How the investigation of Adnan Syed became a podcast phenomenon

Adnan Syed, center, leaves the Cummings Courthouse in Baltimore on Monday. A judge has ordered the release of Syed after overturning his conviction for a 1999 murder that was chronicled in the hit podcast 'Serial.' (Brian Witte/AP)

Brian Witte / Brian Witte

“Adnan’s case was a mess. Is a mess. That’s where we were when we stopped reporting in 2014,” says “Serial host” Sarah Koenig in her straightforward, personal style in the new episode titled Adnan Is Out.

In 2014, over the course of 12 episodes, “Serial” probed the details of the murder case of Hae Min Lee, Adnan Syed’s former girlfriend. Lee was found strangled to death in Baltimore’s Leakin Park in 1999.

In 2000, Syed was convicted of murdering Lee when he was 17 years old. He spent 23 years in prison. On Monday, in a Baltimore courtroom, a judge ruled to vacate his conviction.

Beyond the tremendous impact “Serial” has had on Syed’s case and on exposing the flaws in the legal system, the podcast broke new ground in episodic, audio storytelling.

Created and produced by Koenig and Julie Snyder, “Serial” was a spinoff of “This American Life.” With some 300 million downloads, the first season broke podcast records and spawned a cottage industry of true crime podcasts. It won just about every major journalism award including a DuPont and a Peabody, the first ever awarded to a podcast. Koenig was named one of Time’s Most Influential People of 2015.

Barry Scheck, co-director of The Innocence Project, learned about “Serial” from his kids. At the time, podcasting experienced something of a generational divide. He believes dogged reporting, a reliance on experts and propulsive storytelling were key to its success.

He says the way Koenig connected the audience with “Serial’s” reporting made for compelling listening. “One of the intriguing parts of the ‘Serial’ podcast is that everybody heard her thought processes out loud,” says Scheck, “and that’s part of the appeal of it. You know, we’re all in this together trying to think, is he innocent? Is he guilty?”

There’s the story and then there’s the discussion it provoked. In the case of “Serial,” they worked in tandem.

The “Serial” phenomenon was not just about trying to solve the crime itself. It was also about the vast community devouring each episode and then picking it apart online. Journalists at The Atlantic blogged about it. A place to discuss ‘Serial’: The Podcast on Reddit reached more than 72 million members.

As Christopher Dunn, Legal Director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, marveled in 2015, “Serial” “unleashed a spirited and wide-ranging civil rights debate on the Internet,” he wrote. “Most significantly, the discussion forum Reddit, which is enormously popular with young people, exploded with commentary from tens of thousands of people who debated and investigated every aspect of the case, many of which the podcast had not addressed.”

The idea to delve into Syed’s case originated with Rabia Chaudry, a lawyer and one of Syed’s friends and supporters. She pitched the idea to Koenig. As “Serial” unfolded, Chaudry blogged about each episode, sharing her knowledge of the case and airing complaints about the way she felt producers were handling aspects of the story.

Chaudry was also struck by how her views were becoming part of the narrative. “I realized that while I and others close to Adnan were mired in the minutiae of both the case and show, we were part of that case and show for the public. Our interactions online were being discussed, we were being judged and assessed, we were adding both entertainment and substantive value to the discourse. We were also characters in the larger story,” she wrote.

Chaudry went on to write her book and produce a podcast about Syed. She’s also an executive producer on “The Case Against Adnan Syed,” a four-part HBO documentary series.

While Scheck is pleased to see all of the other true crime podcasts “Serial” inspired, he urges caution to anyone who thinks it’s easy to do it well.

“It’s one thing to have a podcast and try to tell a story. It’s quite another to get into the business of exposing a wrongful conviction,” he says.

Scheck says “Serial” benefitted from a team that knew what they didn’t know.

“What was great about ‘Serial’ is that they made no pretense at every turn,” says Scheck. “They were trying to turn to investigators, they were trying to turn to experts. They were relying on the audience for leads. And they went about it in a very professional way.”

“To say it was addictive is an understatement,” Scottish actor Ewan McGregor wrote in Time’s Most Influential People entry for Sarah Koenig. “Suddenly, investigative journalism became our hobby, our passion. People were talking about it everywhere you went. It was a true cultural phenomenon.”

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