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Serial Podcast

Why Serial Represents the Podcasting “Renaissance”

PRX’s Radiotopia ended its Kickstarter last Friday at $620,412, which is 148% more than its initial goal of $250,000. The money will help fund four new podcasts–three hosted by women–along with financing a development fund for more new shows.

On Tuesday Apple reported that the Serial podcast from This American Life has become the fastest-downloaded podcast in history, having reached eight million downloads over just eight episodes. Reportage around the show often holds it up as an example or leader of a renaissance in podcasting, while the idea that podcasting has somehow been stagnant or receding prior to Serial rankles many in the podcasting community.

I understand why the “renaissance” theme bothers veteran producers, but as I wrote a couple weeks ago, I tend to see the fresh attention paid to Serial and podcasting in general as a rising tide that raises all boats. At the same time, this phenomenon merits examination.

This burst of attention is a prime example of a common tendency of the press: coverage begets coverage. But the picture is a little more complex than that. Serial, it turns out, is the perfect show at the right time to thrust podcasting into the narrow purview of overworked journalists, from the nation’s elite dailies to every pop culture blog.

First, we cannot disregard the fact that Serial is the first new podcast from the organization behind one of the most longstanding and popular podcasts, This American Life. That lineage alone guaranteed the show a warm initial reception from reporters, a sizable percentage of whom are public radio listeners.

Second, Serial is a true exercise in journalism, which is still a rare commodity in pure-play, born-digital podcasts. There’s plenty of news commentary programs, and numerous radio news programs distributed as podcasts, but very few that are expressly journalistic. Furthermore, Serial is long-form, investigative journalism–something that many (if not most) journalists wish they could be doing, but don’t have the freedom and resources to accomplish.

Third, the show is expertly produced. It sounds like an extended multi-part episode of TAL. It has drama, mystery and suspense like a good television miniseries. It’s like the public radio series that every educated, Generation X writer, journalist or blogger wishes were on the radio, but won’t be. It also stands out from the stereotypical image of podcasting as a few guys jabbering around a mic or c-list celebrities trying to resuscitate their careers.

Fourth, because Serial is produced by journalists, these are people that are known to other journalists. Compared to your average podcaster–even a popular one–Serial host/producer Sarah Koenig and the TAL team are known quantities to journalists, especially those working for big name papers or sites. Not only are they known, in many cases they run in the same professional and social circles. This isn’t a cabal or a conspiracy–it’s a profession. Just like insurance agents in New Jersey know colleagues in South Dakota, journalists at the Times know peers at the Tribune and NPR.

This fourth factor is the otherwise ineffable one that makes the difference between a show that is good, interesting and somewhat noteworthy, and one that represents the podcasting renaissance. The first three factors are enough to get any podcast on journalists’ radar, potentially sparking a story or two. This final factor is what gets the show onto seemingly every journalists’ radar.

Now, I don’t mean this analysis to sound cynical. I don’t begrudge the attention Serial is getting, nor do I begrudge the journalists and commentators just now waking up to podcasting. Trend stories are some of the bread and butter of journalism, whether we (or the journalists themselves) like it or not. If the trend weren’t Serial and podcasting, it would be something else. So why not have podcasts be the flavor of the week?

But, really, this is how stories spread. Journalists and editors read the news, just like the rest of us. When they see a reporter or publication they respect or admire covering a story they naturally think, “maybe we should look into this.” The show’s pedigree doesn’t hurt either. So then they do listen–which may be the first podcast they’ve listened to in a long time–and realize it’s damn good. Just because it’s a trend doesn’t mean it’s empty and without basis.

Of course this kind of press coverage drives listeners to check out the show, racking up record downloads. But, again, I stress that the show had to be good to sustain the attention and hype–and it is.

I wonder if Serial had been released one or two years ago if it would experience this kind of success. The show debuted as overall attention to podcasting was on the upswing this year. Maybe there was enough of a critical mass in 2013, but I seriously doubt a 2012 or 2011 debut would have brought the same rush.

Nothing happens in a vacuum. TAL itself went independent earlier this year, separating from Public Radio International, paving the way for spinning off new series. One might argue that TAL’s very success as a podcast–free from the shackles of broadcast stations and program directors–enabled its liberation in the first place. On top of that, in the last year we’ve had high profile podcast efforts from PRX, American Public Media and WNYC, along with breakout independent shows like Welcome to Night Vale.

The time was ripe for Serial.

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