Serial – Article and Analysis

I listened to the third episode of Series and read the New Yorker article. I explored some of the audio tools and listened to how some of the radio people analyzed their own work. So now I am going to analyze what we have heard from Serial so far.

Absolutely she creates flow. Normally, I do not focus well on an audio-only story. I have listened to podcasts, particularly longer ones, and realized after about half an hour in that I really didn’t know what they were talking about. This is not the case for me with Serial. I do occasionally write a few notes (we did that the first class and it is also a habit I have from phone interviews when I was a reporter) to focus my thinking, but generally I just go along for a ride with Koenig’s narrative. For example, in the third episode she starts by commenting on the two cops and then moves to the two boyfriends, but then focuses the rest of her time on Mr. S. Normally, we would be looking for some more explanation about boyfriend Don and the statement from the second cop–that Syed was definitely guilty– but instead I get drawn into the story about Mr. S. She slowly allows the story of Mr. S. to be disclosed. We already hear his testimony and then learn about where he is going and then learn about the geography and history of Leakin Park BEFORE we learn of Mr. S.’s record and streaking hobby. Normally, when you just tell a story, you are going to give a lot of that information up front. But Koenig holds onto it, allowing you to wonder more and more what this guy’s deal is.

How does she build that interest, suspense, and flow? Pacing. Slow and steady–we are slowly learning about this guy. I liked that she actually recorded herself and the Baltimore Sun reporter and the producer walking through the woods, commenting on how things would have appeared on the winter day he discovered the body. The interviewer of the paper-making lady pointed out that you needed both talking in quiet, active tape where people are doing stuff, and active tape with talking. Koenig uses all these in the walking through the woods scene. I appreciated that scene because even before I heard that Mr. S. was a streaker, I was wondering why he was wandering through all that brush. Lots of guys will just get behind any tree. And he was only a few minutes from work/home–either he had way more than one 22oz. Budweiser or he really didn’t have to pee at all.

In addition, the music starting and stopping was a helpful guide for the listener to focus attention. The music is smart and makes you think whatever is going on at that point is going to be important now or in the future.

From the New Yorker article, I realized that one of the things I enjoy most about Serial is the conversational tone “like your smart friend is investigating a murder and telling you about it.” When I was right out of college and covering this very complicated case of an auto dealership being lit up and the rumors about mob involvement and political crookedness, I came back to the newsroom and didn’t even know where to start writing that story. Another reporter just said “write it like you would tell me.” I was on deadline and how to turn out copy in half an hour, but I still think it’s a great approach rather than trying to confuse your reader/listener by all the twists and turns right from the beginning.

Finally, the article focuses on their refusal to take a side, to presume Syed’s guilt or innocence. They edited to remove any bias, and I appreciate that. Although I am perplexed by the fact that they didn’t know how it would end. I trust Koenig as a storyteller to tell me a good story with a beginning, middle and end, and I am impressed that she takes on us this ride without knowing the final destination.


About Audio Storytelling

Listening –

  • One of the nuggets from the “how to truly listen” lady was the idea that “everyone, depending on where we’re sitting, will experience the sound quite differently” — interesting because we all bring our own perspectives to everything.
  • I also thought it was interesting that she said the performer on stage normally gets the worst sound experience, but they get the best physical experience because they are experiencing the breath and the physical vibrations.

Ira Glass

  • I frequently found myself having to go back and re-listen to what he said because I started reflecting on stories and seeing if they fit his criteria.
  • The two major building blocks of a story are the anecdote (the sequence of events), like being on a train with a destination, and the moment of reflection. It is necessary to bait your readers or listeners by raising a question that needs to be answered. Chekhov or somebody said that you shouldn’t have a gun on the wall in Act I unless it was going to go off by Act IV. So everything needs to fit together.
  • A good story is going to have action, a moment of reflection, action, reflection, rinse and repeat.
  • It’s hard to find a decent story: “the importance of abandoning crap” –often hard because we get attached to our stories
  • When you have good taste you know your story is bad. I appreciated that he shared his bad story and reflected on how bad it was. That took real guts.
  • Bad personalities don’t tell good stories. It can’t always be about you. Create a shared experience.

Jad Abumarad

  • he talked about “gut churn” –how sick you feel when you are creating something new. It made me think of giving birth. Your whole body shuts down to focus on this one incredibly painful experience.
  • he also shared the blind panic he felt during a show when you have time to fill.

Story telling

I think stories are crucial to creating meaning to the world around us. What comes to mind when I think of stories are the private, intimate, family stories that define us as individuals and families, as well as the larger stories that an organization, country or all humans share.

My best memories of stories are the very simple stories my grandmother told me about life in Ukraine. Some of these are horrifying (finding dead bodies while plowing the field during Stalinist times) and some are very sweet (losing the only pair of shoes a group of siblings shared). These stories define my family and are what make us different from all other families. I know my dad tried to record my grandmother telling these stories, but he used some sort of micro-cassette recorder and so we lost the voice… somehow I can remember the smell of my grandmother’s Brooklyn apartment and how everything looked, but I can barely remember the sound of her voice. Like all children, I took it all for granted at the time, but now I wish I could remember just a few more stories and could hear her voice just one more time…

As a mother, story is also a great thing to share with my children. I have read everything from Goodnight Moon to The Lord of the Rings aloud, and we all still remember some of the memories associated with the story itself and with the telling. Goofy things like me trying to sing the elves’ songs in the Lord of the Rings and the time the lights went out on Christmas eve so we took turns reading Dickens’ The Christmas Carol by candlelight are all family stories around the story.¬† Kids really love hearing stories about themselves, and with five children in our family there are plenty of great stories to share.

This leads me to digital story telling. Sometimes, a picture really is worth a thousand words (is that the right number?). And audio can also definitely augment a story. Sometimes, however, digitalization can ruin the story by eliminating the need for the reader/listener to visualize or imagine the setting, characters, or plot. We read The Chronicles of Narnia many times when my children were younger, and they were disappointed by the distortions of the movie producers. Digital storytelling can be more vivid, but it can also make the listener or viewer more passive than they would be otherwise. So, honestly, I would rather hear a great story told by a great storyteller, in real life, than watch a youtube video (not that I haven’t watched a million youtube videos…). One thing about a book is that you can control the pace (read it all in one night, or drag it out for weeks), but a movie version is going to fit in a two hour time slot.

A Personal Cyberinfrastructure

This was a fascinating article and lecture for me, as an educator. I find it ironic that as higher education is opening up in many ways, secondary schools continue to try to use technology without giving up control. Urban schools in particular are more and more focused on control (KIPP schools, charters, etc. are extremely rigid) — but maybe that has always been true and it is just more apparent through the contrast with openness in other settings.

My biggest fear is a little bit of Brave New World — no one reads literature any more because everyone has access to on-line summaries. I see more and more students who don’t like to struggle to understand difficult literature–they prefer to google the answer. Math teachers tell me many students stop taking math when it gets too difficult. Just as coaches need to force athletes to keep working when they want to quit, sometimes students need to be (encouraged, required, forced) to do work that before they get to the point of¬†narrating, curating and sharing.