‘Serial’ and other shows reach binge-worthy levels

The true-crime podcast isn't the only one to see a surge in popularity.

Patrick Semansky/AP
Shamim Syed, whose son Adnan was convicted for the 1999 murder of his ex-girlfriend and whose case is being revived in a wildly popular podcast, poses for a photograph in her home, Dec. 10, 2014, in Baltimore.

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. 

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to CSMonitor.com.