What radio makers can learn from the Serial podcast


Just when I thought audio couldn’t go viral, a team of producers from This American Life created Serial.

The BIGGEST podcast ever. But, there are enough articles on that!

So, let's look at Serial from our radio making lens.

What we can learn from Serial

1. The episode length is determined by the story
The length of the Serial episodes are determined by how long is needed to tell the story NOT the broadcast required length e.g. 60 minutes. That's because Serial isn’t broadcasted on radio, it’s a podcast.


length of serial podcast episodes

This is how all radio should be made because I hate it when you can tell that audio has been stretched out with music and long edits to fit the 60 minute mark.

So don't bore your audience with "set" episode lengths, let your story determine the length of the piece. 

2. Focus on the story not the website
There’s no interactive online element (audio postcards or videos) to compliment the podcast on the Serial website, it’s just the audio with some supplementary posts (photographs, maps and call logs).

What a relief this is because it shows that the story is the most important thing not your website.  So your first concern should be your story, when you’ve got that figured out, then you can think about developing your website and social media accounts. 

The story is the most important thing not your website!

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In fact, when you take a look at the podcast’s website, one comes to feel they weren’t prepared for the digital aspect of their storytelling experiment altogether. They do not, for example, have a photo of Lee, the victim, up on the site at all. It is a strange omission. But then, their documents section seems slapdash and paltry; by contrast, the Redditors look like paragons of organisation
— Michelle Dean, The Guardian

And despite this, look at how successful Serial has been. The holes in the digital aspect of their storytelling have actually left room for listeners on Reddit to engage with the story as a community.

3. But if you do want to focus on your website, Serial's website is a stylish example to copy

I actually think the Serial website looks pretty fancy compared to other podcast websites.

I like how the latest episode is featured at the top of the homepage.

serial podcast website design the things I love

I like that they haven’t just embedded soundcloud files on their homepage (like you see on my homepage). They use what I'm going to call "episode cards" that play when you click on them. It looks neat.

the stylish way the serial podcast embeds their audio on their website

I also like that when you play an episode, the audio player enlargers to full screen and is locked to the top of the page. Does anyone know how I can do that?


And their documents are well designed and match the colour scheme of the website (yes, they even have a colour scheme!).

Serial podcast graphics and color palette

4. Complex stories can work on the radio

While Sarah Koenig, the host, repeats and sums up in the same style that we’ve come to expect from a This American Life show, you still have to listen, really listen to each Serial episode to understand it.

Complex and popular is serial

Serial isn’t something you can listen to in the background like you might listen to something that’s played live on the radio. It’s a show that suits the medium of podcasting perfectly because you can rewind and listen to sections again if you get distracted like I do.

Jonathan Holmes, a media journalist from Australia thought Serial would be too complex to take off. 

My initial reaction: this will never fly. Too much detail, too many names, too much speculation, too much reportorial agonising, too much everything, and all about a murder that took place a long time ago and far, far away - at least, from Sydney, Australia.

— Jonathan Holmes, Sydney Morning Herald

Boy was he wrong!

The complex nature of the story is what the host, Sarah Koenig,  says she likes about it:

I like being in a position where I need to figure out that complication and what’s really going on. I sort of have that in spades here.
— Sarah Koenig

With multiple characters and all of that evidence, it's no wonder Serial has taken hours (I don't think any of us can truly imagine how much work has gone into the podcast) to create.

5. You don’t have to engage with your audience online

Serial podcast and online engagement

Serial has the kind of online engagement that most of us can only ever dream about.

Every major news outlet in the world is writing articles about the show.

There’s a whole subreddit dedicated to Serial with millions of views.

As soon as I finish a Serial episode I go and checkout the Serial subreddit  (I had no idea how to use reddit until Serial started). 

But, Sarah Koenig said that no one from Serial is contributing to the Reddit discussions which kind of seems like a missed opportunity. 

SARAH KOENIG: I’m not looking at Reddit. But we do have people on the staff who are dipping into it to make sure there’s nothing crazy on there or something we’re missing — they might know something we don’t.

So reader feedback doesn’t inform how you proceed?

SARAH KOENIG: No. Everything that people are complaining about, we were already going to get there. We don’t seem to be the most patient country in the world. You can’t just vomit out all your material at once.
— NY Times Magazine

Serial is active on facebook and twitter they've got thousands of fans and followers and they're posting roughly every second day.

Serial podcast thousands of fans on twitter and facebook

Taking into account the popularity of the show and that they're still making the episodes on the go, I think they're doing pretty well on social media.

But, I do wonder how much more money they could have with their recent one-week donations drive (of course I have no idea how much money they actually made). Going by Radiotopia’s recent record breaking crowdfunding campaign on kickstarter, I imagine Serial could have made more given they've a larger following. And if they offered their backers rewards, like their notebook, I think it would have gone through the roof.

Perhaps crowd funding is an option to fund season 3?

6. Girl power

The host of Serial is female (woot). The podcast world is dominated by men, so it’s wonderful to hear Sarah Koenig doing such a superb job as host and reporter.

gender breakdown of serial podcast staff

The main staff members behind Serial are also mostly female too.

4 out of 5 are female.

  1. Sarah Koenig- Host and Executive Producer
  2. Julie Snyder- Executive Producer
  3. Dana Chivvis- Producer
  4. Emily Condon- Production and Operations Manager
  5. Ira Glass- Editorial Advisor

I read this quote from Sound Women yesterday which I love and I think sums up perfectly why we need to have more female voices on our airwaves:

If you only ever hear male voices, you only hear the male experience, & that’s only half the story”
— Jane Garvey

And I think it's safe to say that due to the sheer popularity of Serial that it's pretty damn obvious that women make the best radio. :)

7. Serial has combined two things people aren’t doing on public radio and podcasts

  1. Crime
  2. Series
New for radio true crime and series

The creators of Serial have said they're surprised by the success of their show.

