On 'Serial' and the Podcasting Phenomenon

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A commuter listens to audio through headphones while riding the subway in New York, May 29, 2014. Lucas Jackson/Reuters

On Thursday night, broadcast media enthusiasts, students and journalists sheltered from the bone-chilling February winds by gathering at the New School's Alvin Johnson/J.M. Kaplan Hall for an enlightening conversation between some of new media's brightest minds and innovators.

"Serial and the Podcast Explosion," the first public programming event under the school's revamped Journalism + Design program, sought to unpack the phenomenon of podcasting. Although voiceover storytelling is nothing new, the fervor surrounding some podcasts, particularly the criminal investigation program Serial, indicates this is one of the new avenues to engage people. But as media and technology continue to intersect in unprecedented ways, what does it mean for public radio, storytelling and journalism?

Moderated by David Carr, the Lack Professor of Media Studies at Boston University and a columnist and media critic for The New York Times, the panel included Sarah Koenig, producer and host of Serial; Alix Spiegel, founding producer of This American Life and co-host of the popular new series Invisibilia; Alex Blumberg, founder of NPR's Planet Money, the mind behind the podcast StartUp, and former producer of This American Life, and Benjamen Walker, host of the podcast Theory of Everything and one of the founding members of Radiotopia.

All five made scintillating points about the role of podcasting in the contemporary media sphere, but one idea that kept coming up was the free-form nature of podcasting, and the opportunities it afforded for creativity. So, in the spirit of this creativity, Newsweek decided to do hold its own roundtable discussion about the event with three people who were in attendance: Lauren Walker, our resident tech and security reporter, Shaminder Dulai, our photo director and Paula Mejia, arts and culture reporter.

Mejia: The first question Carr posed to the panel was: Is podcasting the best or worst thing to happen to public radio? What did you think before, and did your opinion change after the conversation?

Walker: I think I have a unique perspective because I am a devout This American Life listener and I will never stop (unless it stops). But one thing that I did notice is that I am spending more time listening to other podcasts, and I imagine people that are less loyal to This American Life might start replacing it. So Invisibilia is fabulous, and I would imagine someone might replace it.

Dulai: I don't think they are both mutually exclusive from each other; I think they're two tracks of the same idea, right? So public radio has a stylized approach already, but podcasting is like the Wild West, as the [panelists] were saying. You're making up rules as you go, the audience is more focused...it's very niche now. It's happening to all media, really. So I think that idea that something has to be destroyed is kind of silly. Cable T.V. is still around even though people keep whining about it. This stuff will still be around, but there are still a lot of niche things, like Netflix, that you can focus down on.

Walker: But you do have X number of hours of radio. And so you're going to spend it somewhere. If you have an hour of radio a day in your life, it's either going to be one show or another. So with the proliferation of podcasts, I just am guessing people are going to opt for the not public radio option.

Right. By and large, too, that radio time is devoted to commuting, the way the majority of people listen to public radio in their cars.

Dulai: Everything can co-exist with each other; I don't think one has to die for the other to exist. I can speak from my own experience that I don't listen to public radio anymore because I don't have a car. I'm on the subway and I don't get the radio down there, so that's why I listen to podcasts; that's my time to listen to something. If I was in my car, I'd be doing the same thing with public radio.

There was an audience question that seemed to momentarily stump all the panelists: Do you find podcasts to be alienating, given their limited geographic and socioeconomic span?

Dulai: I never really listened to podcasts until I got a smartphone, so I'm discovering a lot of this stuff for the first time. There's a wall you have to get past. If you're not inside that wall, then you're not exposed to that world. And maybe that's a difficulty: How do you close that digital divide? But you have to solve other problems first, such as how does everyone get access to the Internet so that you can access all the podcasts out there.

Walker: Yeah I don't think the solution is to discourage people from being creative and seeking out methods of being creative and seeking out communities through podcasts.

Carr brought up a good point about the lack of searchability within podcasts; besides a description, you're all in. Interesting given that contemporary trends in media are capitalizing on shorter attention spans. So I wonder why people are drawn to podcasts?

Dulai: Technically, yes, you can search with podcasts using programs; but the experience is part of it. Because when you're dialed in, you're dialed in. A lot of us listen to them through headphones; we don't get distracted by people when we're listening to podcasts.

Walker: Something Sarah Koenig said [during the event] that I completely agreed with was that someone will suggest something to you [on a podcast] and you trust that person. Once you get through an episode that you like, the intimate nature of podcasts is such that you feel as though you have a relationship with them and you trust that they will bring you another good episode. After that, they're a trusted brand.

Dulai: At the very root, podcasts are about a good story; that's why you're there, right? It's not about having a brand; you know when you listen to This American Life, they are going to surprise you with something, you're going to want to tell your friend about it. You're going to get something out of it. That's all we do as humans is re-tell stories, and tell jokes.

What was your biggest takeaway from the event?

Dulai: I love David Carr still. I hope I'm half as cool as that man one day.

Walker: I found it fascinating listening to them break down what makes for a good story on the radio. I've worked in television and print [journalism] and I feel like I have a good sense of what makes a good story on those mediums, but I haven't thought about why they pick what they pick for the radio. I really appreciated that.

It was refreshing that the panelists for all their experiencethemselves acknowledged that they still didn't really know what to do with the medium of podcasting. Since it's so new, there's still so much ground to be covered there.

Walker: When [Alix Spiegel] said that, I instantly thought about friends who are so creative and would love to listen to what they could do with such an open medium.

Dulai: I kind of found myself thinking: It's fun and all, until it becomes a job. It would take all the fun out of it.

Walker: I don't think so. The podcast Call Your Girlfriend, for instance, two friends are literally just having a conversation with each other. And they're talking about things they would normally talk about, they're giving themselves topics. I can't imagine sitting down with, say, Paula for half an hour, having three things to talk about and dreading it.

Well, thanks. Shaminder, I know what you mean though. I can't imagine the kind of stress Sarah Koenig must feel for the upcoming second season of Serial.

Dulai: I think she's going to go in the complete opposite direction. It's going to be like, how to raise a puppy or something. She needs it, she needs a stress relief.

Walker: I'm going to go with fraud, I think she'll do something with that. Probably something non-violent.

You can watch the entirety of the 'Serial and the Podcast Explosion' panel here.