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narrative reframing

This essay focuses on the first season of the Serial podcast, analyzing the narrative approach used in Sarah Koenig’s investigation of an old murder case. In covering the story, Koenig managed to correct cultural biases/ judgements inherent in the original criminal trial, and revealed a separation between truth and fact in the case, resulting in an upcoming retrial of the person convicted. Much of this was achieved through various techniques and aesthetics used in her reframing of the case narrative. Using the lens of theorists Palmenfelt and Jennings, I hope to illuminate the narrative approaches used, through an ethnographic analysis of aspects of the narration, and through examining theories around oral storytelling traditions employed in the podcast series.

Serial’s Season 1 (referred to as ‘Serial’ throughout) is an episodic podcast first available late in Fall 2014. The podcast covers Sarah Koenig’s journalistic investigation into the 1999 murder of Hae Min Lee, a high school student in Baltimore, Maryland. Her ex-boyfriend, Adnan Syed was convicted of first degree murder the following year and given a life sentence. Each episode in the podcast series focuses on an aspect of the case — the prosecution’s alleged motive, Syed’s alibi, the man who found Lee’s body, etc — and reviews the entire narrative from a new perspective, resulting in multiple retellings of the story. Serial goes beyond the court case, framing the lives of young Korean-American, Hae Min Lee, and her Pakistani-American boyfriend, Adnan Syed. The fact that their story concerns an interracial relationship and that Lee’s murder was framed by the courts as an honour killing, makes the story a particularly sensitive one. Given the popularity of the podcast and the dearth of media representations of Muslim- Americans at the time of its original airing, Serial arguably became a form of public anthropology about these minority communities (Durrani et al. 595; Merry).  

In the article, “The Voices: Towards a Critical Theory of Podcasting,” the author describes how podcasts seem to encapsulate the essential promise of the internet — chance meetings with things, ideas and people previously unknown to us. “Listen to enough podcasts and you may come to feel that they are not merely of the internet, but improved, microscopic versions of it” (Weiner). Podcasts are precision-engineered. Their producers rarely leave listeners feeling disoriented (at least not for long, unless it is for dramatic effect); and if you zone out, whether streaming or playing a downloaded file, you can simply rewind it (Weiner). Innovation in podcasting is two-fold: 1. technical usability of the programming unit (downloadable/ streamable units enable more convenience to the listener vs. a radio program); and 2. narrative and aesthetic approaches established by a handful of prominent radio podcasters over the past two decades. While the use of emerging technology was a factor in the success of the podcast (enabling exponential audience reach vs. traditional media forms), arguably, the success of Serial more narrowly hinges on the narrative approaches used.

Palmenfelt defines ethnography as the meticulous documentation of empirical material that mirrors scientific analysis. An ethnography of narrating, would therefore include thorough documentation of the act of narrating (cultural, social, emotional aspects, etc) along with the narratives themselves — form, contents, meaning, function and aesthetics (Palmenfelt 1). Palmenfelt prefers to isolate geographical, chronological, emotional and various other aspects of a narrative to examine them. He says, imagining narrative as choreographed inside cognitive landscapes makes it easier to see the narrative constructions, and to grasp mental images the narrator materializes in their story (Palmenfelt 11-15).

Palmenfelt’s dimensions of narrative technique and narrative mood are perhaps the most interesting aspects in analysing the narrative approach used in Serial. Narrative technique describes the technical, linguistic aspects of the narrator’s performance; narrative mood describes the role of the narrator, which may differ from the prevalent mood of the story and the narrator’s stance as a person (Palmenfelt 15). Central to questions of aesthetics in podcasting is the voice. Most podcasts are structured around oral traditions of either storytelling or conversation, which underscores the most obvious formal fact of podcasts — they are driven by voices, and we tend to instinctively trust sincere voices (Weiner).

