‘Serial’: Real-life teen murder mystery takes over the Internet

  • People
  • Tuesday, 25 Nov 2014

How does a 1999 real-life interracial teen murder case become the latest Internet phenomenon? You have to listen to find out.

For 15 years, nobody outside Maryland cared much about the murder of a South Korean-born high school teen, supposedly at the hands of her ex-boyfriend, the son of Pakistani immigrants. Now, it seems, everyone does.

The perplexing tale of Hae Min Lee and Adnan Syed is at the heart of Serial, an hour-long weekly podcast that’s become an unlikely global Internet phenomenon. Fans speak of being “addicted” and “obsessed” with the programme. Those who caught the bug early can’t wait for Thursdays, when fresh installments drop, while latecomers binge on past episodes.

It’s been downloaded more than five million times from Apple’s iTunes store, where it’s been a Top 10 hit in the US, Canada, Britain, Australia, India, South Africa and Germany. It can also be heard on www.serialpodcast.org – or just scroll down to the bottom of this page for the first episode. 

Love turned violent or framed by others? Adnan Syed (left) who was sentenced to life imprisonment for the murder of his girlfriend Hae Min Lee (right) in 1999 has always claimed his innocence. Now his case is the subject of Serial, a weekly podcast hosted by journalist Sarah Koenig. Since it launched on Oct 3, the podcast has become an Internet phenomenon, with more than 5 million downloads to date. 

Who’s telling the truth?

Between episodes, online chatter rages on social media. Reddit hosts an exhaustive Serial discussion board. Bloggers speculate on who’s telling the truth – and who’s not.

Serial is a spin-off from This American Life, a long-running and hip US public radio series that’s famous for quirky topics and laid-back story-telling style. Its runaway success – as a podcast, no less – has taken its creators by surprise.

“We kind of expected to be in the sleepier realms of the podcast world,” senior producer Julie Snyder says in a telephone interview from New York. “We were hoping for good numbers. But we were not at all expecting so many people listening and writing about the show and having a lot of interest about the show. And it’s international. We didn’t plan for that at all.”

Serial comes across as part investigative journalism, part police procedural, part soap opera, with a nod to the 19th century serialised novels of Charles Dickens and Emile Zola.

Hae and Adnan – everyone in Serial is called by their first name by narrator and journalist Sarah Koenig – are high school sweethearts who kept their love a secret from their conservative immigrant families.

Journalist Sarah Koenig has been going through boxes of case files and court reports, trying to piece together the details of the murder which has captivated followers of her weekly podcasts on www.serialpodcast.org. At the heart of the case is Adnan Syed himself, who is currently serving life imprisonment. – serialpodcast.org

In the opening episodes, both come across as bright all-American teenagers – popular, getting good grades, holding down part-time jobs, looking forward to prom night. But when romance turns to break-up, Adnan, overcome by anger, strangles Hae and, with a pal, buries her in a shallow grave, where a passer-by finds her three weeks later.

At least, that’s the version that prosecutors gave jurors at a six-week trial that ended with Adnan getting a life sentence in a Maryland penitentiary – and where he still remains at the age of 32.

Koenig revisits the case in forensic detail – interviewing witnesses who sometimes contradict themselves, pursuing neglected leads, chatting regularly by phone with the imprisoned Adnan, who maintains he is innocent.

Looking for a fix

One Serial fan is Emily Best, an indie film crowdfunding consultant, who binge-listened to the first seven episodes while driving non-stop across the entire state of Kansas. When Thursday came around with episode eight, she describes in an email, “We were up early in the morning like junkies looking for a fix.”

In California, teacher Michael Godsey reveals this week that he is using Serial in lieu of Shakespeare in his high school English class this semester. “In fact, it’s been more fun, more engaging, and more conducive to learning ... than anything written by Shakespeare, Joyce, or anybody else,” he writes on his blog. “By far.”

So far it’s still unclear whether Serial might turn up fresh material that would compel judicial authorities to reopen the case – and Snyder says that’s not the point of the show, either. “We’ve said from the beginning that we don’t know where it’s going to end,” she adds, ahead of Thursday’s release of episode nine.

Serial is likely to run for about 12 episodes overall, but the producer cautions: “We don’t know for sure, because we are still doing the reporting.” – AFP/RelaxNews

The extras

Sarah Koenig has included documents, notes and even crude diagrams on the website, well worth a look for those who want more. When you are ready, click play and find out why the podcast show is such a hit. 

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