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Don’t Be a Serial Hater

serialThe Break Up

It’s not news that our society and media love to build things up and then tear them down. The latest example is the This American Life produced podcast “Serial.” As the final episode of season one is about to post, there is a ripple in the force of “Serial’s” success.

“Serial” captured magic in a bottle. It’s a podcast that investigates a 15-year old murder case and the conviction of Adnan Sayed. Millions are listening, some even waiting in anticipation for its weekly Thursday release. Personally, I’m a fan. In my house, it was a topic of conversation at Thanksgiving with friends, fodder for the weekly Skype call with the in-laws, weekly hypothesizing with radio clients in Cape Town, Los Angeles and Ithaca and one night my wife and I chose Serial over TV and listened together. It’s even beginning to influence the way I’m telling stories and using audio on my podcast Radio Stuff.

The Deal with Ramsey

Despite the early positive press, my own tongue-wagging, the very successful season two fundraiser, and the ever-growing audience for the show there are some in the media who seem to want it to go away now or pretend it’s no big deal.

I’m not sure why.

Mark Ramsey of Mark Ramsey Media is one of them. He dismisses it as “overrated” on his Facebook page with a link to an article by Variety. I rebutted in the comments of his post suggesting his comment was shortsighted and he encouraged me to read the article and listen to his podcast. I’ve done that now. It inspired this post.

The Case Against “Serial”

“The podcast is really no more or less engrossing than the countless other true whodunits common all over movies and TV. Even an average episode of a relatively low-profile TV staple like NBC newsmagazine “Dateline” routinely features cases like Syed’s; you could even argue recreating these crimes for TV is a more sophisticated form of storytelling.” 

Variety criticizes “Serial” for being unoriginal and using tried and true storytelling methods. And then later declares “Serial” irrelevant to the success of future podcasts, because it’s too unique and difficult to recreate. Oh, and there’s more.

“The problem with “Serial’s” success is that it won’t represent an inflection point for podcasts for one simple reason: Even if the hype for this show grows to a level where it brings podcasts exposure to a new audience segment perhaps even more sizable than that of current core podcast devotees, there’s little else like “Serial” for this wave to listen to that will keep them around to sample more content.”

In their podcast “Media Unplugged,” Mark Ramsey and Tom Asacker decided to rebuke one article’s claim that on the heels of “Serial’s” success this is the golden age of podcasting. Here are some of their arguments. (My comments are italicized and in parenthesis.)

  • “I was met with a splash page asking for donations to fund a second season.” (Crowd sourcing worked! Not sure why that is a negative. If pop ads bother you I might suggest exiting the internet altogether.) 
  • “Only 15% of Americans are listening to podcasts, it’s not a dramatic change from before “Serial.”” (That’s 47 million people and growing. The golden age of TV was the late 1940’s and 50’s but there are far more people watching TV today than then. This seems irrelevant to “Serial’s” success or the argument against being a golden age of podcasts.)
  • “Being #1 on iTunes doesn’t mean it’s popular. The iTunes ranker is not a reflection of popularity it’s an algorithm – momentum and comments rather than raw popularity. Plus, the iTunes ranker is not the sum total of podcast consumption.” (For some reason this seems like a personal issue with Ramsey. I’m guessing if “Media Unplugged” became #1 on iTunes he wouldn’t parse popularity versus momentum and comments, which also seem like perfectly fine factors of popularity.)
  • “”Serial” has 18 million exposures less than an average episode of NCIS on CBS.” (NCIS is the #1 drama on TV. “Dateline,” which is probably more appropriate to compare, maxes out at 7 million viewers. But, since when are we judging radio/audio content success versus TV? We never have. It’s a ridiculous comparison.)
  • “There is an orgins story to this podcast: This American Life launched it. It’s a platform and all these distribution points called public radio stations.” (So, this is the old “don’t try this at home, kids” warning. I think most smart people in the radio/audio space realize the impact that had, but that shouldn’t keep them from trying or also launching podcasts on the backs of established brands)
  • “They used the “what happens next” method of storytelling, the genre “murder mystery” is as old as Agatha Christie, and the style as old as Dickens. Somehow in the world of podcasts it’s fresh.” (Excellent. We should be using every trick in the book. There’s no need to recreate the wheel. Good storytelling is good storytelling.)
  • “Most podcasts are like most blogs, most books, and most music; if they’re hitting maybe tens of thousands of downloads then they are lucky.” (This only further proves the growing success of podcasts. Two years ago experts like Mark and Tom wouldn’t have uttered podcasts and blogs in the same sentence as books and music. Now they’re putting them on equal ground. Either books and music have failed horribly or podcasts have risen in the ranks.)

The Opposite of Prosecution

Maybe I’m a glass half-full guy, but “Serial” makes me excited. And not just for podcasting, but for radio. I can hear a whole new wave of personal journalism on news-talk radio stations right around the corner. I can imagine newscasts with that familiar, intimate tone, personal asides and anecdotes (or “folksy” as Variety called it) that sucks you into the “Serial” narrative.

As a news-talk PD I was passionate and supportive of enterprise reporting and in-depth investigations and I believe “Serial” has cleared the way for commercial radio stations to move forward in that direction with gusto. Yes, there’s a risk it won’t work. Which means there’s a chance it will work. Go for it.

The model of launching a podcast off the success of a radio show is one that any radio station in the country could duplicate with varying degrees of success depending on the strength of the brands involved. You could also launch podcasts off of non-media brands or TV partners or local celebrities. Be creative. Use this as an idea starter.

I’m not sure why it’s a negative to borrow successful story-telling techniques. Regardless if it’s from CBS, Agatha Christie or Dickens, it all seems like good company to keep. Look at cable news. They built 90% of their programming on the models talk radio created. I guess my point is sometimes we get so concerned with being original and unique or “innovative” that we forget about “cultivation” and “ideation” which allows you gather all available assets, ideas and thoughts and repurpose them to greater success. We should do more of this.

And finally, with all due respect to the naysayers, I think anytime any audio content captures the imagination of people or the media, we should celebrate it. Far too often radio and audio creators crossover onto print, digital and TV for all the wrong reasons. “Serial” seems like just the lightning rod our industry needed to regain our swagger and expand our personal definitions of what’s possible in this space as it pertains to content creation, monetization and our definitions of success.

  1. Richard
    December 18, 2014 at 7:22 AM

    I’m with you on this one. Serial is wonderful. It does use tried and tested methods, but then so does every well told story. It is the most successful (in terms of numbers) podcast so far. It has got people talking about podcasting in a way that we’ve not seen since Ricky Gervais, and I think that’s got to be a good thing. As what they are talking about is the story, the content. People are seeing past the whole podcast thing. Some of the hype is probably over the top, as the quality of the work is no different to any other This American Life – although the scoring is much better. This heritage has helped, and as you say we should take that as a good thing that you can succeed in this space. I do think some of the coverage has gone over the top, but i do think it’s one of the best pieces of audio I have heard this year – on any platform

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