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.