Podcast of the Week: Serial

This week's recommendation is a new podcast ... but you might have heard of it. Serial is the first spinoff podcast from This American Life, the game-changing public radio show. The spinoff itself could be a game-changer since it's launched as a podcast, not as a show intended to air on the radio. It's getting rave reviews from The New Yorker, Slate, Gizmodo and more. It just released its third episode and it's already no. 1 on iTunes. Ira Glass was on The Tonight Show to promote it. The Tonight Show! Even though he did spend most of his time talking about that stupid Shakespeare tweet.

Serial is good old-fashioned investigative journalism in a new, informal podcast mode. Producer Sarah Koenig tells us how she heard about the story, so from the start we're along for the journey, not being presented with conclusions. Adnan Syed has been in prison for 14 years, convicted of murdering his former girlfriend, Hae Min Lee, during their senior year of high school. Some of Syed's friends don't think he did it and the evidence is purely circumstantial.

Koenig includes telephone conversations with Syed, conversations with people who knew both teenagers ... and her own changing attitudes toward the prisoner and his case. The attorney for his trial -- who has since died -- clearly missed some important evidence, including a potential exculpatory witness. But other parts of Syed's story just don't add up.

This series is a natural for people who like true crime and it's a true mystery -- the producers are still reporting it even as the series is starting to air. I'm a fan of Law & Order, True Detective and just about every BBC-produced police procedural. Inspired by the recent Key West Literary Seminar, I've recently increased my reading in contemporary crime fiction. But having covered a few trials and loving narrative nonfiction in general, I'm even happier when I come across well-written, well-reported true crime, which seems to be rarer than the fictional varieties.

Some recent examples, if you're interested: Lost Girls by Robert Kolker, People Who Eat Darkness by Richard Lloyd Parry, True Story by Michael Finkel and Iphigenia in Forest Hills by Janet Malcolm. That last one is as much a meditation on journalism and justice as a book about a trial, in the classic Malcolmian manner.

The reason I'm recommending Serial, even though it's so new and I've only listened to the first two episodes, is that if you jump on now, you'll have a chance to follow it as it unfolds. They're posting one episode a week, with a total of 12 planned episodes for this story and more stories to come in the future. Who knows, this could be the first podcast that breaks out into a truly mainstream cultural conversation.

If you don't already listen to podcasts, the easiest way to do so is to subscribe on your smartphone's podcast app. If you don't have a smartphone or don't want to do that, you can subscribe on iTunes or Soundcloud. And if you don't want to do any of those things, you can always just go to the individual podcast's website -- in this case, it's here

Previous recommendations: