Variety recently published a provocative opinion piece arguing that “Serial won’t do much for podcasting or Hollywood.” The essence of Co-Editor-In-Chief Andrew Wallenstein’s argument is that because Serial is unique amongst podcasts, there aren’t other shows to capture the interest of listeners new to the medium. He also questions if host and producer Sarah Koenig’s style, “which is so perfectly matched to the intimate nature of podcasting,” would translate to television or movies.
That is a myopic view that also fails to take into account podcasts that have already been successfully adapted. A television producer listening to Earwolf’s popular Comedy Bang! Bang! might have wondered how to capture the show’s chaotic alternative universe full of strange and hilarious improvised characters rendered real through the vocal talents of the show’s guest actors and comedians. Yet, the television version of Comedy Bang! Bang! has been such a hit for IFC that the network renewed it for a fourth season, extended to 40-episodes, premiering in 2015.
IFC’s Maron is another example. Instead of just replicating the soul-baring monologues and intimate interviews of Marc Maron’s WTF podcast, the television show takes Marc’s life as comedian and podcaster as a jumping off point to create a funny, parallel world based on his reality. IFC also renewed Maron for a third season, set to air in April 2015.
Beyond these notable adaptations, it underestimates Serial’s audience to think that they will only be sated by carbon copies of the show. Wallenstein’s supposition that other producers may try to replicate Serial’s storytelling style certainly makes sense. More well-executed shows in this vein certainly will further enrich the medium. But I have to disagree heartily with his conclusion that “until then, podcasting still represents a rather immature category.”
While it’s clear that television and movies rely heavily on easily-duplicated franchises–from Law and Order and CSI to the Hunger Games and superhero movies–it would be a little sad if simply copying this approach represented the full maturation of podcasting. One of the medium’s principal strengths is the creativity of podcasters who have reimagined existing genres or created their own.
Whether it’s Andy Daly’s Podcast Pilot Project, the modernization of radio drama popularized by Welcome to Night Vale, Scott Aukerman’s and Adam Scott’s dissection of the works of U2, or Alex Blumberg’s honest documentation of launching Gimlet Media, podcasting is rife with fresh perspectives from talent willing to take creative risks. Do we really want this to be overtaken by NCIS: Podcast?
Of course, it’s too early to predict for certain how much of Serial’s audience will stick with the medium during the break between seasons one and two. It also will be difficult to measure, since there’s an awful lot of great shows to share that influx of listeners.
However, we do know that podcast listeners are smart and engaged. We also know that when they like a show, they really get into it, listening to all or nearly all episodes. Anecdotally, we’ve seen time and again how new listeners quickly grow their podcast queue soon after getting hooked on their first show. There’s no reason to believe that Serial listeners are any less engaged and dedicated. We also think they’re plenty smart enough to enjoy a wide variety of genres and styles, even if Serial remains a favorite.
Although Serial has brought unprecedented attention to podcasting, there were already millions of listeners before the first episode dropped. An influx of press coverage–while much appreciated–does not necessarily mean podcasting was floundering before all this interest. Serial’s achievement is one mile marker on podcasting’s rising highway. We can see the next one just up ahead.