In the essay, “Serial, Seriality, and the Possibilities for the Podcast Format,” the authors deconstruct the storytelling approach employed in Serial, to understand how beneficial podcasting can be if co-opted for wider broadcast of anthropological research findings. The essay analyzes the tone, the investigative approach, the journalistic and voice-quality of Koenig’s narration, and the various means of propelling the story forward — all through the lens of an anthropologist. Their preoccupation is with the very question of subjectivity, in relation to how ethnographers tell other people’s stories (Durrani et al. 595). It is perhaps important to note, oral storytelling conventions imply that storytelling makes its appeal first through the sound of the words, and secondly through the meaning or logic contained in the words. Style and technique seem to veer away from the literal, into a realm of circular mind-mapping (Jennings 347).

Koenig’s voice in Serial follows the vocal approach public radio (ie. NPR, This American Life, Radiolab, etc) has established over the last two decades. Parodies of Koenig’s voice (to the point of meme-ification) indicate a recognizable public radio aesthetic exists. This arguably contributes to Koenig’s credibility and authority in convincingly telling her story (Durrani et al. 595). Linguistic anthropologists recognize how particular ways of speaking draw on a broader social field where speech can be linked to class, profession, slang, etc. When we listen to Serial’s characters – their voices, accents, use of particular phrases – all can be socially categorized from what we know about them and their voices (Durrani et al. 595). Looking at this again through the lens of Palmenfelt’s narrative technique dimension, Koenig’s voice makes her recognizable as a white, upper-middle-class, American woman, in her use of the quotative ‘like’, vocal fry, uptalk, rising intonation, etc. Derivative stylings of “valley girl” speak made popular by Hollywood films. “Like, really though” (Durrani et al 595). Her narrative technique and use of a public radio voice certainly gives her authority as the storyteller and journalist, that few others would have in telling this story.

In terms of Palmenfelt’s narrative mood dimension, Koenig seems to co-opt the spirit of a literary detective — sniffing out clues — a role which sets an overarching tone/ mood to the entire narrative. Clues and their inferred meanings compel detectives, journalists, anthropologists and audience members alike to continue in the inquiries to which they devote themselves, whether for work/ study or entertainment (Durrani et al. 596). Looking back at the development of the detective literary genre as we currently know it, illuminates aspects of Koenig’s narrative mood throughout Serial.  

Detective stories rely on implicit social and psychological insight, underscoring a narrative that connects the triumph of reason, the punishment of evil and the advancement of civilization (Krystal 87-88). In his mystery stories, Edgar Allan Poe seemed intent on carving out a space in literature for the analytical and imaginative thinker. In developing/ evolving the (western) detective genre, he began to solve real crimes – namely the murder of a 21-year old woman in New York in 1841. Despite personally exploiting the case, critics marvelled at the manner in which Poe solved a crime; how the construction of his narrative overshadowed the actual murder case (Krystal 84-87).

Koenig, however, is not a detective — she emphasizes her project is journalistic in scope. Yet, the success of Serial seems to rely on its ability to similarly achieve multiple objectives. It is not just about storytelling or investigative journalism or even correcting a social injustice that had not been achieved before. It arguably does all of these things well simultaneously — but in a media landscape where, prior to now, the ability to challenge the decisions of government institutions through the use of media content, was more heavily controlled. Koenig seems to mirror Poe’s attempt to reach a highly educated, relatively affluent segment of the population that was likely difficult to reach, using a similar approach, but in a vastly different media landscape (Durrani et al. 596).

Edgar Allan Poe’s thought-process in investigating a mid-1800s crime informed the structure of the detective genre in western literature, establishing literary conventions which continue to permeate detective stories today. Putting himself in the detective’s shoes and conducting his own research into crimes, seemed pivotal to Poe’s process. This is similar to Koenig’s approach in Serial — except that it again, utilizes a new form of media (podcasting), and that Koenig does not actually solve the case.  

