Serial as “America in the World”

I assume most of you also listen to NPR or have heard of their (no longer) new podcast, Serial, created by This American Life contributor Sarah Koenig. Koenig was a former Baltimore Sun reporter who started this TAL spinoff, which has become an international obsession. The most recent episode beat the record for fastest podcast to receive 5 million downloads on iTunes. It’s topping the iTunes charts in the US, Canada, Australia and Britain, and I’ve found articles about it through Australian and UK news sources. Basically, something created for NPR has spread across the globe in the last 8 weeks.

It’s a story that has been serialized, as Koenig investigates a murder that happened in 1999. Adnan Syed was convicted of murdering his ex-girlfriend, Hae Min Lee, both high school seniors. The conviction in the case was based mostly on the testimony of a sketchy witness, but after 6 weeks of hearing evidence, the jury decided he was guilty after 2 hours of deliberation. Koenig is not trying to exonerate Adnan, but rather figure out the truth, to the best of her ability. This all happens in Baltimore. It’s an interesting story, and Koenig is a talented journalist, to be sure, but I was honestly surprised to hear that it’s popular in other countries, until I started reading the reports from international news sources. Serial is in many ways about race. Adnan is Pakistani-American, Hae Min Lee is Korean-American, the sketchy witness (Jay) is black, and they go to a very diverse high school. In the most recent episode, Koenig points out that while Jay was giving his testimony, Adnan’s (white, female) lawyer was yelling at him, which would garner sympathy from the African American jury. To be fair, this is one of Koenig’s few explicit mentions of race, and her lens so far has certainly not been that of race. I do think, however, that the fact that the three main characters are all unique minorities is significant to the story. It marks it as a distinctly western story, but has ties back to other cultures (one of the first episodes talks about Adnan and Hae Min disobeying their immigrant parents’ “old fashioned” rules; eg: Adnan secretly went to homecoming). The actual events of the story had to have been affected by public opinion of and stereotypes about the cultures represented. At the same time, I get the impression that these were typical American teens, occupying that transitional generation that we’ve read a lot about.

With this, Koenig has become a figure more relevant to America in the World, but it’s almost like the podcast itself has become a figure relevant to the world. This also points out how news spreads around the world and how weird or cult cultural objects get picked up by different groups of people and disseminated across the globe.


One thought on “Serial as “America in the World””

  1. While I have not had the chance to listen to Serial, I have read a bit about it, and I think it is interesting how often 9/11 is mentioned in writings about it, because the post 9/11 era is such an important one for transnational studies. There has been a lot of speculation about whether Adnan would have been treated differently if the trial had occurred after 9/11, because he was Muslim. In the post-9/11 era, the idea of Islam as an “inherently violent” religion has gained a great deal of currency, so it is possible that this could have affected a jury decision in a post-9/11 era. – Tanya


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