Last year we were introduced to Serial, a podcast that told one story, in installments, week by week – just as the name Serial would suggest. This program, from WBEZ Chicago and the creators of This American Life, had quite a reputation to uphold. Because as we all know, even if someone is ignorant to all the ways of public radio, they still can recognize heartthrob and This American Life host Ira Glass when he is presented. So, when Serial host, Sara Koenig, a long time producer of This American Life, began it was unsure what would become of this unique program. Needless to say, it became a phenomenon. All of a sudden, everyone was talking about this show and its content. Serial became a household name. There were water cooler discussions of the guilt or innocence of Adnan Syed and breakdowns of evidence. Even the Saturday Night Live writers and cast member Cecily Strong were such fans of the program that they turned an audio podcast into a visual experience by giving it life in a pre-recorded skit. It was fabulous; suddenly Serial was the new favorite of many NPR listeners. Personally, I used every lunch break, commute, and early rising with my infant son as an excuse to listen to Serial. It was catchy and fresh and each episode left the listener wanting more, and when it was over, the loyal fan base became lost awaiting for the next journey
Well, as we patiently await the arrival of season two, we should address how a complete listening experience managed to steal our hearts and captivate our minds in a world of visual distraction.
While the answer is not simple, I will say that something that is simply good draws our attention. In a culture that relies heavily and almost totally on trend, when something breaks the mold we tend to perk up and pay attention. It seems people are less concerned with Keeping Up with the Kardashians and are using their free time in a more constructive manner, of which they have very little. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in a study conducted in 2013, adults between the ages of 25 and 54, employed, with children, have just 1.7 hours per day that is not dedicated to anything or anyone else. Now, this number is just an average, but still, 1.7 hours a day that you theoretically have control over. In the course of a year that is only 25.9 days that truly belong to you as an individual.
So, why do we give our precious time to something like Serial? Why would we take any free moment and immerse ourselves into a story that largely we didn’t know or care ever happened?
Because we want more.
We want deeper understanding and meaning of the world around us. Simply to leave behind trashy reality television and our constant barrage of social media alerts offers a reprieve for those who may not ever take the chance to step away. The best part, however, is it doesn’t require the listener to ditch their smartphone, the number one thing many say they can not live without. Serial allows us our need for connection, while distracting us into taking time to absorb the world around us.
The show was put in our pocket, and it gave us a way to escape the confines of the 9 to 5 office scene. It allowed us to unwind with a drink in our hand at night, and most of all it provided enjoyment. The enjoyment and entertainment of Serial was not cheap. It provided thought-provoking ideas while remaining accessible to even the most casual listener. Serial did not think less of its audience, as most programs do, but instead it encouraged them to take the ideas they presented further. An example of this: on their website they included documents and photos that went along with the episodes, so you could see the information for yourself and come to your own conclusions or liven up a debate with coworkers and friends.
In the highly academic film, Tommy Boy, Ray Zalinsky tells us that, “what the American public doesn’t know, is what make them the American public.” People are standing up against this kind of mentality and are refusing to be seen as ignorant or less than, and this is the reason shows like Serial, no matter their format, are bringing in fans from all walks of life and are seeing great successes. The ability to be seen as valuable is something we all wish to possess and intelligent, yet unpretentious programming gives us that gift.
Allowing people a break from staring at a screen is a necessary thing, however it is a rather difficult task to accomplish. Luckily, we still have storytellers in the world, and having people like Sarah Koenig, who is willing to share her gift with the rest of us, only helps further this trend. Perhaps the success of Serial will die down with the hype of its introductory season, but the seed of change has been planted and for those who do not wish to stay the course with this show will be introduced to a new project. All that matters is that we continue to learn and grow and take the time to inject meaningful thought into our lives, and once in a while, take a break from the screen.