Season two of the breakout podcast Serial is out, but if you are reading this site I suspect you already know that. This season, host Sarah Koenig and her team 1 explore the story of Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl, the American soldier who walked off his base in Afghanistan and was held captive by the Taliban for nearly five years.
1. They’ve upped their social media game:
In Koenig’s “Welcome” post to launch the new season, she announced (among other things), that their team had expanded. This seems unsurprising given that the first season averaged more than 1.5 million listeners an episode and Koenig has the most persuasive fundraising pitch in the business: “Do you want a season two of ‘Serial’? If so, I’m going to ask you for money.” At least some of these new team members are manning social media accounts across the world wide web:
Our tiny team—Julie Snyder, Dana Chivvis, Emily Condon, Ira Glass, and I—has expanded this season. As a result, one new thing: we’ll be talking with you on social media. Ask us a question on Tumblr, tweet at us, and watch for our updates on Facebook and Instagram. You can also sign up for our email newsletter. To find out where and how to listen, click here.
Moreover, they’ve got GIFs now 2:
— Serial (@serial) December 10, 2015
Audiologue contributors will be tweeting our Serial thoughts with #serialAL, so make sure to follow along.
2. They’ve got a new partner:
Okay, so you probably knew this one from all of the pre-release coverage a few months ago, not to mention the fact that Koenig explains the partnership in episode one, but this season Serial has partnered with filmmaker Mark Boal and Page 1 to tell the story. Though Bergdahl hasn’t given any media interviews (including, the episode seems to intimate, to Serial), he has talked to Mark Boal in some 25 hours of recorded phone calls in preparation for a forthcoming film. Boal and Page 1 agreed to share the tape.
According to this season’s about page, Boal founded Page 1 to “explore the intersection of reporting and entertainment.” Boal began his career as a journalist, and pivoted to film-making after his 2004 Playboy article “Death and Dishonor,” about the 2003 murder of veteran Richard T. Davis, was adapted into the In the Valley of Elah. Boal is best known for his work with director Kathryn Bigelow, including the 2009 film The Hurt Locker, for which he won both the “Best Original Screenplay” and “Best Picture” Oscars. They once again collaborated on the 2012 film Zero Dark Thirty.
Serial marks another generic expansion for Boal, who’s credits now include traditional prose journalism, screenwriting for film and video games (Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare, Uncharted), and now radio.
3. They’ve gone fancy:
Perhaps in response to the massive interest in the documents and data associated with Adnan Syed’s case—spurred on by multiple follow-up and listening-to shows, endless deconstruction by Slate and users on the Serial subreddit, and longform follow-ups by major outlets—Serial has committed to 3D maps and graphics to explain the context of their reporting. From Koenig’s “Welcome” post again:
Another new thing: 3D maps! We’ll have all sorts of graphics and videos and more to help explain what happened.
The first of these background posts by Whitney Dangerfield, the show’s digital editor, covers the terrain that Bergdahl would have traversed on his intended path to the base. They published the map as a separate post as well.
4. They’ve changed questions:
As suggested by the New Yorker article that covered the season’s release, the new case marks a change in focus for the show. Whereas the case surrounding Adnen Syed and the murder of Hae Min Lee brought about reflections on truth, memory, and the notion of reasonable doubt—all of which led us toward “a specific question: Did he do it?”—season two is different. The facts of the case are comparatively well-established, and the people involved (from what we know so far) more or less agree about what they are.
What is left to consider, then, is Bergdahl’s interiority—why he left, what he experienced as a soldier and captive, and whether or not it was the platonic Right Thing To Do. And that’s very different.
It remains to be seen whether or not the show can maintain it’s audience after changing its central concern. Not that I’d ever stop listening, but to me this season feels less inherently suspensful, and maybe less interesting. Part of season one’s appeal was knowing that the truth was somewhere out there: someone killed Hae Min Lee, and it might not have been Adnan Syed. But here, we more or less know the truth: Bergdahl left. What’s left to ponder over, from my vantage point, is whether or not that was the right thing to do.
Interesting, sure, but gripping? The stuff of national sensation and virality? It remains to be seen.
(Disagree? Let me know in the comments below.)
5. They want to make you feel stuff:
Last week on an episode of the Start Up mini-season, Alex Blumberg said that audio is better than any other medium at creating empathy in the consumer. I don’t know that that’s right, but it sure feels that way. Koenig and her team are very atune to that process; they want to help broaden your imaginative capacity for emotion and feeling for, say, individuals and their stories (where programs like This American Life, Serial season one, and most major radio programs lock into) to the broader, more challenging subject of global politics and warfare.
In the New Yorker interview, there’s a telling moment where Koenig, Julie Snyder, and Dana Chivvis discuss a story from the Wall Street Journal:
Snyder said, “I saw a headline in the Washington Post that said something like, ‘The Afghan Government and the Taliban Are Talking with Pakistan as an Interlocutor of Resuming Peace Talks—’ ”
Koenig said, “It was the Wall Street Journal. I’m sending it to you right now.” We heard her click her mouse, and in the same instant the e-mail dinged in Snyder’s inbox. In some ways, I realized, this relationship is more efficient than an in-person collaboration—it’s as if Koenig and the computer are one, a person thinking inside the machine. She read the headline aloud: “ ‘Pakistani, Afghan Leaders Discuss Resuming Afghan-Taliban Peace Talks.’ ”
Snyder said, “I had sent it to these guys saying, ‘I’d love it if, at the end of this story, listeners would see an article like that, want to read it, understand it, and actually have an emotional feeling about it.’ ”
“What the Serial producers want to help provide” Sarah Larson writes, “is greater public comprehension of the Bergdahl story and what it reveals about the war.”
Koenig goes on to say:
Maybe this is what we do on ‘This American Life’ or on ‘Serial,’ but I feel sympathetic toward everybody. I really do. Like, it is a fucking difficult, difficult thing that happened. It’s sad, it’s complicated, the stakes are really, really high for everybody. It’s just—that’s been interesting. I really didn’t have any feelings about this story before I started reporting on it. It wasn’t on my radar. And now I just feel like—my God. This is a tough one.
Snyder continues her point:
You have these things that you think of as these monolithic institutions, like the Army, the Administration, the Taliban. And you break them all down, and you’re like, Oh, they’re all made up of just people. And it’s really interesting to start seeing it through the eyes of people.
So while this season might have a different project than the first, it’s project isn’t so different from other kinds of narrative, documentary radio you are already familiar with—it’s trying to give you a glimpse into the humanity of others.
Be sure to read the rest of the New Yorker story, it’s a good one.
6. They want to make change:
…or, as Koenig say, they want to “tell people shit.” (This is more profound than it might sound at first blush.) What Koenig is really saying is that Serial has a massive platform, and that she wants to use it to accomplish something. Again, from the New Yorker:
I do have that old-fashioned sense, as a reporter, that, I don’t know, we get to tell people shit! We get to disseminate information out into the world. I want to use that to make our democracy better. Honestly. I feel that way about my job. So we’re not going to say ‘Let’s do the most popular thing’ or ‘Let’s do the thing that’s going to feel like candy in your ears.’ You know what I mean? It’s just like, Let’s do shit that matters that we care about.”
They go onto clarify. So many Americans are disconnected from these wars in a way that the country wasn’t during, say, the Vietnam era when we were “steeped every night in imagery.” They want to make these experiences public and real, for the experience of life there carries a greater weight in the mind of the listening public.
- Julie Snyder, Dana Chivvis, Emily Condon, Ira Glass, among others ^
- Here’s the version of the gif they sent out with this morning’s email blast. ^
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