People are definitely interested. Serial was the number one podcast on iTunes two weeks before the first episode even premiered.

SARAH KOENIG: I was very surprised. Very, very surprised. I’ve been intrigued by a lot of stories in my career, but I think a ton of the interest is because this is a crime. It’s a murder case. This sounds naïve, but I didn’t think that would be a thing. I didn’t see it.
— Time.com

Of course one of the reasons Serial is popular is because it’s a true crime story and while the creators of Serial said they didn’t think about this when deciding on the story, the makers of Criminal (a podcast about crime that launched at the start of this year) did.

One of the producers of Criminal, Lauren Spohrer, a crime buff spotted this gap in the market: no one was making radio crime shows. 

ERIC MENNEL: [Lauren] had been saying for a long time, ‘There isn’t like a crime show on public radio’
— Tape Radio

So Eric explained, that he, Lauren and  Phoebe Judge created a monthly podcast, Criminal to fill this gap.

Their show has just hit one million downloads.

So, why crime?

They decided to make a crime podcast because these type of stories are complex and interesting as the host of Criminal explains:

It’s never simple. In crime stories, there’s victims, there’s perpetrators, there’s the other people who are affected. When you are able to give time to a complete story, you start to see all these different ripples, the ripple effect of it. We’re learning that you can’t just say this guy is guilty because of x, y, z. It’s always more complicated than that.”
— Phoebe Judge, PRX

Similarly, radio producer and teacher at the SALT institute, Michael May said this about why he’s made a lot of crime stories for radio:

I think crime is an inherently interesting area, I mean, it just has conflict inherently at the centre of it. And just the emotional content, and the way that crimes effect so many people the way that these actions just ripple out…. You don’t have to go looking for the drama, the drama is just right there, just waiting for you to spell it out.
— Michael May, Tape Radio

Radio and true crime stories marry well because audio storytelling is an intimate experience for the listener. Radio makes people feel like the person is speaking directly to them and they can imagine themselves in the other persons shoes. Again, this from one of the producers of Criminal:

Radio lends itself so well to this kind of voyeurism. When there’s nothing to look at, it’s really easy to imagine yourself as the person telling the story.
— Lauren Spohrer, The Believer Magazine

One of the reasons why people like true crime stories is because it appeals to our inner-voyeur. We like to know what happens in crime stories and how other people deal with conflict.

So when radio and crime combine, it’s like a voyeurs wet dream because:

  • Radio is a voyeurs medium
  • We like true crime stories because we are voyeurs

True crime + radio = a voyeurs wet dream

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But Serial isn’t just successful because it’s about a true crime.

Serial is also successful because it’s doing something different, something you don’t hear on the radio often, the story is a series. Unlike the Criminal podcast, the story unfolds week by week.

Each week we will go with Sarah on her hunt to figure out what really happened. And we will learn the answers as she does.
— Ira Glass (Serial Episode 1 )

And crime stories work well told in this way because with each new episode, we learn something new and this can potentially change our mind about whether we think the person did or didn’t do the crime.

One of the great things about this story is that I can tell you, as Sarah has been reporting this, she and Julie Snyder and Dana Chivvis, who are working with her on this, have all flipped back and forth, over and over, in their thinking about whether Adnan committed the murder. And when you listen to the series, you experience those flips with them. You go back and forth with them.
— Ira Glass (episode 1 Serial)

Yeah, true crime + serialized storytelling = perfection on radio.

8. A serial episode breakdown 

Lastly, I thought it might be fun to take a closer look at an episode of Serial.

I chose episode 6 of Serial, The case against Adnan Syed,  to breakdown because it was the only episode I had downloaded on my computer and the internet has been down for the last few days here.

Luckily it has, what I think, has been the strongest moment of the podcast yet, when Adnan asks Sarah about her motives for doing the show, have a listen:

It's a pretty straightforward episode. Sarah Koenig acutally even gives us a one sentence summary of the episode at the beginning: 

Serial episode 6 one sentence synopsis

And then she does just that, one after another, nine pieces of evidence that make Adnan look guilty are presented. 

Here is a visual breakdown of how she does this:

serial episode breakdown

One of the interesting things that only became clear when I did this visual breakdown was how Serial have used music in this episode. If you look at the music (they're the black and red blocks above), you can see that it's used to separate each piece of evidence. This seems really planned, but when you're listening to the episode, it really doesn't sound obvious so kudos to Mark Phillips who scores and mixes the show (he does all of this in just two days- wow!). 

The music dividing the evidence scenes is almost always cut (stopped) when new evidence is introduced or non-narration tape starts. Below is an example of the music stopping when non-narration tape starts (a recorded interview with Adnan- Evidence 2)  

Interestingly, the theme music (that you hear at the start and end of the episode- red in the diagram above) is only used once within the episode. It's used at a pretty dramatic moment, when Kathy describes Adnan's strange behavior at 19:31 (almost halfway through the episode):

As well as music, Serial does manage to use a variety of different types of sound.

Types of tape in serial episode 6

This episode doesn't have any action sounds but other episodes do (e.g. like when they re-enact the timeline in episode 5). I think the sound mix really shows that even though Serial is heavy on it's use of first-person narration (Sarah Koenig), they still mix it up by having lots of other different types of sound.

So if you're going to do a first-person narration radio story, make sure you record other sounds and not just your voice. 

Well I haven't heard the latest episode of Serial, so it's over to you, what have you learned from listening to Serial?

This from Sandra Müller on twitter: