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True crime podcast ‘Serial’ subject Adnan Syed released after 23 years in prison. What now?

A Baltimore judge has officially rescinded Adnan Syed’s murder conviction after his legal team presented a new year-long review to the court which detected two new potential suspects and detailed a string of uncovered evidence.

According to the BBC, Syed, 41, has been released into home detention after almost 23 years behind bars. The Baltimore-based man was arrested in 1999, when he was just 19 years old, and in 2000 was sentenced to life in prison—accused of the murder of his ex-girlfriend Hae Min Lee after her body was found buried in the woods.

In 2014, this highly publicised case became the prime subject for season one of the true crime podcast Serial. Sarah Koenig, an American journalist, hosted the 12-part series which included 15 months of investigations, interviews and research into the murder and following conviction of Syed. Koenig also posted an episode on 20 September 2022 which detailed the most recent update, Syed’s release from prison.

While Syed has not officially been found innocent, this landmark decision heeds worldwide attention and acts as a crucial move towards reopening the investigation into Lee’s death. Despite all of the prosecution’s previous appeals having been denied, Judge Melissa Phinn decreed that she was vacating his conviction “in the interest of fairness and justice,” adding that the state had failed to share integral evidence that could have helped Syed’s defence at trial.

The Baltimore State’s Attorney’s Office, which has studied the case over the past year alongside Syed’s latest defence attorney, stated that he definitely “deserves a new trial.”

Some background information

For those of you who may not have heard of Syed until today, or indeed the true crime podcast Serial, let us walk you through some important background information.

In February 1999, Syed was a senior in high school in Baltimore, Maryland. One day after school, Syed’s ex-girlfriend and former classmate, Hae Min Lee, was strangled and buried in a wooded forest.

Six weeks after her disappearance, Syed would be charged and convicted of her death, receiving a life sentence in prison for first-degree murder, robbery, kidnapping and false imprisonment. Since his arrest, Syed has continually maintained his innocence.

The Telegraph recently stated that during the original trial in 1999, Syed was painted as the scorned lover. The prosecution argued that he had felt humiliated by Lee and, after having been rejected, acted out in violence.

In November 2019, The New York Times reported that Syed’s most recent appeal to the Supreme Court had been denied.

However, this most recent update of his release into home detention sparks hope for Syed’s family who have been longing for a fair trial that evaluates the new evidence that has come to light since the young man’s arrest in 1999.

‘Serial’

In 2014, Serial, a true crime podcast, chose to focus its first season on this highly publicised case, specifically with the angle of whether or not Syed received a fair trial based on the evidence presented in court. Since its launch, the podcast has been downloaded approximately 300 million times—and during the year of its debut, won a Peabody award.

One of the most shocking takeaways from Serial included a potentially life-saving element that was left out of the criminal trial. Koenig dove right into the crux of the matter during episode one—a missing alibi.

Asia McClain is a former classmate of Syed who, according to Syed himself, wrote him a letter just after his arrest claiming that she specifically remembers seeing him at the public library promptly after school on the day Lee was found murdered. Yet, despite this valid and corroborated alibi, McClain was never once called to witness at the trial. Even worse, she was never once contacted by the defence attorneys—thereby stripping away one of Syed’s most valuable assets.

Another one of the most important aspects of the trial that Koenig explored is the “coded language” prosecutors used during Syed’s trial. Refinery29 summarised this by stating that the prosecution indicated Syed’s faith was what drove him to kill Lee. They spoke of other instances in which jilted Pakistani men killed their wives or girlfriends, ignoring the fact that Syed was born and raised in Baltimore.”

Koenig’s style and thorough investigation gave this case a national audience, leading many to question whether or not it inadvertently helped to maintain momentum for a revisited trial, with netizens everywhere donning their sleuth attire and hunting for the true criminal. Others have also suggested that Serial directly influenced a catalogue of true crime podcasts that have since premiered on a range of streaming platforms.

All that being said, Syed has previously stated his own distrust and worries about the podcast. In episode eleven, Koenig recalls a letter she received from Syed from prison. She stated, “He wanted me to evaluate his case based on the evidence alone, not on personality.”

She went on to read a segment of the letter: “I didn’t want to do anything that could even remotely seem like I was trying to befriend you or curry favour with you. I didn’t want anyone to ever be able to accuse me of trying to ingratiate myself with you or manipulate you.”

The Lee family

For others—most significantly, the Lee family—the podcast has been a sore reminder of the young girl’s death.

In 2016, after Syed was initially granted a new trial, the family spoke to news reporters and stated that Serial “reopened wounds few can imagine.” Lee’s brother went on to say: “This is not a podcast for me. This is real life—a never-ending nightmare for 20-plus years.”

Looking to the future

So, what happens next? Syed’s legal team have uncovered key pieces of evidence that previous prosecutors may have failed to disclose in violation of their legal duty. They have also identified two other potential suspects who have a history of violence towards women.

In terms of legal proceedings, as reported by All Things Considered on NPR, “Prosecutors now have 30 days to decide whether or not they want to drop the charges against him or try him again for murder. And that just may hinge on how much evidence they have now in a case that’s more than 20 years old.”

Whether or not the upcoming trial goes ahead, or indeed if Syed is found innocent, we’re sure Serial will provide all of the most significant and up-to-date moments along the journey to discovering the entire truth behind Lee’s death.

