Inside Serial's Frustrating and Captivating Legacy

Sarah Koenig didn't set out to revolutionize the podcast genre when she introduced the case of Adnan Syed on Oct. 3, 2014, but she did just that

By Tierney Bricker Oct 02, 2019 10:00 AMTags
Watch: How "The Case Against Adnan Syed" Differs From "Serial" Podcast

If he didn't do it, then who did it?

Five years ago on October 3, 2014, Sarah Koenig, Julie Snyder and the Serial team introduced the world to the 1999 murder of Baltimore student Hae Min Lee and the subsequent conviction of her ex-boyfriend for the crime: Adnan Syed. In just 12 episodes, the podcast gripped the nation's attention, revolutionizing the podcast genre and brought the underground armchair detective community out into the mainstream.

And five years later, the debate over whether or not Adnan, who is still in prison and now an unlikely celebrity, committed the murder, wither listeners still obsessing over small details like the ever-changing timeline, the MIA alibi witness, huge gaps in the prosecutors' case, the tedious cell tower technology and why-oh-why Jay Wilds lied—that is, if you believe he was lying.

It's hard to imagine a time when podcasts all about murder weren't dominating the charts or a new true crime docu-series wasn't debuting every Friday on Netflix, but when Serial launched, it was groundbreaking and revolutionary. 

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Here are a few quick stats:

Serial was the first podcast to ever reach 5 million downloads
Serial's first season was downloaded more than 135 million times
Serial's first two seasons combined were downloaded over 340 million times, a world record as of September 2018
Serial was the first podcast to ever win a Peabody Award
Serial was parodied on Saturday Night Live
Serial was optioned as a scripted TV series…about the making of the podcast
Sarah made the list of Time's 100 Most Influential People in 2015
Stephen Colbert called Sarah his favorite guest of all-time after her appearance

Getty Images/HBO/E! Illustration

To sum it up: Serial was (and is) a big f--king deal. Like you were left out of almost every happy hour conversation or office lunch chatter if you weren't listening kind of big f--king deal. Not knowing what "Mailchimp" was or understanding why "There's a shrimp sale at the Crab Crib" was do damn funny made you the adult equivalent of the nerd who fell asleep first at the sleepover and missed all of the inside jokes. 

From October 3, the date the first episode debuted, until the polarizing final episode on December 12, 2014, Sarah, now 50, became a constant companion for Serial listeners. She was with them on their commute to work, sweating along with them on their treadmill, experimenting in the kitchen or relaxing in the bath. Sarah went from respected-but-relatively unknown NPR producer to a pop culture icon...much to her chagrin. 

Courtesy: Serial

"I really miss the days when nobody gave a crap what I was doing," she admitted during an event in 2015. "I wish I wasn't worrying that sources were going to call somebody and be like, 'Guess who I just talked to.' It'd be nice to just be like a troll in my basement again."

But Sarah was listeners' avatar, with her inner-debate about Adnan's guilt or innocence directly paralleling the cultural conversation surrounding the podcast. She wanted answers and so did we. But when Sarah and Julie decided to make a podcast, they had no expectations...and certainly didn't expect to help lead the mainstream rise of the armchair detectives and internet sleuths. 

"That was the first thing we weren't totally prepared for, I think," Sarah admitted on NPR in 2014. "Then just the larger fact that a public radio podcast would intersect with that world, with that Internet world of armchair sleuthers and people who throw out accusations. Never in our wildest—it's not the usual combination."

As a journalist, it concerned Sarah and the Serial team. Sure, listeners couldn't get enough of the case, the details, the fascinating line-up of characters. But their entertainment was Serial's investigation into the death of a teenager whose family was still grappling with the devastating loss they suffered in 1999; these were real people. 

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"It was worrisome. I fretted a lot about it, about this stuff flying around," Sarah said. "At the end of the day, we couldn't control it. It was silly to think we could control it, but we certainly tried, and even up to last week, we were still trying when we saw stuff out there to just say, 'Please, can you respect this and that.'"

Still, true crime fans couldn't get enough of the case, especially with a subject as compelling as Adnan; like Sarah, who was sometimes accused of having a crush on her imprisoned subject (Who can forget when she described his "giant brown eyes like a dairy cow?), listeners were hanging on his every word. He was articulate. He was engaging. He was so damn likable. So he had to be innocent, right? Sarah's ongoing struggle to understand how this man committed this crime was riveting.

Courtesy: Serial

Ahead of season one's finale, which was basically coming out in real-time as the Serial team investigated every lead until the last hour, expectations were high that Sarah could deliver a concrete answer, put a neat bow on a 15-year-old murder case, to either confirm Adnan did murder his ex-girlfriend or to free a wrongfully convicted man from prison. 

Even an incredulous Adnan asked Sarah at one point, "You really don't have an ending?"

Spoiler alert: she couldn't reach a conclusion about Adnan's innocence or guilt or who killed Hae; all she knew was Adnan shouldn't have been convicted based on the story presented by the prosecution. (The Innocence Project agreed, taking on Adnan's case.)

"I don't think you'll ever have 100 percent or any type of certainty about it," Adnan told Sarah, offering his idea on how to end the season. "The only person in the whole world who can have that is me."

