Why Variety Is Wrong about Serial and Podcasting

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.

Comments 3

  1. Martin Lindeskog

    Paul Riismandel,

    More power to your for writing this post! I found it via She Podcasts episode 29.

    The mainstream media journalists have no clue about what’s going on.

    Full disclosure: I haven’t listened to Serial yet… First time I heard the show title, I thought it was a show about cereals and other food stuff! 😉

  2. Tom Barbalet

    I thought Serial was pretty interesting but it is not a traditional podcast and it is unclear how many people it drew into listening to podcasts. The people I found in the wild who listened to Serial also listened to other podcasts – primarily NPR podcasts. The difficulty is finding good independent podcasts and the only influencer of note is iTunes. I find most of the stuff iTunes recommends to me to be either outdated (and short-lived) or podcasts that have horrible audio (low levels, poppy etc) and aren’t engaging. Unless you were persistent and passionate about the medium it is too easy just to think podcasting is a bunch of hobbyists with too much time on their hands… and tired old-media radio providing download options.

    • Paul Riismandel

      Hi Tom, thanks for sharing your thoughts. I might suggest that you check out the wide array of shows that Midroll represents: http://shows.midroll.com

      They’re consistently high quality, with many very professional and sophisticated productions, spanning a diverse range of topics and styles.


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