'Serial' success: What are its clues for publishing?

'Serial' success: What are its clues for publishing?

Editor's Note: Serial describes itself as "a podcast where we unfold one nonfiction story, week by week, over the course of a season." Our US-based readers unfamiliar with the series will want to know that it's produced by the team behind This American Life, Ira Glass' enduringly popular radio show heard weekly on more than 500 stations by some 2.2 million listeners. The This American Life podcast itself sometimes ranks as the US' most popular, and the radio show is one of the best-known fixtures of many National Public Radio (NPR) affiliate stations in the United States, produced by Chicago Publc Media. In Serial, Glass serves as editorial advisor and the production is led by Sarah Koenig, as host and executive producer. The tone, the use of music, the structure -- the voice -- of Serial is fully that of This American LifeAs is noted in the story below, the producers have now announced a second season, funded by listener donation (a public radio tradition in the States) and sponsors.

The programme's Elise Bergerson tells us that Serial averages 2.23 million downloads per episode and has accumulated more than 20 million downloads in total.

Season 1 of Serial is a study of an actual 1999 murder case involving a high-school senior who was strangled in Baltimore, Maryland. Her 17-year-old boyfriend was convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment. The show's producers have revisited the case and its many previously unrevealed details which, in particular, call into question the relatively slim evidence on which the case was decided. Its next episode, No. 10, becomes available Thursday (4th December). To appreciate the show, start listening with Episode 1 -- it's important to hear the segments in order. The Web site has many visuals and notes that augment listeners' experience of the podcasts.

We're glad today to have Julia Kingsford's (pictured) thoughts on Serial and some of its elements of interest to the digital publishing community. -- Porter Anderson

It would be difficult to work in the media and not have heard of Serial in the last few weeks.

It launched in early October and has snowballed since then to become the most popular podcast ever – even before it reached a peak of media coverage it had been downloaded via Apple alone a reported 5 million times.

It slowly (and I mean slowly-- the nine episodes that have been broadcast so far clock up just over six hours of listening) unpicks a 15-year-old murder case in a not-dissimilar way to how The Suspicions of Mr Whicher handled a 150-year-old one. But in addition to the reporting, Serial draws on a huge wealth of archive and new interviews and evidence to give a really rich multi-voice and -perspective audio experience, backed up by supporting documents on its website. It is practically perfect storytelling.

There is no doubt that Serial’s popularity and success present a new opportunity for narrative presentation.

For whom it presents that opportunity is another matter.

Across old media there is constant debate about adapting traditional models and practices to take advantage of the possibilities and opportunities of new media. This is complicated by the fact that over millennia we have borrowed and given and stolen practices so that what was once simply oral storytelling or knowledge giving is now book, newspaper, and magazine publishing, theater, performance art, film, radio and television, even before you layer in the comparatively new game and app industries.

In publishing we’re very focused on the evolution of the story, how technology can enhance and evolve our product to create new opportunities. But our focus has primarily been on textual evolution, on enhanced ebooks and gamification.

Serial came from radio and it would be easy for publishing to dismiss it as simply not in our purview. It’s been a while since audio was seen as the poor relation of text publishing. There has been huge growth, 30 percent each year in the UK, driven by the streamlined supply chain of digital, publishers' increasing investment, "readers" hungry to consume and iTunes and Audible there to supply. But audio still has sat in the shadows a little.

With a global audience that even the biggest international bestsellers would be proud of, it is impossible to deny that Serial will have changed many consumers’ attitudes to what they want from narrative experiences.

But commentators are already suggesting that like Lonelygirl15, 2006’s interactive video storytelling sensation, Serial’s success is unrepeatable, it won’t spark a media revolution, say such critics, and beyond enjoying this series we shouldn’t be too concerned. But this commentary has been quite explicit to the potential impact on radio and film industries. Perhaps this isn’t the beginning of something new, but perhaps that’s only because there’s nothing particularly revolutionary about it.

At its heart, Serial is just a very well-told story, simply done, with only the addition of multiple voices telling their parts, to differentiate our experience of listening around our iPads to that of our ancestors around their fires.

The obvious issue for publishers in considering the success of Serial is the business model – the podcasts are free and had they not been it could never have achieved the popularity it has.

It was partly funded by its parent radio programme, but primarily it was sponsored, initially by Mailchimp, although Audible came on board from Episode 8 and their spot recommending that listeners may enjoy The Hound of the Baskervilles was an intervention and suggestion intriguingly ill-received on social media. In a recent episode, the show made an appeal for donations, so a second series would be possible and took a week’s break, perhaps to spur us on to pay to fill the Serial shaped hole in our lives.

Editor's update: Ira Glass and his team at This American Life have announced that there will indeed be a second season of Serial, "between the money you [listeners] donated and sponsorship." The company says it does not yet have an airdate for the start of Season 2, nor a storyline.

Certainly, the show is exploring new business-model possibilities, which can be the real challenge around alternative content opportunities. But publishers know that there’s a market for paid audio – just ask Audible, whose subscribers globally downloaded 725 million hours of speech in 2013.

We have two opportunities to take advantage of this huge surge in interest for listening to great stories.

  1. We could lure listeners to our audio by making some of it free podcasts – classic content marketing, to hook them in till they’ll pay, a particularly strong argument for boosting the start of series.
  2. Or we could make brilliant audio storytelling even more of our business than it already is, commission to audio, enhance our ebooks with audio, enmesh the text and audio so they are completely interchangeable, as Kindle and Audible are experimenting with in the US.

Give readers an opportunity to take our stories with them even when they need their hands and eyes to get on with their busy lives but still remain immersed in our stories. Because surely that immersion is the real revolution and if there’s one thing Serial teaches us, it’s that there’s a huge, hungry market for it.

Julia Kingsford is director of Kingsfor Campbell, a literary and marketing agency in London, and business develpoment and consumer insight consultant with Valobox.

Images, except for Kingsford's headshot, are from the SerialPodcast.org site.