Koenig ends Serial with this reflection:

“When Rabia first told me about Adnan’s case, certainty, one way or the other, seemed so attainable. We just needed to get the right documents, spend enough time, talk to the right people, find his alibi. Then I did find Asia, and she was real and she remembered, and we all thought, “how hard could this possibly be?” We just have to keep going. Now, more than a year later, I feel like shaking everyone by the shoulders like an aggravated cop. Don’t tell me Adnan’s a nice guy. Don’t tell me Jay was scared. Don’t tell me who might have made some five-second phone call. Just tell me the facts, ma’am, because we didn’t have them 15 years ago and we still don’t have them now” (Durrani et al. 596).

What is perhaps new to the equation is how Adnan’s case remains unresolved in the audience’s mind — questions remain about his guilt vs. the other cast of characters in the case, and about adequate due diligence in the American criminal justice system. While Serial uses our need for closure to keep us listening, the lack of resolution seems to reflect back at us the pervasive geo-political mood of the time. Will we ever know enough to really know?

In Jenning’s essay, “Narrative Structures for New Media: Towards a New Definition,” she suggests Aristotle’s Poetics is perhaps less malleable to the creation of new media narratives, especially with its fixed definition of plot. In analyzing the works of authors that centre on life’s rhythms (ie. eating, breathing, sleeping, waking, seasons, the phases of the moon, etc), Jennings notes these narratives do not have a neat structure the Aristotelian drama requires. Once a rhythmic cycle is completed, it begins again. Nothing is resolved. According to Jennings, narratives modeled on life rhythms (usually) have short episodes where tensions increase, and then return to the original situation (Jennings 347). This rhythmic approach is used to great effect across the entire podcast series. However, Koenig seems to blend this approach with succinct summaries, specifically distilled to mirror familiar story arcs. She does this frequently when summarizing how a new piece of evidence fits (or does not fit) within the overall case narrative. This oscillation between two narration styles is used so consistently, one could argue that it forms a narrative device across the podcast series.

“At this point, I’m gonna say flat out I don’t buy the motive for this murder. At least not how the state explained it. I just don’t see it. Not one person says he was acting strangely after they broke up. He and Hae, […] were still friends. He was interested in other girls. He was working at his job. He was headed to college. About two weeks after his arrest, he gets an orientation package for the University of Maryland. I don’t think he was some empty shell of a kid who betrayed his family and his religion; and was now left with nothing; and conjured up a murderous rage for the girl who broke his heart. I simply don’t buy it” (Serial Ep. 2 – 27:10).

In examining this technique, it is perhaps useful to look at how Syed’s case is framed at the beginning. Early on, Sarah Koenig encapsulates the case narrative in Serial’s first episode as follows:

I read a few newspaper clips about the case, looked up a few trial records. And on paper, the case was like a Shakespearean mashup—young lovers from different worlds thwarting their families, secret assignations, jealousy, suspicion, and honor besmirched, the villain not a Moor exactly, but a Muslim all the same, and a final act of murderous revenge (Serial Ep. 1 – 6:10; Durrani et al 595).

In examining the storytelling approach, the authors of “Serial, Seriality and the Possibilities for the Podcast Format” are critical of the Serial’s disregard for anthropological imperatives (such as cultural, ethnic and religious representation), but they note a western folkloric story structure exists nonetheless (Durrani et al 595).

Jennings argues that (non-western) oral storytelling approaches should be viewed as holding possibility for narrative structures that reflect the sophistication of emerging media forms; how western culture is currently experiencing a shift in the organization of knowledge away from the linear motif; how theories and structures existing from non-Western/ pre-Western cultures for centuries are likely applicable to new media oforms and easier to employ than attempting to reinvent the narrative wheel (Jennings 345-346). She suggests poignant connections exist between the “linear and nonlinear synapses of the computer as a medium of the mind and body.” Without theoretical grounding of such juxtaposition in culture and technology, empty echoes of exoticism of distant cultures are likely to unintentionally fill the space, inevitably diluting an otherwise powerful narrative (Jennings 346). It is perhaps important to note at this point, that anyone who grew up with any similar cultural proximity to Syed and Lee, may have wondered how anyone could have believed this was an honour killing after listening to the first episodes. While this may have been a huge revelation to the typical podcast listener of the time, it was not for many others. Yet, the explanation for this might reside somewhere in the gap between western and oral storytelling traditions.

