To me, podcasts seem like the simplest and most obvious form of social media when it comes to digital storytelling. What more literal way is there to tell a story than by listening to someone’s voice? “Listening to a voice or voices tell a story without other media is an ancient human experience, hearkening back to the oral tradition,” writes Bryan Alexander in The New Digital Storytelling. Though Podcasts seem simple, or perhaps because of their simplicity, I find them to be some of the most powerful and effective ways of storytelling with digital media. In this post, I will examine how my experience with one podcast in particular, NPR’s Serial – hosted by Sarah Koenig and co-produced by Koenig and Julie Snyder – might have implications for public history.
Last year, the podcast Serial, hosted by Sarah Koenig, became extremely culturally popular. The show format is a serialized narrative that unfolds over time – a format of storytelling goes back hundreds of years, (many Dickens novels were first published week by week in a series). Season 1 investigates the 1999 murder of Hae Min Lee, an 18-year-student at Woodlawn High School in Baltimore, Maryland. She was last seen on January 13, 1999, and her body was found in a nearby park on February 9th. Lee’s boyfriend, Adnan Masud Syed, was arrested for her murder, convicted, and sentenced to life in prison. Episode to episode, Koenig investigates the events leading up to, during, and after the murder and subsequent trial. Through her investigative journalism, it quickly becomes clear that, as a reviewer from Slate stated, “Someone on the show is not telling the truth about something very sinister.
As a person caught up in the popularity of Serial, (it broke a record for most downloads and streams on iTunes when it passed 5 million) there were several factors about the show and the format of the podcast that made it so compelling to me.
The first was that the story itself is inherently captivating. The Baltimore Sun wrote “We seemingly never tire of the ‘everything was perfect until…’ narrative,” which Serial definitely capitalizes on. Is Syed guilty or not of murder? Who is lying? Who is telling the truth? Listening to Koenig interview Syed and others involved with the case produced a narrative tension that was gripping, and unlike something I’d experienced in a podcast before.
Secondly, the model of the podcast itself generated a different experience than I had previously encountered with television, or even radio. As the episodes became available weekly, I was able to access them from anywhere. Often, I listened to episodes at my job. At the time I was working as a temp processing insurance claims for 8 hours a day, and the freedom to listen to a story that was actually intellectually stimulating was such a godsend.
In addition, being able to listen with headphones made the experience of hearing the story deeply personal and intimate. As a solitary listener, I felt deeply connected to the material.
Podcasts, like Serial, utilize many different ways to tell stories. Though they aren’t mainstream yet, I think this format has a lot of potential, especially for use in a public history setting. Many history podcasts are extremely popular, and I can especially envision how long-form storytelling is suited to public history projects.