10 lessons we learned from the whole 'Serial' phenomenon
This morning marked the release of the twelfth and final installment of Serial, a podcast that took the world by storm. Producer Sarah Koenig lead listeners through her investigation of the 1999 murder of high school student Hae Min Lee and the case that the state built against her ex-boyfriend Adnan Syed, currently serving a life sentence for her killing. There are many pieces of evidence that Koenig looked at again and again, shifting the course of the story, and (spoiler!) even in the conclusion, things remain murky. But as listeners angle for answers from Serial, there are so many takeaways we’ve already absorbed. The series wasn’t simply about providing concrete answers but about raising questions—regarding the law, human memory, love, ethics, how things have changed and what needs to change still. Here are some things that we learned from Serial—the podcast that redefined podcasting and captivated us on a weekly basis.
1. Memory is way less reliable than you’d think
Koenig brought this up during the very first episode, but it’s true: Would you be able to recall where you were for two hours on an afternoon ten years ago? It’s incredibly tricky to figure out.
2. Calling a prisoner is incredibly expensive
Every episode of Serial began with the same lead-in, a message played from the phone system in the prison Syed is incarcerated in: “This is a Global Tel-Link pre-paid call from Adnan Syed, an inmate at a Maryland correctional facility.” Those calls were not cheap. The market for inmate phone services is essentially a racket, with many contracts funneling money, that inmates or their loved ones pay for, right back into the prison. Rates can run as high as 89 cents per minute. With 40 hours of taped calls that would run Koenig something like $2,500, as Mashable calculated.
3. Cell phone records are difficult to parse
Even though the state used the records from Syed’s cell phone to build a case against him, Koenig again and again proved that the information on his bill could be interpreted different ways. Even knowing that his phone was connected to another one, it was difficult to prove that the phone was in Syed’s hands or his friend Jay’s.
4. Islamophobia is a real problem in America
This isn’t news, exactly, but Koenig’s examination of whether a jury may have been biased against Syed because of his Muslim family and his Pakistani heritage was a real eye-opener, as were many of the articles that criticized Koenig’s reporting for playing into stereotypes about minorities.
5. The Innocence Project is an amazing organization
In the course of her reporting, Koenig contacted The Innocence Project, a public policy organization dedicated to exonerate prisoners who could be proven innocent through DNA testing. The group plays a crucial role in the last episode, and have exonerated more than 300 people through their program, including 18 people on death row.
6. Courtroom battles are far more tedious than Law & Order would have you believe
Remember in Episode 10 when Koenig reviewed the methodology of Syed’s defense lawyer, Christina Gutierrez? The tape from her courtroom appearances isn’t swift and snappy, it’s full of stops and starts, as the legal process really is. Plus there’s the vast amount of preparation and people involved in every trial. For those unfamiliar with the legal system, it was an apt illustration of what it’s really like.
7. The Internet is full of wannabe detectives
When the popularity of Serial began exploding, many listeners began sifting through the evidence for themselves, speculating about what really happened to Lee, and posting elaborate theories. Reddit was at the center of this vortex, with a constantly-updated subreddit dedicated to the series.
8. The Internet also has its share of awesome people
Some of those Serial fans on Reddit actually set up a scholarship fund in Hae Min Lee’s name, as a way to honor her memory and provide educational opportunities for kids at her high school.
9. Popularity can cloud good judgement
As Best Buy’s tasteless tweet about pay phones highlighted, some listeners lost track of the real people involved in the Serial story. At the height of the show’s popularity, the topic of the series—a senseless murder of a young woman—became buried under the excitement surrounding the podcast. Sadly, some people-slash-companies went too far and learned quickly, you definitely don’t joke about a tragedy.
10. We still have the attention span for a weekly series
Serial proved that Youtube hasn’t spoiled our brains for long-form content completely. We still can be captivated by a singular, well-reported topic told over the course of several weeks. So that’s interesting. The series also drove home the fact that the podcast form, something that began over a decade ago, is far from dead. In fact, it’s thriving in a big, big way.