Editor’s Note: For most of us, the wide world of technology is a wormhole of dubious trends with a side of jargon soup. If it’s not a bombardment of startups and tech trends (minimum viable product, Big Data, billion dollar IPO!) then it’s unrelenting feature mongering (Smart Everything! Siri!). What’s a level-headed guy with a few bucks in his pocket supposed to do? We’ve got an answer, and it’s not a ⌘+Option+Esc. Welcome to Decrypted, a new weekly commentary about tech’s place in the real world. We’ll spend some weeks demystifying and others criticizing, but it’ll all be in plain english. So take off your headphones, settle in for something longer than 140 characters and prepare to wise up.
The facts are startling. According to the National Center for Biotechnology Information at the US National Library of Medicine, “the average attention span of a human being has dropped from 12 seconds in 2000 to 8 seconds in 2013.” In other words, I’m about to lose some of you right… about… now. For those keeping score, it’s assumed that goldfish have an attention span lasting around 9 seconds. Cringeworthy, sure, and easily corroborated by the sudden obsession with listicles and five-word headlines. Even the NFL, which Americans by and large adore, developed a Red Zone channel for those who couldn’t be bothered to watch anything other than scoring plays. This the world we live in.
Or is it? Some have contended that there’s still strong demand for authentic longform storytelling. Medium is based almost entirely around this principle, and Amazon’s Kindle — which serves the eyes of those looking to consume content that stretches in the tens or hundreds of pages — seems to be doing quite well.
Recently, a spinoff from This American Life caught the glancing masses and wouldn’t let go. Serial was an experimental 12-part story that looks back on a murder and subsequent prosecution, lasting around 10 hours in sum and offering no easy way out for those who didn’t have the time to spare. The result? It’s become the fastest podcast in Apple history to hit 5 million streams in iTunes.
Serial launched earlier this year in a bid to bring listeners into a twisted, very real world where there were far, far more questions than answers. This wasn’t a crime drama. This was a retelling and reinvestigation into an actual death, where anyone could simply find the jailed suspect, call up his holding center, and get a real-time report on the status of things. By its nature, it was bound to be unsatisfying on a level where many demand satisfaction. And yet, people were captivated.
Without giving too much away for those who haven’t tuned in, Serial relies on the direction and voice of Sarah Koenig. In a dozen gripping podcasts, she lays out facts against and for the man who was jailed for life surrounding the death of a Baltimore female in 1999. You hear from the defendant, plenty of acquaintances, and Sarah’s own assistants. From the get-go, Sarah’s mission is to put everything back on the table, don her reporter cap, and do what a jury couldn’t do over a decade ago: conclusively prove what happened.
Outside of the Serial website with a few links to images and documents concerning the case, there’s no alternative medium. It’s just a gal and a microphone, a few sound effects, and you.
Given that we’re talking about past crimes, here’s a confession: I’ve never listened to a single podcast with regularity. Prior to Serial, I’d tuned into five or six podcasts ever. I’m the token guy with too much to do and never enough time to weave a serialized audio tape into my life. But Serial caught me at a good time. I’d kept hearing positive things about it from friends, and I was embarking on a series of flights that would keep me largely offline for around 20 combined hours. If ever I were going to give this a whirl, this was the time.
I’m typically good with multitasking. I’ve penned thousands of articles over the years with a sporting event, a talk radio show, or music going in the background. It’s what creative folks do, you know? Serial made that impossible. I attempted to edit a batch of photos while listening to Episode 4, and the 15 seconds I missed collapsed the entire flow. I tried it once more in a future episode to confirm things: Serial is so concisely written, with so much focus on only presenting what matters, that it demands your undivided attention for its entirety.
Despite overflowing Twitter feeds, unending notification pings, busier schedules, and a lust for just getting to the point, there’s an opportunity for the podcast to tell stories worth paying attention to.
That’s a huge ask, even to someone who respects, appreciates, and creates longform storytelling. And yet, I happily capitulated, as did millions of others. Some things are worth directing attention to, and of all things, I was shown that a podcast could be included in that camp.
You’re still here, right?
Perhaps no one was looking for the next great storytelling medium, but the podcast has reemerged as a contender. It’s interesting that, in some respects, this is simply history repeating itself. Some of mankind’s greatest stories have been told over radio, where a single microphone transmits an unedited voice — and all of the emotion, power, and direction that entails — to anyone with an ear to hear. Despite overflowing Twitter feeds, unending notification pings, busier schedules, and a lust for just getting to the point, there’s an opportunity for the podcast to tell stories worth paying attention to.
If you’ve got a few extra hours this holiday season, consider a podcast. It doesn’t have to be Serial — we’ve listed five other great listens on a sidebar along this article. You might be surprised with how amazing it feels to pay attention to something for longer than a moment. I certainly was.