By November last year, the true crime weekly podcast, Serial, had turned into an Internet sensation. The podcast about the 1999 murder of a Baltimore high school student, supposedly by her former boyfriend, became one of the most popular in the history of iTunes with over five million downloads across the world including South Africa. What’s the appeal of the podcast and are we entering a golden age for the medium? By MARIANNE THAMM.
“Support for Serial comes from MailChimp… MailChimp… Mail…kimp? (beat) …More than seven million businesses around the world use MailChimp…”
Were it not for Serial, few of us outside the US or at least those of us who don’t run small businesses that need to send off loads of emails would have known about MailChimp, an online marketing email service.
The 19-second ad, which served to introduce each episode of Sarah Koenig’s Internet phenomenon, Serial, and that was followed by the hypnotic and melancholic first few bars of Nick Thorburn’s soundtrack, received enormous international exposure during the podcast’s 12-week run last year.
MailChimp had previously sponsored Ira Glass’s groundbreaking This American Life radio show hosted by NPR – a private and publicly funded media company – and was not seeking to create any new business through sponsoring Serial. But the remarkable listenership figures, as well as the ripple effect Serial created across media platforms as its popularity grew, served to heighten the company’s profile internationally.
One study by Engagement Labs and quoted in a report in Adweek found that MailChimp gained 6,891 followers soon after the podcast kicked off on 3 October. In this instance sponsoring the untested Serial project paid off for MailChimp.
Because of the traction Serial managed to create – David Raphael, president of the US-based Public Media Marketing – told the Wall Street Journal advertisers would move increasingly towards employing podcasts to build brands as well as associate products with “high-minded content”.
No one could have predicted the sensational and international reach and reaction to Serial. Announcing the programme in an NPR blog on 2 July 2014, Glass wrote, “I have exciting news today. We’re starting a new show! We’ve never done this before. It’s coming out in the fall. It’s called Serial and it’ll be a weekly podcast, not a radio show at all. The main way it’s different from This American Life is that instead of bringing you a different theme each week, every episode of Serial will bring you back not just to the same theme but to the same story, to bring you the next chapter. We’re starting with a crime story, that’ll run for about a dozen episodes. Our hope is that it’ll play like a great HBO or Netflix series, where you get caught up with the characters and the thing unfolds week after week, but with a true story, and no pictures. Like House of Cards, but you can enjoy it while you’re driving.”
It took veteran journalist Sarah Koenig and This American Life senior producer, Julie Snyder, a year to research, record and edit Serial – a detailed excavation of a trial involving a 17-year-old school student, Adnan Sayed, accused of murdering his former girlfriend Hae Min Lee. Koenig was inspired to revisit the case when she received an email from one of Sayed’s friends suggesting he couldn’t have been a killer.
What followed was an exceptional bit of non-fiction, documentary journalism and storytelling. Koenig unpacked the case from every conceivable angle while exposing her own shifting thoughts and ideas. It was this unique ability to fully and intimately engage the listener while sharing her doubts and theories as she delved deeper into the mystery that made for compelling and somewhat addictive listening. Over and above the narrative the show employed music and other aural sound effects to create real ‘theatre of the mind’.
Each week fans either excitedly waited for each new podcast to be uploaded or downloaded them to “binge listen” later on a variety of devices including iPods, MP3 players and mobile phones.
As the programme progressed, aficionados began sharing their listening experiences on Twitter, on Facebook and on blogs. Parody accounts sprouted, ‘listening groups’ sprang up in some neighborhoods, other podcasts dedicated to the series were created and newspapers, both online and print, began to write about, discuss and dissect the Serial phenomenon.
While podcasts began around the year 2000 as a direct result of the launch of the Apple iPod, changing technology, new apps, the availability of Bluetooth in most new vehicles as well as easy quick access to Wi-Fi has seen the rise in popularity of a myriad of shows. The choice today is dazzling – from comedy, to news and politics, to finance, sex, music and cookery – and listeners can tailor their tastes and interests to suit their own busy lifestyles or schedules.
We have, say many, entered the ‘golden age of the podcast’, an age that might indeed eventually diminish the appeal of traditional radio, increasingly regarded as rather old-fashioned in terms of content, programming, approach and tone. The supposed perceived “dumbing down” of everyday, commercial radio too has driven more discerning listeners elsewhere and this global audience has washed up on the shores of the podcast.
So what’s the lie of the land in South Africa?
