7 things radio can learn from Serial

The new podcast from This American Life is massive - but what can radio learn from it?

By James Cridland
Posted 24 November 2014, 11.40am est
Cyndy Sims Parr

Like many people, I've been enjoying Serial. It's probably the first big podcast hit that ordinary people are talking about. Apple said recently that it has been downloaded over five million times; I'd estimate it has probably had double that amount of plays, given that Apple only counts iTunes use.

I think there are things we in radio can learn from Serial. It is itself, of course, radio. But it's different. Why?

You can start at the beginning. This couldn't work as effectively on broadcast radio as online: because it needs to be a linear experience; you have to have heard episode one for episode two to make sense. Indeed, at the beginning of episode two, you're told that if you haven't heard episode one, you should stop. Now. Back a few years ago, there was a station called OneWord on digital radio. I think one of the main reasons it failed is that its schedule was full of programmes that were "part 14 of 23". It's impossible to listen to live, linear radio like that. Yet podcasting lets you go back and listen to the programmes in order. And for this, that's crucial.

The episodes aren't broadcast length. They aren't made to fit a schedule. Recent episodes are anything from 28 to 43 minutes long. They are as long as they need to be to tell the story. One of the annoyances in US radio that I observed recently in LA is that the ads are dreadful. On listening more closely, it is evident that they are, simply, too long. The average length of an ad when written without time constraints is normally around 36 seconds (I used to do this and I think I ran the data once). In a US broadcast environment, that would be padded out to a 60. In a UK environment that would make a good 40, or if the copywriter's good, a good 30. Time constraints, for programmes or promos, make for worse material.

Serial isn't a flashy production thing. It is put together relatively informally. Sure its polished and sounds great, and the music they had commissioned works really well inside it, but it is also really, deceptively, simple: a presenter talking, clips of interviews, nothing more. Radiolab type production stuff is lovely, but this doesn't need to be that. There aren't the typical clichés of production using on-location recording ("It was here in this courtroom that..."), nor music clips or sound effects to recreate situations - just simple storytelling.

There are additional elements online, to allow further engagement. There's a mailing list to join. There are ways to get involved if you want to. (I have steered clear of these, since I still haven't caught up with the current episodes).

The language used is informal. There is humour when it calls for it. And the journalist gives her own view. This is something that, for UK radio at least, is very strange... its so against the norm, and so against the perceived rules, it is almost jarring to hear. Each individual episode is very biased too - deliberately, with one setting out to see whether one particular witness is telling the truth, one focusing on another. It seems to me that Serial couldn't exist on British radio, and certainly couldn't be commissioned - because it goes against all the guidelines for news reporting. Yet it isn't doing anything dreadful. Just not following the standard rules you would expect with a UK investigative documentary.

The audience are also being trusted with involvement. There are online conversations going on in various places. Some are jumping into their cars and timing journeys, filming as they go. There are healthy amounts of parodies. MailChimp, the sponsor, is also part of these - getting amazing extra coverage for free. Were this a production by another broadcaster, the legal letters would have been sent out, and parodies and other fan-related stuff would have been eradicated - just look at the BBC's heavy-handed relationship with Doctor Who fans as one example. Incidentally, the folks behind Geoff Lloyd's Hometime Show have just sent me this - Serial: This British Life. I don't have an iPhone, so can't listen here, but I trust that it'll be excellent; their stuff always is.

Great storytelling makes everything great.

There's a lot to learn here about how radio, how audio, how storytelling, works on new platforms. Now, what can you learn from it?

James Cridland — James runs, and is a radio futurologist: a consultant, writer and public speaker who concentrates on the effect that new platforms and technology are having on the radio business. He also publishes a free daily newsletter about podcasting, Podnews, and a weekly radio trends newsletter.

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