The Serial podcast is on the verge of returning - but what can we learn from its success?


“Serial,” the incredibly successful podcast, will return for its second season at some point before the end of 2015 – and it will be streamed on Pandora, opening up advertising opportunities. The first season last year was downloaded around 100 million times and the second season is likely to be even more popular. So why is Serial so compelling? Sara Bender tries to put her finger on it…

serial podcast digital radio

There is something about Serial – something to learn, an implication for marketing, media, storytelling, something – but what is it?

Breaking it down to its component parts nothing stands out as particularly unique:

  • It is a podcast – modern day radio
  • It is a true story – a solid piece of news journalism
  • It is a serial – communicated through weekly instalments like a soap opera or a drama
  • The content develops in real time – like a news feed, Twitter feed, etc.
  • There is an original score – background music like all good dramas have
  • It is produced by public radio – publicly funded/ funded by the people

But, somehow, my peers and I tuned in each week. We devoted time to listen - and not really do anything else - but hear Sarah Koenig walk through the case - the ins and outs of the conviction of Adnan Syed for the murder of Hae Min Lee.

I posed a question to a group of people here at Carat - a mailing list of affectionately titled - Serial Crew - and my community on Facebook - "Can I ask if you think there is any impact/ take away/ thoughts you might have on what Serial means for radio? storytelling? and brands as it relates to radio/ storytelling?"

George Peters, Broadcast AD, Amplifi, quickly fired back, "Radio has been around for longer than TV and still attracts millions of people to it each week so why is it a surprise you’re addicted?"

Sara McDonald, a woman who grew up on public radio, struck on one of the bits that I find really interesting, "It's interesting that I like listening to a good radio story while doing a repetitive task and so did my great grandparents - they had their barn wired for electricity so they could listen to the radio while sorting eggs.

“Listening to Serial - albeit on an iPhone and not a radio - does remind me of my grandparents and harkens back to a fireside chat. I do feel like Sarah Koenig is there with me somehow (I know this sounds crazy) - like a friend who I connect with each week via phone.”

Jessica Evans, Media Director, Amplifi, builds on Sara's point, but also brings in one of our favourite media buzzwords 'second screening...' She explains: "Obviously there is a huge social element as evident by the plethora of Reddit threads and The Slate's podcast, etc. but it is different to second screening with TV.

“I genuinely think the engagement here is very different and that’s what stands out to me about it. It’s much more in line with reading a great book where you can’t second screen, as opposed to watching a great film."

Despite the interesting points from friends and colleagues, I am still left to think - but, what is it about Serial? And more importantly what does it mean for radio, storytelling and brands? To me, there are three things:

  1. I guess, in its purest form, this is what integrated communications SHOULD look and feel like. There is a piece of content - genuine, wonderful, intensely produced content - created by a brilliant and passionate reporter and her team. Then, based on true interest, the piece of content has spun out (not purposely) into other forms of content - another podcast, countless articles, and so so many conversations. PBS Radio Hour joked that - there was a TV conversation happening - with a podcast host (Slate) - talking about another podcast (Serial) There is even merchandise coming out the back of it. Unreal.
  2. There is something to be said about the 'intimacy' and 'analogue-nature' of Serial - and podcasts/ radio in general that is really very special. The idea that it feels like a friend is telling you a story - in your home or car - and it feels as if they are just talking to you - is really neat. To me, as George points out, it is still a very compelling medium for brands to use to connect with consumers.Building on this – there are two sub points – a: There is something, about truly incredible story telling over the radio, that requires almost full concentration. Few things command such attention these days. And we are not willing to give such attention to many things – like this – these days. And b: Serial would be horrible in any other form – there is something quite important about the use of the focus and concentration on the story – and how it uses different parts of our brains and imaginations to create our own version of the imagery.
  3. A shared experience. I'm stumbling across this a bit lately - the idea of a 'shared' experience - that doesn’t happen in the same place/ time. It happens to different people. In different places. At different times. Yet the experience is shared. I like this idea. It is an interesting thing to think about consumers - as a collection of individuals - as opposed to one target audience.

 Here's to Serial. And stay tuned for season two!

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