Serial on the Radio

I’m pleased to see that Radio 4 Extra is going to be broadcasting podcasting sensation Serial.

Starting this Sunday (i.e. the day after tomorrow), they’ll be broadcasting the series nightly at 9pm, with the final episode airing the same night as the final podcast is released.

I imagine that there will need to be quite a few trails on Radio 4 over the next couple of days to promote this!

Sidenote: We still don’t definitively know how many episodes there will be of Serial do we? Episode 10 was released yesterday, with Episode 11 coming next Thursday. If there were 12 episodes, then we could look for a “conclusion” on Thursday 18th December, with the Radio 4 Extra broadcast syncing in nicely on that date.

A lot of people have felt that Serial isn’t something that could happen on the radio. The time lengths vary quite considerably between episodes making it hard to schedule. And the language can be a little rich for some tastes. But Radio 4 Extra should be able to cope fine – particularly in post 9pm slot.

And this will be something of a departure for the channel, which mainly consists of comedy and drama. But following last week’s Chris Morris special (You have three more weeks to listen), they’re on a roll!

But why put Serial on the radio anyway? Well I think there are a couple of good reasons:

1. It’ll reach a wider audience. Listening to a radio station is easy. Listening to a podcast is… less easy. Sure, I can subscribe easily enough. And so can you, dear reader, probably. But many can’t. DAB sets are in many homes, and this genuinely gives some people an opportunity to hear something they’d have otherwise missed.

2. It’ll be on iPlayer. I suspect that there are a number of people who will get something via iPlayer that they don’t feel able to get via a podcast. (I still wish Radio was available on TV versions of iPlayer though.)

Measuring the broadcast’s success will be nigh on impossible. A programme stripped over less than two weeks in RAJAR? Not a hope. But it’ll be interesting to see what kind of feedback the station gets.

Now I’ll be honest and say that I still really don’t like the practice of “stripping” programmes across multiple days. As I’ve said repeatedly before, it makes massive demands on the audience. And that’s especially true for a series that you need to listen to day after day. It’ll also be going out at 9pm, which means that there’ll be prime time TV to go up against.

But it’s also about making a statement. On New Year’s Day, Radio 4 is giving over practically its entire schedule to a new version of War and Peace. In reality, very few people will stay with it all the way from 9am to 9.30pm. There are those New Year’s Eve hangovers to combat for starters. But the series will also get a more regular weekly run afterwards. But it does make a statement. The broadcaster is saying that this is important.

I think it’s a bold move by Radio 4 Extra to broadcast it, and to be applauded. Whether it’ll sound the same without, “Actually, I use Mail Chimp…” I don’t know!

Podcast Numbers – Does Serial Tell Us Anything?

In a world where there are so many metrics available, there’s often a curious shortage of figures in some parts of the tech industry where you’d like there to be. Amazon won’t tell you how many Kindles its sold. Netflix won’t say how many episodes of House of Cards it has streamed. And so on.

So it’s interesting to read today that Apple has said that it has delivered over 5m downloads or streams of Serial so far. This is the fastest ever podcast to reach that number. But what does that really say?

Well so far there have been 8 episodes of Serial, so if everyone who used iTunes to listen to Serial, dutifully listened to each episode, that’d mean 625,000 downloads of each episode.

In reality, I suspect that the first episode has been delivered more than any other. Despite it being “the Breaking Bad of radio,” not everyone will get on with it and might drop out after a handful of episodes.

Here’s a possible breakdown of listening by episode based on nothing more than random guesswork taking that thesis into account:

One way or another, I expect the chart would look more like this than a fist line.

This does of course ignore the fact that once subscribed, you might not unsubscribe and just ignore podcasts piling up on your device. They still get credited as a download.

But unfortunately, in the scheme of things, we don’t really know what this all means. While Serial has been sitting at the top of the US and UK iTunes podcast chart for the last couple of months, that doesn’t really tell you anything.

iTunes tries to keep its podcast charts dynamic. If it didn’t, then the top performers would fill the slots repeatedly. So it’s never a question of just how many podcasts have been downloaded over a given time period, but they inject some secret sauce into their formula that almost certainly looks at the rate of growth of a particular podcast, and factor that in too.

And it’s important to note that not all podcasts are delivered via iTunes. You can stream many podcasts direct from the websites of those podcasts, and if you’re using a phone – particularly a non-iPhone – there are any number of podcast apps that you might use to download your listening. Stitcher is one popular one. I currently use Pocket Casts on Android for my own listening. But there are many others.