The essay, “Intervention in Digital Territories: Narrative in Native New Media,” in discussing aboriginal oral culture, points to a pivotal aspect of oral and written literature; how fictitious stories aligned to myths and legends are often seen as the simplest vehicles of truth by their tellers (Hopkins 127-128). The very foundations of story are built on a series of contradictions; how stories continually change; how each telling is slightly different. “Sometimes the change is simply in the voice of the storyteller, sometimes the change is in the details, yet the narrative remains the same” (Hopkins 127-128). Stories are simultaneously individualized, yet communal, original and replicated, authored and authorless. Reading across these contradictions is generative, as it reveals a worldview — one where truth is considered separate from fact (Hopkins 127-128).

It is perhaps here, in the telling and retellings of the story, where the murder case and conviction of Adnan Syed fell apart. While it remains unclear who murdered Hae Min Lee, the truth revealed through the Serial narrative was that the prosecution did not have a strong enough case to convict Adnan of first degree murder; how based on the evidence they had at the time, they could not possibly have definitively known. Within three weeks of the release of Serial’s final episode, the Maryland Court of Appeals approved Syed’s petition to appeal his conviction and within 18 months the Court ordered a retrial of the case (Bromwich and Stack). At present, it is still too early to tell how the tale will ultimately end.

Revisiting the approach used by Edgar Allan Poe, I can only assume the widespread success of his narrative approach had further reaching impacts on the framing of narrative in 19th century criminal investigations and court hearings. This raises the question of whether Koenig’s narrative approach may have similar impacts on better distilling of cross-cultural understanding in the news media, the entertainment media and within the criminal justice system. It is within the framing and reframing of this narrative, conveyed through the lens of a particular narrator, using a range of aesthetic approaches, that she managed make a wide audience and justice system see the separation of facts from truths in this case;  ultimately securing a retrial for Adnan Syed. 

Works Cited

Bromwich, Jonah Engel and Stack, Liam. Adnan, Syed, of ‘Serial’ Podcast, Gets a Retrial in Murder Case. New York Times. Jun 30, 2016. Web. Nov 21, 2016.

Durrani, Mariam; Gotkin, Kevin; and Laughlin, Corrina. “Serial, Seriality and the Possibilities for the podcast format.” American Anthropologist. 593-596. Sept 2015. Nov 5, 2016.

Hopkins, Candice. Intervention in Digital Territories: Narratives in Native New Media. Transference, Tradition and Technology. Banff: Walter Phillips Gallery. 2005. 126-137. Print.  

Jennings, Pamela. Narrative Structures for New Media: Towards a New Definition. Leonardo. Fourth Annual New York Digital Salon. New York: MIT Press. 1996. 345-350. Web. Nov 21, 2016.

Koenig, Sarah. Serial: Season 1. This American Life. WBEZ Chicago. 2014. Web. Nove 21, 2016.   

Krystal, Arthur. The Usual Suspect: Edgar Allan Poe, Consulting Detective. Harper’s Magazine (83-88). Jan 2007. Web.

Palmenfelt, Ulf. Expanding Worlds: Into the Ethnography of Narrating. Electronic Journal of Folklore. Folk Belief and Media Group of Estonia Literary Museum. 7-18. 2007. Web. Oct. 27, 2016.

Merry, Stephanie. Serial: An investigative journalism podcast becomes a public obsession. Washington Post. Nov 13, 2014. Web. Nov 21, 2016.

Weiner, Jonah. The Voices. Toward a critical theory of podcasting. Slate. Dec 14, 2014. Web. Oct 4, 2016.


Listen to the first season of Serial


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