Podcasts are creating dangerous echo chambers. Here’s why

In recent years, podcasting has skyrocketed in popularity. It seems that every influencer, music enthusiast, and lifestyle guru has created a podcast part and parcel of the rest of their digital brand. Forbes estimated that in 2020, “100 million people listened to a podcast each month [in the US] and it’s expected to reach 125 million in 2022.” Along with this high listener count came swathes of ad revenue. In its 2020 Digital Advertising Revenue Report, IAB PricewaterhouseCoopers projected that the “estimated podcast ad spend was $800 million in 2020,” a number that “will more than double to $1.7 billion by 2024, with an annual growth of nearly 20%.”

Podcasting now could be equated to what Youtube was in the early 2010s; it’s moving into the mainstream, allowing those who have put the time and effort into the medium from the get-go to soak up the profits. However, this trajectory into the mainstream has also led to podcasts with huge budgets, big names, and watered-down content compared to what they were just a few years ago.

Contrasting the medium is its predecessor, the radio, which has experienced a consequential decrease. Statista Research Department—a German company that specialises in market and consumer data—reported that in 2019, North Americans cited a number of reasons for their reduced radio consumption. These included their car having more audio options than just the radio, there being too many commercials, not to mention a lack of musical variety, with the same songs on repeat over and over. With this in mind, why have talk shows increased via podcasting, rather than its traditional format?

One possibility could lie in podcasts’ ability to be more attuned to their listeners. Much like the growth of music online has given rise to myriad genres, podcasts are niche broadcasts that hone in on the interests of their listeners in depth, to a larger extent than radio can. This is especially true for independent podcasts as they can discuss whatever they’d like to, with whatever nuances, political leanings, or other topics they choose to include without interference from advertisers. This contrast between podcasts and radio can be seen on YouTube and television as well. Content made in bedrooms and makeshift studios isn’t as diluted by studio rewrites and other industry authorities, allowing the work to come almost directly from the person creating it in a relatively unfiltered way.

Another reason for podcasts’ rise in popularity could be attributed to the medium’s intimate nature. Not only are podcasters discussing topics directly aligned to the listeners’ interests, but they often are also doing so in a conversational voice. As opposed to the heightened, emotive tone used by radio broadcasters when announcing the traffic or weather updates, podcasts sound more like a conversation between friends; a telephone call you’re listening in on that you don’t have to speak on. 

Even ads featured within podcasts follow this casual cadence. This results in a more effortless listening experience, and a heightened connection between the listener and the podcaster. Irish artist and podcaster, Blindboy Boatclub, often describes this sense of comfort evoked by the medium—or, in particular, his soft tone and piano backtrack—as a “podcast hug.” This conversational aspect of podcasting creates a soothing, relatable bubble for listeners to escape into and forget their day-to-day life for a moment.

Due to podcasting’s skyrocket in popularity, new apps have been made in response to this cultural movement, one of these being Clubhouse. This invite-only social media app reflects the casual nature of podcast formatting, but allows users to participate in conference-call conversations of their choosing. They’re much like live podcasts, only with an extra layer of exclusivity. But with the medium ever-evolving, where does it go from here?

New York University (NYU) professor and contributing editor to The Baffler, Liz Pelly, has become well-known for her criticism of content streaming services and the economic models behind them, particularly Spotify. In her article Big Mood Machine, Pelly points out how Spotify is largely based on moods. Looking at my ‘Browse’ page now under the category ‘Mood’, playlists include ‘Mood Booster’, ‘Morning Coffee’, ‘Feelin’ Myself’, ‘Good Vibes’, and ‘Confidence Boost’; genre is loosely hinted at, but emotion is paramount for definition here. Pelly notes that streaming services have pushed mood-based listening over the years as “a way to help users navigate infinite choice, to find their way through a vast library of forty million songs.” At the time of her writing the piece in June 2019, Spotify’s Twitter tagline was “Music for every mood.”

Just as we have witnessed the explosion of emotive reaction—many may say all thanks to social media—in recent years, which has resulted in the polarised society we find ourselves in today, our streaming services have begun to churn out more content underpinned by emotion. Podcasts, and other digital mediums, have become mood-based, allowing us to listen to content directly aligned to our particular feelings and thoughts, but shielding us from anything that may slightly oppose our viewpoint.

Writer, artist, and Stanford University professor Jenny Odell pinpoints this in her best-selling book How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy. In the chapter ‘Ecology of Strangers’, Odell juxtaposes her algorithmically generated listening experience of Spotify to that of listening to the radio. Compared to the archetypal ‘Jenny mix’ the app has compiled for her, she notes that none of the stations she listens to ever play anything like what Spotify would put up next for her. Rather than expose us to what we don’t like, she explains that streaming services and niche listening experiences based on algorithms, SEO, and ad revenue “seem to incrementally entomb [us] as an ever-more stable image of what [we individually] like and why.”

From a business perspective, this makes sense, as it’s easy for corporations to promote being yourself when “‘yourself’ is a consistent and recognizable pattern of habits, desires, and drives that can be more easily advertised and appropriated, like unites of capital.” Here, Odell outlines just how our interests and selfhoods have become commodified by streaming, which, in turn, results in more individualised listening experiences.

As podcasts become more mainstream through ad revenue yet primarily mood-based, we will continue down this accelerated path of ultra-niche content. It’s a dangerous and slippery slope. We’ll carry on existing in a rose-tinted filter bubble, missing out on the serendipity of content that doesn’t directly align with our personal brand, until, someday, it pops.