NPR’s “Serial” Kills It

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I am not a talk radio fan. When I am driving, I prefer to listen to music and find something that fits my mood, whether it be jazz, classical, pop or rock. So I was a skeptic  last summer when my sister talked up a podcast called Serial. She said that she had listened to the entire first season of Serial on a road trip to Minnesota for our niece’s wedding.

Serial, which originally aired on NPR’s “This American Life,” told the riveting story of Adnan Syed, a man currently serving a life sentence for the murder 15 years ago of his ex-girlfriend Hae Min Lee. The story unfolded week by week, as indicated by the title, but thanks to the digital world in which we live, my sister was able to digest the entire series in one long drive. Later, my daughter seconded my sister’s enthusiasm for the series, and she insisted on downloading the podcast to my phone. One hour into it, I was hooked.

The story of Adnan Syed and how at age 17,  he came to be arrested, tried, and convicted of  murder became a radio sensation, and journalist Sarah Koenig’s revisiting of the case eventually led to a hearing to decide whether Syed should be given a new trial. I must confess that I have a girl crush on Sarah Koenig. I love her radio voice and her honest, down-to-earth presentation of both the facts and her own feelings and opinions about the case. She interviews Syed himself, as well as former classmates, law enforcement officials, and court figures, trying to get to the truth of what really happened on January 13, 1999, the day Lee went missing. We hear actual audio of interrogations and witness testimony at the two trials, the second of which resulted in a life sentence for Syed.

It is not easy to make true, evidence-based stories this riveting. Therein lies the secret of Serial‘s success. This season’s episodes find Koenig exploring the disappearance, rescue, and pending court martial of Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, whose controversial release from captivity by the Taliban has sparked widespread criticism. Bergdahl, who was stationed at a remote outpost in Afghanistan, walked off his base in 2009, and Serial explores Bergdahl’s motivations, state of mind, and personal background, as well as the point of view of his platoon mates, his commanders and others in the U.S. Army, and even Afghanis who had information on what happened to Bergdahl.

What I love about this radio show is that Sarah Koenig seems to have no political or personal agenda other than a curiosity about the subjects she tackles. She leaves virtually no stone unturned trying to get to the truth as best she can. And while the series tends not to tie things up in a tidy knot, that’s reality.

So for a true “reality show,” I highly recommend that you tune into Serial. It will fascinate, disturb, and cause you to question what you think you know.

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