Illustration by Lior Zaltzman
Hello, my name is Lior and I’m a podcast addict. I’ve been streaming “This American Life” for years. I’ve turned podcasts into verbs. No, I can’t answer the phone right now, I’m “Savage Love”-ing. Whenever my husband says “Ok. Alright?” I want to scream “This is Radiolab!” Once I even used “Ira Glass” as my bowling pseudonym (I lost, sorry Ira). For the longest time I’ve felt that listening to podcasts was a niche. But not anymore.
Every Thursday since October 3 has been a battle of the wills for me. I try to hold off as much as I can, giving myself tasks to do before I can listen to the newest episode of “Serial.” Which in turn has made Thursday, arguably, my most productive day of the week.
“Serial” is ending today. The “This American Life” spin-off is the highest-rated, most-listened-to podcast ever. And there’s a reason for that. “Serial” is a melange of “This American Life”’-style candid, heartfelt reportage, the breadth and continuity of an audio book and the edge-of-your-seat suspense of true crime drama. It is everything.
Sarah Koenig, who got her start with “This American Life,” is the Jewish host and executive producer of “Serial.” She depicts an “everyday crime,” one that never got much media attention before the podcast aired: the 1999 murder of Hae Min Lee, a high school senior at Baltimore’s Woodlawn High, who went missing on January 13, 1999 and was found dead on February 9 of that year. Adnan Syed, her ex-boyfriend, also a Woodlawn senior at the time, was convicted of her murder. The main evidence came from eyewitness testimony: Jay, Adnan’s “ex-friend” and pot dealer, claims he helped Adnan bury the body.
Koenig’s voice definitely helps make the show. She is an amazing journalist with years of experience. She tries to be unbiased but she struggles. She shares with us her conflicts and her confusion in language that is at times so visual, it’s like she’s mapping out the story in her head: the incriminating (Nisha) call is a “smoking gun” and testimony that alludes to a third witness “bobs” like “a disturbing buoy.”
Koenig is endlessly inquisitive. She goes to every kind of expert, looking for answers to questions about everything from the accuracy of cell phone records to the quality of the police investigation to the way to recognize a psychopath. She even manages to get the Innocence Project on the case, all the while never saying she definitely thinks Adnan is innocent or guilty.
This story comes with an amazing array of characters. Adnan is so charming. You can hear the conflict and calculation in his voice (he is, after all, talking on the record with a reporter), but his candor and sweetness almost always shine through. Then there’s smart, opinionated Rabia Chaudry, whose blog I’ve been avidly reading, a family friend of Adnan’s who brought his story to Koenig. There’s Jay, the Dennis Rodman-ish pot dealer on whom the entire case relies. There’s Christina Guiterrez, the chain-smoking, tough-as-nails lawyer who was disbarred a year after Adnan’s trial, and whose defense, full of pauses and meanderings, arguably cost Adnan his freedom. There’s Shamim, Adnan’s sweet and intelligent mother, with a heavy Pakistani accent. And there’s the harrowing silence of Hae Min Lee’s family.
“Serial” is truly a portrait of (This) “American Life.” It’s a story of immigration, integration and the American melting pot: a Jewish-American woman talking about a crime that happened in inner-city Baltimore, where the son of Pakistani immigrants is accused of murdering his Korean-American girlfriend. It’s the story of teenagers, first generation in the United States and yet so very assimilated. It shows the anti-Muslim bias, pre-9/11, that seems to have crept in during the trial and that raises questions about our legal system. Then there’s the very personal and yet universal questions it raises about our own abilities to judge people’s innocence.
I want to come clean: I don’t think Adnan did it. It’s more than just the fact that the evidence doesn’t prove he’s guilty past a reasonable doubt. I care about Adnan. I really identify with the two-dimensional way he was portrayed during his trial because of his origins and religion. As an Israeli immigrant in the U.S., I sometimes feel judged and typecast because of where I come from. And I think this is something a lot of Jews — who, historically, know the pain of stereotyping and discrimination — could relate to.
As I write this, I have yet to listen to the final episode. And I dread not having those 30-50 minutes every Thursday with Sarah Koenig when I can’t answer the phone because I’m too busy “Serial”-ing. Thankfully, the show has been renewed for a second season. So if you haven’t yet immersed yourself in Koenig’s inimitable brand of storytelling, now’s the time to start. Trust me, you won’t regret it.
Lior Zaltzman is the Forward’s Digital Fellow and a wearer of many hats. When she’s not tweeting from the Forward’s account, she’s creating illustrations, graphics and lists for the various Forward blogs. She can also make comics out of your bad dates in #OYDATE. She graduated from the School of Visual Arts with a BFA in cartooning. Lior Zaltzman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on twitter @liorca.