Adnan Syed in 1998.

Source: Serial

'Serial' Follow-Up Undermines 'Serial'

Ana Marie Cox writes about culture for Bloomberg View. She also writes for the Daily Beast, has written for the Guardian U.S. and Time, and was the founding editor of Wonkette. She lives in Minneapolis.
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It is not surprising that the follow-up to the wildly popular true-crime podcast “Serial” found its way to the top of the iTunes podcast charts after its debut last week. (It's now at No. 2.) What is surprising is that the new podcast, “Undisclosed: The State v. Adnan Syed” is not a creation of the “Serial” team. In fact, it is part of precisely the kind of celebrity-driven listicle culture to which “Serial” seemed an antidote.

“Serial” was a lovingly crafted experiment in long-form radio journalism, an in-depth exploration of Syed’s now-dubious conviction for the 1999 murder of his ex-girlfriend Hae Min Lee. Its success was enormous: It reached 5 million downloads and streams more quickly than any other podcast in iTunes history and recently won a prestigious Peabody Award.

That an investigative project of such high quality could have so much popular appeal seemed to assure always nervous news media elites that their future would not necessarily be spent producing “21 Ways the Iran Deal Is Exactly Like Empire Records” or “This Woman Ran for President and Her Reasons Why Will Make You Cry.”

“Undisclosed,” despite its superficial seriousness and editorial dryness, is a sobering counterpoint to that supposed quaint optimism. It is a product of the original “Serial” obsessive -- Rabia Chaudry, the Syed family friend who brought the story to “Serial” host and executive producer Sarah Koenig’s attention -- and two “Serial” hobbyists, lawyer-bloggers Colin Miller and Susan Simpson. One-plus episodes in (a full episode, in addition to a preview and a new “addendum"), “Undisclosed” is an exemplar of modern Internet culture on every level: crowd-funded, niche, obsessive, biased and a triumph of enthusiasm over professionalism.

“We like getting into the weeds, and we plan on taking you with us,” explains Chaudry at the beginning of the first episode -- perhaps not the most felicitous way of inviting listeners to a tale of murder and subsequent burial in a shallow grave. Audience members shouldn't expect to get “a beautifully crafted narrative like 'Serial.'” And they don't: Beyond any technical flaws, the episode is overstuffed with names, numbers and unselfconscious pedantry. “We are not journalists or podcasters,” Chaudry notes in her … podcast. Clearly.

Instead, “Undisclosed" is part fan-fiction, part Reddit and all amateur. It is by obsessives for obsessives. Think 1999 weather conditions and track practices. And for a while, it outranked the preciously formed vignettes of “This American Life," the deep-dives from “Radiolab" and the more than the exuberant expertise of ESPN’s Bill Simmons.

Of course, if you raise the stakes high enough, almost any story can be interesting. Lifetime and Investigation Discovery are whole channels largely predicated on the assumption that invoking the human cost of crimes makes up for shoddy production values and sparse talent. Or perhaps, rather than belying the value of journalistic achievement, “Undisclosed” proves just how enduring it is: “Serial” was just that good; it can carry the listless “Undisclosed” for at least its opening weeks.

Regardless of the source of its initial popularity, “Undisclosed” is set to test the limits of the “storytelling optional” condition of modern news media. With its proudly non-narrative approach, it is the charticle brought to radio.

The podcast purports to look at the case “from an investigatory perspective instead of a narrative one.” But every good investigation is a narrative, and every good narrative is an investigation. “Undisclosed” is neither because the hosts have apparently excised the defining characteristic of both: not knowing the ending in advance.

Even if the larger mystery of who killed Lee still exists, the proposed final chapter of “Undisclosed” seems to be Syed’s exoneration. The podcast is sponsored by the Adnan Syed Legal Trust, whose crowdfunding page, somewhat gracelessly, doesn’t even mention finding Lee’s killer as an aim. Instead, it explicitly states: “The money you donate here will be applied directly to exonerating Adnan, including his legal defense and associated investigative efforts.” The podcast's website proclaims the opposite: “We promise you, our listeners, that our goal in this podcast is not to exonerate Adnan. Our goal is to get to the truth of what happened on January 13, 1999.”

It’s an eye-popping contrast, one that consumers probably wouldn’t let slide if such a diametrically opposed set of goals were to exist in the context of the mainstream news media. Bias, not a lack of technical skills, explains “Undisclosed's” flaws.

In the first episode, characters and information come at an alarming rate, carried along by the momentum of single-mindedness. While “Serial” inspired a whole subculture of note-takers and map-makers, one of Koenig's editorial triumphs was to keep those optional. She puzzled through it with us, she didn’t drag us along. She talked openly about her own vacillating opinion; she shared the reasoning behind her procedural decisions with listeners.

That “Undisclosed” might even obliquely prove that a sure editorial hand is not as important as sheer subject matter is a perverse lesson for the journalists who thought of “Serial” as proof-of-concept for the whole profession. “Undisclosed” is set to be an implicit experiment in the role skillful narration plays in elevating the merely interesting to the addictively compelling. If its success continues (and it is of course possible that it won't), it may indicate that narrative is not so important after all. Once it has achieved escape velocity -- under initial power of a juicy story -- a person’s notoriety is its own justification, whether for a Kardashian or for Adnan Syed.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Ana Marie Cox at askamc@gmail.com

To contact the editor on this story:
Zara Kessler at zkessler@bloomberg.net