One of the best and most popular shows of the past year can’t be found on Netflix or Hulu, and it isn’t heard on the radio. Say hello to “Serial,” the poster child for the surging popularity of podcasts. It traces the history of an obscure but horrific real-life crime committed in 1999. For the uninitiated, podcasts emerged a decade or so ago as audio blogs. Of late, more and more podcasts have taken on ambitious aims, drawing in commuters and joggers conditioned to on-demand consumption. The use of smart phones and laptops – and Apple’s podcast store, with 285,000 shows available and 7 billion listened to in 2014 – has pumped new life into audio-only entertainment following a long storytelling tradition of serialized dramas.
News, interviews, sports, entertainment, and all manner of narrow-topic podcasts have proliferated in recent years, exploring astronomy (Neil deGrasse Tyson hosts “StarTalk Radio”), Early American history (“Ben Franklin’s World”), and just about everything in between.
Josh Macri, digital audio producer at ESPN, says the Disney-owned sports empire has made podcasts a point of emphasis, particularly because the free shows are so popular with listeners under 30. Fantasy sports shows and “The B.S. Report” with Bill Simmons are among ESPN’s most popular podcasts. Better production and increasing loyalty of niche listeners will only make podcasts more attractive to advertisers, Mr. Macri believes.
Producers of public radio show “This American Life” launched “Serial” last fall. Sarah Koenig, the host, grapples with clues and questions about whether Adnan Syed, then age 17, murdered his former girlfriend during their senior year of high school. (Mr. Syed is serving a life sentence in prison.)
Since debuting in October, the nonfiction show exploring the killing of Hae Min Lee in Baltimore has dominated the iTunes podcast chart. In its first season, “Serial” became the fastest podcast to hit 5 million downloads and streams in iTunes history and became a Top 10 podcast in other countries, including Germany, South Africa, India, Canada, and Britain.
On Dec. 18, the 12-episode run wrapped, but the series can still be downloaded from the iTunes Store and heard online at serialpodcast.org, a website that includes documents, photos, and other extras tied to Ms. Koenig’s research.
And it will, of course, be up to you as to when and where you listen. You can even binge-listen at one sitting. Your choice.