As the sensational podcast Serial begins, the show’s host, Sarah Koenig, poses an intriguing question: could you, as a listener, recall a day in your life six weeks back? Or, more specifically, could you recall exactly where you were for 21 minutes after school?
In the inaugural season of the podcast, Koenig explores these questions with painful scrutiny for Adnan Syed, a Baltimore teen accused of murder in the late 1990s. Syed was sentenced to life in prison following the disappearance of his ex-girlfriend Hae Min Lee in February 1999. Koenig battles with two contrasting images of Adnan: the community golden child and the vengeful victim of a high school breakup. Ultimately, the prosecution managed to paint Syed as the latter, with the entirety of their case resting on the fact that he could not account for the aforementioned 21 minutes.
The fundamental testimony used by the prosecution came from Syed’s acquaintance, Jay Wilds, who occasionally sold marijuana to Syed. Wilds testified that, on the day of Lee’s murder, he received a phone call from Syed in which he was told to assist Syed in burying the body. Wilds outwardly held the opposite image of Syed; he was known to be involved with drugs, frequently skipped class, and was generally seen as a troublemaker in the community he grew up in. However, Wilds was able to lead law enforcement officers to Hae’s then-missing car, and his testimony aligned with facts that had been established but not released. But, the question remains as to whether Wilds would be a reliable source—it’s his word against Syed’s.
Koenig’s piece becomes a careful presentation of the interesting, and seemingly contradictory, information on the case: one girl who claims to have seen Syed at the library at the time when he was supposed to be murdering Hae, a series of phone calls that indicate the location of Syed’s cell phone on the day of the murder, and several students who claimed to have heard Syed asking Lee for a ride home on the day of the murder. Through the 12 episodes of the podcast, Koenig approaches the evidence with the same cautious objectivity; she presents the information with a calculated portrayal of the evidence and a charming, quick, and intelligent personal interpretation of it.
The entire radio show gained a massive following; who doesn’t want to play detective? Who doesn’t secretly hope that they’ll find the one disjoint in logic that will condemn or free Adnan Syed? Koenig has carefully crafted a piece that allows the listener to take an active role in something as large as a murder case and the immense following base she has developed is a testament to that. According to the New York Times, Serial was downloaded nearly 5 million times, and, on average, 1.5 million listeners took advantage of Koenig’s broadcasts.
At the end of the broadcast, Serial doesn’t have a clear answer as to whether Adnan Syed murdered Hae Min Lee—and it’s not supposed to. Sarah Koenig has created a piece that appeals to the listener’s innate sense of self-righteousness, but doesn’t give any conclusions. Maybe someday one of those 5 million listeners will be able to free Syed, but until then, Serial will simply be an example of novel reporting and a brilliant idea.