South African journalist and editor Jonathan Ancer, creator of the Extraordinary Lives biographical podcast series currently hosted by the Mail & Guardian, says he began listening to podcasts after finding local radio “frustrating”. [Listen here to his episode on South African born inventor Elon Musk]
“I have no interest in what ‘Rob from Rondebosch’ thinks – and I find the presenters shallow and smug. I was stuck in my car in slow-moving traffic and I wanted to listen to intelligent and thought provoking material. A friend Dan, who happens to be a sound engineer, pointed me to This American Life, Great Lives and Radio Lab – and I started to listen to podcasts. It just made so much sense. You can’t read and drive, you can’t watch a video and drive but you can listen and drive – and now I could listen to what I chose to listen to – and when I wanted to,” said Ancer.
When Ancer left Independent Media last year he researched the local landscape and found there were very few tailor-made South African podcasts apart from those that traditional radio stations upload on their websites. But these are simply uploads of programmes after they had been broadcast.
When he first began talking to people in South Africa about podcasts about a year ago Ancer says, “They didn’t know what I was on about.
“But Serial has opened doors even in South Africa and there’s huge potential. I think sponsors and advertisers will come to the party if the product is right. We produced Extraordinary Lives in partnership with the M&G and it was sponsored by Sillito Environmental Consulting. I’m hoping we will do a second season. I produced a podcast series for Bicycling Magazine, which is due to be released in the next week. Media houses don’t seem to have much of an appetite for podcasts at the moment, but I think they will eventually get with the platform.”
Ancer’s original idea had been to start an audio newspaper but he realised the project was too ambitious. It was then that he decided with partner Dan Dewes to record Extraordinary Lives. Ancer asked various South Africans to suggest an ‘icon’ or a worthy individual and would then rope in other popular or prominent voices to discuss their lives.
Feedback, so far, says Ancer, has been positive “but the $64,000 question is how do you make money from podcasts? I think it’s by making a compelling product and finding sponsors and advertisers to get behind it”.
But how to go about it with few resources and no budget?
“I listened to an interview with Sarah Koenig from Serial and she spoke about the people (journalists, producers, fact checkers etc) and time (about a year) they threw at Serial. I thought Serial was very good – and interesting journalism – where Sarah was putting herself and her journalism out there, but I don’t think it is the best podcast. (This American Life is still my favourite.) What Serial has done, though, is it has given podcasts a mass audience. Many people who had never listened to podcasts before subscribed to Serial (for free) and saw how easy it was to access the technology.”
Ancer’s favourite podcasts include Invisiblia, Reply All, Fresh Air, Longform, Death, Sex & Money, Radio Lab, The Moth, Great Lives and This American Life.
Strategist and journalist, Toby Shapshack, says that currently the biggest podcast in the country is Gareth Cliff’s CliffCentral.
“Cliff is arguably the biggest name in radio in South Africa – along with Fresh, Euphonik and Anele – and his sudden leap of faith to start his own streaming radio service is not unlike that of Leo Laporte. Laporte was a well-known US radio journalist covering the tech industry when, in 2005, he took off to start what would become a $4million-a-year podcast business called This Week In Tech. It started with podcasts, then added vodcasts and even streaming video.”
Cliff “very smartly” joined up with WeChat just as the social networking app was launched into South Africa, said Shapshak, and through it he was able to stream audio almost effortlessly through specific data packages from MTN (from R15/month) for unlimited WeChat streaming.
What the rise in popularity of podcasts really signifies, he says, is the change in distribution (from radio waves to via the Internet) and that “good radio (or content as we now call all the things that used to be called journalism) is as compelling as ever. Something like Serial has shown how good, old-fashioned radio is just as consumable as television.”
Poor quality, says Shapshak, is inexcusable in an age where competition is now global.
While South Africans may be slow to uptake local podcasts, there is no doubt that a vast potential audience that has not yet been tapped, exists. Local uploads of Serial as well as the hype from its South African fans on Facebook is testimony of this. BTW, feel free to recommend some of your favourite podcasts in the comments section below. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a classic 2010 episode of WTF featuring Louis CK to listen to. DM
Photo: Sarah Koenig (left) is an executive producer and host of Serial. It’s a spinoff of This American Life, hosted by Ira Glass (center). Julie Snyder is an executive producer of Serial and senior producer at This American Life. (Meredith Heuer/Courtesy of Serial)