With a bang and a crash of its website, the new series of the popular podcast Serial arrived earlier this month. Sarah Koenig and her colleagues are taking up the story of Bowe Bergdahl for their second investigation. Bergdahl was serving with the US Army in Afghanistan when he left his camp in 2009. He was captured by the Taliban and held for five years. After being handed over in an exchange, Bergdahl was soon labelled a traitor and, after a lengthy investigation, it was confirmed last week that he will face a US Court Martial.
The response to Serial's new episodes has been huge and comes off the back of the phenomenal success of its first series. Those 12 episodes have now been downloaded more than 75 million times, extraordinary figures in a hugely competitive marketplace. So what is the appeal?
As a radio lover since my childhood, there has always been a magic to a medium where words can paint pictures in the mind. If you do radio well, it can be amazingly powerful. More so, in my view, than TV or film. The key though is doing it well and as podcasts have grown there has been a tendency to be lazy with production and scripting. Because putting one together is relatively easily techincally, there are plenty of unprofessional ones that are hard to listen to.
Without doubt, the case of Adnan Syed explored by Serial in its first run was a gift. There are many questions to ask about his murder conviction and as we know, we love a good murder mystery. But Serial goes beyond that. What makes it work so well, is the careful plotting of the details and very clever radio tricks to pull you in as a listener. Koenig has a warm, personable presentation style, which is essential. You believe her. You believe she wants to find the truth. Connection with the listener is a basic radio essential.
The brilliant writing must not be underestimated, as it helps carry you, as the listener, on a journey - a journey that you feel invested in. Bergdahl's story is different, not a murder mystery, but there are still many unanswered questions and in the first two episodes, Koenig has asked many of them. She's made me interested in a story that I thought would not connect in the same way as the Syed case. I am gripped.
The use of visual descriptions, clever plotting of episodes and using a well planned story arc are all essential to making Serial such a masterful piece of radio. There is some evidence the success 12 months ago of its first run has led to more creative podcasts being produced. Let's hope so. Radio 4 even has a programme about podcasts now. The main benefit is perhaps introducing a younger audience to the magic of radio, with Serial proving you don't need a platform, like a radio station, to reach millions of people.