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Sept. 20, 2022, 12:37 p.m.
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Adnan Syed is released — and so is a new episode of the first season of Serial

“To call something the most popular podcast might seem a little like identifying the tallest leprechaun,” David Carr wrote in 2014.

The first two episodes of Serial were released just about eight years ago today, on October 3, 2014. A couple of weeks before the launch, on September 19, 2014, executive producer and host Sarah Koenig wrote on the Serial blog:

This murder story we’ve been working on, it’s captivated all of us at Serial for a year. Once we started looking into it, we realized the story was so much messier and more complicated — and more interesting — than what the jury got to hear. We hope you’ll get sucked in the way we have.

Serial launched as a spinoff of This American Life, and its first episode aired in that show’s radio slot. “For us, that it’s a podcast is so liberating,” Koenig told Nieman Lab at the time. “We can tell it as long as we need to tell it, and we don’t have to worry about it.”

They also expected the audience for Serial to be small. “It will be interesting, once we start podcasting more, if the audience feels different than the audience we have for This American Life right now,” executive producer Julie Snyder told us back then. “I’m not sure — it will certainly be much smaller.”

It was not much smaller. Serial topped the iTunes charts even before its launch. On November 23, 2014, David Carr wrote in The New York Times:

To call something the most popular podcast might seem a little like identifying the tallest leprechaun, but the numbers are impressive for any media platform. “Serial” has been downloaded or streamed on iTunes more than five million times — at a cost of nothing — and averages over 1.5 million listeners an episode. That is as many people as watch an episode of “Louie,” the buzzed-about comedy on FX. Ira Glass, the host of “This American Life,” told me his show took four years to reach one million listeners. “Serial” raced past that in a month.

Serial spawned a Saturday Night Live skit, a bestselling book and four-part HBO documentary series, and a wave of true crime podcasts that still hasn’t abated. “Only Murders in the Building,” which just wrapped up its second season on Hulu, follows three Upper West Side neighbors who start a true crime podcast after their neighbor is murdered.

The show also came in for criticism, especially from those who argued that Koenig overlooked major elements of the story involving racial prejudice, Islamophobia, social justice, and the failure of the criminal justice system. “What happens when a white journalist stomps around in a cold case involving people from two distinctly separate immigrant communities? Does she get it right? (Spoilers ahead.),” Jay Caspian King wrote in The Awl in December 2014, in a post entitled “White Reporter Privilege.” Rabia Chaudry — Adnan Syed’s childhood friend, who first brought the story to Sarah Koenig and who went on to write that bestselling book, produce that HBO series, and launch a criminal justice podcast — told King:

“You have an urban jury in Baltimore city, mostly African American, maybe people who identify with Jay [an African-American friend of Syed’s who is the state’s seemingly unreliable star witness] more than Adnan, who is represented by a community in headscarves and men in beards. The visuals of the courtroom itself leaves an impression and there’s no escaping the racial implications there. […]

I don’t know to what extent someone who hasn’t grown up in a culture can really understand that culture. I think Sarah tried to get it, but I don’t know if she ever really did. I explained to her that anti-Muslim sentiment was involved in framing the motive in this case, and that Muslims can pick up on it, whereas someone like her, who hasn’t experienced this kind of bigotry, doesn’t quite get it. Until you’ve experienced it, you don’t really know it or pick up on it.”

In 2015, Ira Glass acquired full control of This American Life. Later that year, the show’s second season, about the disappearance of U.S. solder Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl in Afghanistan, was released. A wildly successful spinoff podcast, S-Town, came out in March 2017. In 2020, The New York Times acquired Serial Productions: “For the people who love Serial — and there are millions of them,” the Times’ Sam Dolnick told Nick Quah, “the idea here is to have more Serials.”

Through the years, Adnan Syed’s case continued to wind through the courts. He maintained that he was innocent. This month, prosecutors asked a judge to overturn overturn the 2000 murder conviction and release Syed, which Baltimore judge on Monday did on Monday. Prosecutors have 30 days to proceed with a new trial or drop his conviction.

The murder of Hae Min Lee remains unsolved. “This is not a podcast for me. It’s real life that will never end — it’s been 20-plus years,” her brother, Young Lee, told the judge via Zoom call on Monday.

Sarah Koenig told The New York Times on Tuesday that she was “shocked” to hear that prosecutors wanted Syed released and that it was “like the city prosecutor’s office suddenly pulled off a rubber mask and underneath was a scowling defense attorney.” Serial was once again the top show on Apple Podcasts on Tuesday, with the release of a new episode: S01E13, “Adnan Is Out.” The intro music is the same as it was in 2014, but there are no Mailkimp ads this time around (Update: One of our readers did hear a Mailkimp ad when streaming the episode on Serial’s website!)

“The prosecutors today are not saying Adnan is innocent. They stopped short of exonerating him,” Koenig says in the episode. “Instead they’re saying that ‘Back in 1999, we didn’t investigate this case thoroughly enough. We relied on evidence we shouldn’t have. And we broke the rules when we prosecuted. This wasn’t an honest conviction.’ According to the prosecutor’s office, they didn’t set out to pick apart Adnan’s case — their own case, mind you. They say it just kind of crumpled once they took a hard look. [pause] I know.”

POSTED     Sept. 20, 2022, 12:37 p.m.
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