It was frustrating. It was unsatisfying. It was irresistible.

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Once the talk about season one's finale had (somewhat) died down, everyone wanted to know when season two was coming. It turns out, they would have to wait over a year for Serial's highly anticipated follow-up, which would not focus on Adnan's case. 

Despite the intense speculation and buzz surrounding season two, the Serial team tried to downplay their next release.

Mike Coppola/Getty Images for Peabody Awards; U.S. Army via Getty Images

"We're really not planning on having the same response that we had in season one," Julie said at a 2015 event, "and frankly, we're really totally OK with that."

And really, they were, despite rampant speculation about what story they would be telling week-to-week this time; endless articles suggested unsolved murders or , but Sarah's headline-making appearance at a hearing for Bowe Bergdahl, first reported by Maxim, spoiled the mystery. 

(Quick refresher: Bowe was a United States Army sergeant who was held as a prisoner of war by the Taliban in Afghanistan for five years, only to be freed last year in a prisoner exchange with inmates at Guantánamo Bay. The whole situation was made even more complicated (mysterious) by the fact that he walked off his base on his own volition, and was charged with desertion and endangering the soldiers who searched for him.)

The Serial team? Not thrilled over basically being outed like a new Hollywood couple being paparazzi-ed on a date night. 

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"We'd very much appreciate if fellow journalists would give us some room and not feel the need to attempt to dig into and try to figure out what you think we might be doing," a Serial spokesperson New York magazine at the time, before later confirming season two would in fact be about Bowe's case. "Especially since we're actively reporting stories, and having a bunch of wild speculation out there makes our job reporting harder. Doesn't feel very menschy."

Season two definitely did not inspire the same fanfare as season one, likely for a few reasons: its subject, ex-POW Bowe, was much more mysterious and withholding, harder to invest in; Sarah wasn't conducting the interviews with the season's subject, with Mark Boal's intimate chats with the soldier being shared instead; the director had initially planned on making a movie based on Bowe's story. 

While the premiere episode ended with one of Serial's all-time mic drops—"That's me, Sarah, calling the Taliban"—it just felt different, it sounded different, it was different. And when Serial announced after the fourth episode they were going to begin releasing episodes bi-weekly? Well, that choice, which Julie later admitted to EW was "not ideal for us," didn't help to quiet some disappointed fans' complaints. 

Gregory Pace/BEI/Shutterstock

Still, season two actually outpaced season one in terms of downloads, if not social discourse. 

"Our numbers are even stronger...which I think surprises a lot of people, because we're not having five million think pieces written about us every week," Julie revealed to EW, "which we started feeling a little bit of the experience of season one." 

The Serial team was aware of some fans' frustrations with season two, but stressed that just as many people were just as invested in Bowe's story. 

"I think the one thing that I am heartened by is we're hearing—maybe people are just telling me what I want to hear, or that they're hoping I'll want to hear—that we have different listeners for this one, but also return listeners who are liking it more than season 2," Sarah said in the EW interview. "The headline has been like, 'A lot of people liked season 1 better,' but I feel like there's also a headline that's like, 'Well, there's a lot of people who seem to like season two a whole lot and even better.'"

Alas, Bowe just didn't resonate as much with listeners as Adnan, who is now 40; just look at their media coverage since their respective seasons came out: Every dramatic up and down of Adnan's continued quest to overturn his conviction has been covered by the media, including follow-up podcasts and a hit HBO docu-seseries, The Case Against Adnan Syed, which presented major new findings in the case. The latest update in Bowe's case in July 2019 received a small amount of press coverage.

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When you search Adnan Syed on Google, over 9 million results come up; Bowe Berghdal has under 500,000.

It seems Sarah and Serial had an easier time moving on from Adnan than listeners, though the podcast continued to update fans on his ongoing trial. But Rabia Chaudry, an attorney, childhood friend of Adnan's who serves as his public advocate and is responsible for bringing his case to Serial in the first case and has not stopped tirelessly fighting for Adnan's release, revealed to E! News that Sarah still "writes" to Adnan "every so often."

Courtesy: Serial

In September 2018, Serial premiered its third season, which focused on the Cleveland's criminal courts, telling a new story each episode rather than shine a spotlight on one case, introducing a new co-host as well: Emmanuel Dzotsi. While the completely different format earned rave reviews, it once again failed to inspire the same sensational coverage and media attention that season one did. 

But Sarah, of course, knew that. Ahead of season three's release, the intrepid host once again stressed, "If you're looking for a murder mystery, this is not it."

"At the end of the day, you can't worry about it because it'll make you nuts," she told Elle when asked if people would like the new season. "You're either going to do the stories you want to do or you're going to do the thing you know will be some sort of pop culture sensation. I suppose if you hit gold then both of those come together, but whatever. We don't worry about it because you can't."

It was ironic that the woman credited for starting the great true crime rush—with a countless amount of murder-and-crime-obsessed podcasts and docu-series following in Serial's trail-blazing footsteps, just hoping for a fraction of its audience—never had any intention of doing so or returning to it, whether you like it or not. 

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