Listened In is 2ZY’s regular air-check blog, where we listen to a random twenty minute sample of a station or programme in the news.

This is a different kind of Listened In. It’s about Serial, the new weekly open-ended podcast from the team behind This American Life. It’s a real-life murder mystery, revolving around the killing of Hae Min Lee, a high school senior, in 1999. Her ex-boyfriend, Adnan Syed is tried and convicted of strangling her. But he maintains his innocence. You have to listen to Serial from the beginning. It’s released in weekly episodes. and this review is of Episode 7.

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A male voice on the phone, dry: “To be honest with you, I kind of feel like, I want to shoot myself if I hear someone else say I don’t think you did it, cos you’re a nice guy or not.” Then “Previously on Serial” – It’s the voice of Ira Glass, but it’s all we’ll hear from him.

A plinky plonky piano theme cranks up, and a range of clips. Some are phone clips, some are taken from police recordings, some from interviews.  If you’d heard nothing before this episode, you’d be lost. But that’s kind of the point. It’s a serial. The clip sequence ends with an automated phone operator. “This is a prepaid call from – (then the voice of) Adnan Sayers – an inmate at the Maryland Correctional Facility.” Then “From This American Life and WBEZ Chicago, it’s Serial. One story told week by week. I’m Sarah Koenig.”

Sarah chats to us about a similar case to Adnan’s where cellphone records were key. These were overturned – and a man called Justin Wolfe was freed. “Wolfe’s trial attorney later gave up his law licence after the bar had initiated disciplinary charges against him for, and here’s the technical term, ‘being a crappy lawyer’…

“So I read all about this and thought let me talk to the lawyer that helped figure out the flaws in the state’s case against Justin Wolfe. Maybe she has some tips about how we should be looking at the cell records differently in Adnan’s case? I looked her up. Her name is Dierdre Enright. She works at the University of Virginia School of Law. She runs their innocence project there. She does what innocence projects do, they investigate old cases to see if someone’s been wrongly convicted. I called her and asked how she dealt with the cell records in the Justin Wolfe case and she was kinda so so on that topic. She gave me a couple of names to try. No great insights though. But man, on every other topic, I found her so helpful. She started asking me about Adnan’s case, and I ended up sending her a summary I’d made of the detectives’ reports. Then when we talked I asked if she minded going to a studio.”

Into clip of Dierdre

“This is how it is with Dierdre. A conversation with her never seems to begin, exactly. It’s already there, ongoing, her thoughts churning, and you just  kinda join in when you’re ready and hope you can keep up .. she has no time for bullshit. And not because she’s above it or anything, because she actually has no time. She’s one of the busiest and most curious people I ever met.”

A sizeable chunk from Dierdre, just a measured and intelligent conversation about the flaws in the case against Adnan.

One quote from Sarah that sums up the twists and turns in her mind – and ours – “I’ll read something or I’ll do an interview, and I’m like, OK, there’s no way he did this, it doesn’t add up, it doesn’t add up, then the very next day, I’m like, oh my god, oh my god, look at the phone call to Nisha!”.

Later, Dierdre comes up with a worrying thought about the whole case. “Sometimes it’s going to stay exactly the way it is, and that’s unsatisfying.” “That’s my fear,” says Sarah. “is that I’m gonna get through all this and be uhhh-huh.”

Then there’s an unexpected breakthrough, where Dierdre says she’s totally hooked by the case and offers to put a team of her best students onto cracking it. “Many more sets of eyes, some fresh, some jaded, could only be helpful,” reckons Sarah accepting the offer. “I went down to Charlottesville to see how they were getting along. Here’s the sound of a law clinic getting ready to consider a new case. (FX). Thats a scanner, scanning its little heart out ..” Cut to an interview clip. “You said the scanner smells good?,” “Yeah, smells of laundry and ink.” The reason the scanner is so busy is that the first task when reviewing a case like this is to scan all the written evidence. Then the whole team take a weekend to read it. Dierdre spots an important email from 2008 from Baltimore Police, saying it’s believed evidence from the case have been destroyed .. so. Yeah. That’s not good.”

Have Min Lee and Adnan Syed

Hae Min Lee and Adnan Syed

 

SUMMARY

So I don’t know how much sense the above will make if, unlike me, you’ve not heard parts one to six. But I include the verbatim transcripts to illustrate the fresh tone of voice in which Serial is written.

Look at the structure of those links, the colloquial and authentic beats. It’s like Sarah’s presenting her story to a friend, or maybe her editor, rather than her listener.

After the pre-launch hype, I was expecting more bells and whistles in its production. But this is no Radiolab. This is more about structure and treatment. An earlier episode, retracing the ‘killer’s’ car route on the day of the crime was a road trip conversation between Sarah and colleague Dana as they tried to understand if the time line was feasible.

Every detail is pored over – which is why this shouldn’t work as well as it does. Radio is NOT usually a detail medium. We at our best giving broad brush strokes. Leave the big, wordy, stories to the web and Sunday supplements. And not everything works. Some interviews could be cut slightly tighter. Some of the police and phone audio is not the best quality. And the theme tune feels a bit jaunty to me. But these are minor gripes.

Once you key into Serial’s unique style, it pays off. You certainly need to concentrate. I find it a good motorway listen, or headphones out of my iPhone on a train ride. It’s not something I can listen to while cooking for example. But each week I’m being sucked in more. It’s reminding me of the Breaking Bad effect, where friends are discovering the show and starting from the beginning. I don’t know how it’s going to end – or even how I feel about Adnan right now. And nor does Sarah, which is kind of the point. We’re both just enjoying the ride.

You can also read 2ZY Listened In as part of Radio Today’s eRADIO newsletter every Wednesday. To subscribe, just go to radiotoday.co.uk/eradio

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