialized.) As several of the above titles indicate, many serial radio dramas were adapted to television in the 1950s, thus establishing within this “new” audio-visual medium the defining narrative storytelling practices of an “old” one, drawing audiences into the incremental delivery of long-term stories through existing properties.

With a new Hunger Games film slated for release Friday that is an adaptation of half a novel, continued speculation over what the next murder case in True Detective’s second season will be, and a 1999 murder case that’s suddenly become relevant again, it seems that seriality is the big new way we become drawn into and interact with culture. But it’s actually the established way we’ve been engaging with culture for some time, and the signature means by which audiences have been drawn into media old and new. Seriality frames what’s topical and connects us through that topicality. It doesn’t make a podcast like television anymore than a long take makes a television series like a film – it simply signifies the adoption of an established practice one that’s been long available in other media.

But more importantly, seriality is one of the major ways we navigate between and across media. It’s something that reveals how unspecific media specificity is, and how flat media hierarchies are, as it has existed across and between literature, radio, television, film, and now podcasts, crossing boarders that reveal how those borders never existed in the first place. In fact, crossing such supposed borders is as inevitable as adapting a radio show into television. Or dividing films into episodes. Or reading about a podcast on a movie website.

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