How The Serial Podcast Built A Following

In the fall of 2014, Serial became the fastest podcast in iTunes history to reach 5 million downloads. The podcast investigates the 1999 strangling death of Hae Min Lee, a Baltimore high-school senior. Her former boyfriend, Adnan Syed, is now serving a life sentence for the crime.

With 12 episodes, Serial became a cultural phenomenon, capturing the attention of the entertainment industry, law community, and the world.  It was ranked the No. 1 podcast in the United States, Australia, United Kingdom and Canada. Serial inspired a Reddit group and a spin-off podcast called Undisclosed. Educators incorporated it into their classrooms. It sparked scores of water-cooler conversations around the world.

What made Serial so captivating?

Fans waited impatiently for Thursday mornings so they could download each new segment. The Huffington Post compared the storytelling in Serial to Victorian-era books, which were issued in installments. Each chapter ended with cliffhanger holding the reader in suspense and eagerly waiting for the next installment.

Radio producer Sarah Koenig is the narrator for the first podcast spinoff of Chicago Public Radio’s This American Life, which has a distinctively personal form of storytelling. Koenig and the Serial team spent the episodes exploring one true story, not knowing how it would end. The show sums it up best by saying, “We’ll follow a plot and characters wherever they take us.”

In a Wall Street Journal article, Koenig was called a “gifted storyteller; she seductively dishes out clues and chases down dead ends. Listeners are swept up in her obsession and feel like they are part of a hunt for truth and justice alongside an entertaining and smart companion.” Koenig’s style is authentic, which makes listeners feel as if they are listening to a friend.

Was podcasting dying before Serial?

No, it wasn’t. In fact, according to the Pew Research Center, podcast audiences have been growing over the past two years. Since 2008, the percentage of Americans 12 years and older who have listened to a podcast in the past month has grown from 9 percent to 17 percent. In addition, one-third of the U.S. population (12 and older) has listened to one podcast.

Americans Who Have Listened to a Podcast in the Past Month Nearly Doubled Since 2008

David Haglund, a senior editor at Slate Magazine, told PBS Newshour how technology has positively impacted the medium: Nearly everyone has a smartphone, and apps make downloading and listening to podcasts simple. Also, podcasts have become a great way for commuters to pass the time.

Recently, HubSpot released a list of eight must-hear podcasts. How many of these podcasts have you listened to? Are there any podcasts you can’t live without?