Depending on your own set-up, if you have your own podcast, you might be able to get your analytics software to determine where your audience is coming from. iTunes is almost certainly the biggest single delivery mechanism, but others are important too, even if cumulatively.

But how does your podcast compare with others out there? Well that’s where you run into difficulties. Certainly you can look at the iTunes podcast charts, but they’re flawed as I’ve mentioned.

Now however, you can look to see whether your last eight podcasts have delivered 5 million downloads or streams via iTunes. If they have then congratulations – your podcast is as big as Serial. Why haven’t I read about it in the weekend broadsheet press?

And if your last eight podcasts were delivered 50,000 times in total by iTunes, then congratulations – your podcasts is 1% the size Serial. We do at least have a comparator!


Back in 2005 there was a terrific series on BBC Four called Death on the Staircase (known elsewhere as The Staircase). Here’s what I wrote about it at the time, and what I wrote about the follow-up in 2013.

Essentially a French film-maker spent many months following the real-life prosecution of Michael Peterson, a crime writer, who was arrested for murdering his wife. The film-maker got wide access to talk to parties on both sides of the case, and it unfolded in a remarkable manner. Last year BBC Four aired a follow-up, because there are always appeal processes.

All in all, it was a fascinating project covering a case that wasn’t black and white, but full of shades of grey.

Now we have the new podcast Serial. If you listen to podcasts, you’ve probably already heard of it. It comes from the This American Life stable, with the difference being that over multiple weeks we follow a single story. In this instance, it’s the 1999 murder of a young girl, Hae Min Lee, who attended a Baltimore High School, and the conviction of Adnan Syed, an ex-boyfriend, of her murder.

Although the jury at the time took very little time to convict Syed, it’s again clear that not everything in the case makes sense. So slowly, over a number of weeks (How many? On the website it simply says, “We’ll stay with each story for as long as it takes to get to the bottom of it.”), we’re learning more of what happened or what might have happened.

Sarah Koenig presents the programme, and she’s spent many months working on it. As well as unravelling who the cast of characters are, we get audio recordings of interviews with the suspects and witnesses from the time, as well as interviews with many of the people now. Not least, we hear repeatedly from Syed who is currently incarcerated in a Maryland prison.

In some respects, this reminds me of some of David Simon’s work. Not so much The Wire, as the book he wrote prior to Homicide: Life on the Street being made. Obviously there’s the Baltimore setting, but there’s also the fact that not every case was solved, unlike the average detective TV show. And the system can be flawed.

On the website, it says the following:

“We’ll follow the plot and characters wherever they take us and we won’t know what happens at the end of the story until we get there, not long before you get there with us.”

If that’s actually the case, then it’s an unusual format to not know where you’re ending up when you start. While that is often the case with documentary makers, they wouldn’t ordinarily start airing their programme before they’ve reached a conclusive point from which they can start structuring their production.

I would imagine that the success of This American Life must leave some radio/audio producers insanely jealous. You just have to listen to the credits at the end of an episode to hear how many staff they have on the programme. And the liberty and ability to devote many hours on a single story is also very unusual. I can’t think of a similar series in this country that works in this way.

We did have Rough Justice on TV for many years, and a lot of work would go into those. But even then, a single case usually only merited a single episode. Commissioners would be nervous of stretching a single story like that over many episodes. We also get documentaries set in single locales with “characters” we follow over multiple episodes, but they tend to have narrative strands attached to each week’s episode: the Christmas party; the new launch.

Of course This American Life has had the ability to do things like this. They embedded two reporters into a Chicago High School for five months to make a two-part episode about life there. That’s a lot of commitment and resource that few would get. They famously throw away programmes (or at least early drafts) if they’re not hanging together. Again, that’s a privilege that I suspect few really get. While a documentary maker working in, say, a hospital might have to shoot stories that won’t make it to air for lots of reasons, they’re know that their hospital series overall will air, even if all the stories within it don’t. And that’s not quite the same thing.

Anyway, back to Serial. It’s a terrific radio series, and it’s well worth spending several hours of your time listening to it. As I type, episode 6 has downloaded to my phone, so I know what I’ll be listening to later. And of course the beauty of podcasts is that you can easily catch up and listen to the whole story chronologically.

Thoroughly recommended.