Serial and how to tell a long story well.

I am late to this particular party, but have now caught up with the first series of Serial. Because I’m late, you probably know that it’s a podcast from the makers of This American Life which documents the journalistic re-examination a cold case; the murder of a teenager in 1999. The story is narrated by journalist and would be investigator Sarah Koenig.

Like many others, I was hooked and have listened intently to all 10 episodes and 3 updates. My interest though is divided between the story it’s telling and how it’s being told. Because what this series does expertly is tell a long story, in a detailed but also compelling way.

In some ways this is counter intuitive; it shouldn’t work. Are we not conditioned to the short story? To want to get to the point, omit the unnecessary detail and demand the edited highlights? But on the other hand, the saga is still with us, in new media – devouring full seasons on TV drama on streaming services, for instance, remains popular. It seems audiences still want to follow one story over multiple installments. Even the name Serial recalls the serialised stories told through periodical magazines at the turn of the last century.

Serial’s story is intricate, complicated and spans many years. It involves dozens of people and a dizzying array of data: dates, names, titles, legal jargon and procedural ephemera. How does Serial construct a narrative out of this birds’ nest of input, let alone one which has kept listeners engaged, episode after episode?

Part of the answer is structure. Telling a long and complicated story involves a set of decisions about what to tell first, next and last. In Serial’s long and winding case, the choice of what topics to cover in each episode is crucial. Early episodes concentrate on introducing the people involved and telling their stories, setting up the case’s unanswered questions. The middle episodes follow the narrator’s attempts at investigating the story, in a roughly chronological fashion. The final episodes provide us with expert opinions and nuances on information previously offered, leading us to a conclusion. The structure is not hidden from the listener. Instead it’s regularly referred to, most memorably at the start of the final episode when the man convicted of the murder, Adnan Syed, tells Koenig, “I’m worried you don’t have an ending.”

Some of the reasoning for these structural choices is self-evident. You wouldn’t lead with an episode focusing on the deficiencies in the defence lawyer’s performance at trial; the audience needs to be both well grounded in the case and invested in Syed’s fate before diving both hands into that legal cat’s cradle. Other narrative strategies are subtler but also more oratorical. Koenig will often give the listener navigational pointers throughout her narration – I’ll tell you this bit later, I’ll cover that in another episode, go back and listen to this part again, here’s an interesting side issues, you’ll remember this incident from last episode. She’s part re-teller, part story satnav.

Koenig is a gifted narrator. She speaks in a precise yet conversational style, somehow simultaneously relaxed and authoritative. Her accessibility is crucial to telling the long story, as is her fascination with the case, apparent even when debating mobile phone tower call logs or calculating driving times between local landmarks. Because she cares about the case, we care about it. We want her to get to the bottom of it. Like Syed, we want her to find an ending. So a kind of empathy for the story teller becomes important. Part of the reason we stick with the story is to see if she succeeds in her quest for the truth.

Her relationship with Syed, told through a series of recorded phone calls, peppers the series, and fragments of those conversations become touchstones in each episode. We return to them regularly, to help us make sense of each new piece of information we’ve heard. They are narrative downtime, or perhaps processing time, for the listener. Syed is a measured, charismatic figure, but worryingly ambiguous for Koenig and therefore for the audience. Her concern, voiced many times throughout the series, is that although she can find fault after fault with the prosecution’s case against Syed, she may ultimately be being duped into believing in a guilty man’s innocence.

If this was a movie, we’d call Koenig’s and Syed’s relationship the sub plot. It provides another strand of the story to follow alongside the murder mystery and helps highlights the narrator’s confusion and frustration, as the case gets more and more complex, but answers prove elusive. In dramatic terms, Koenig’s dilemma gives the story’s it’s momentum. It’s the “what’s at stake” you search for in any drama. And what’s at stake is worth caring about. Koenig’s investigation could result in an innocent man being awarded long denied justice, or a guilty man using her as an escape plan.

(I should also note the criticism of Serial for using a family’s very real pain as vicarious entertainment for the masses. Who owns these stories and is permitted to tell them is important. For now, I hope that analysing the way in which Serial works doesn’t perpetuate that approach and continue what others may see as the trivialisiation of that case.)

As we reach the later episodes, real life events start to influence the narrative. People start to write in with new information. Others who had previously declined interviews with Koenig now contribute. Prior speculation is clarified, facts put into context. Even the podcast’s ads start to get slicker. People are engaging with the series, and showing that legitimises our interest in it. See – it was worth sticking with. People are noticing. This thing is important.

So structure, guidance, personality, responsiveness and communicating why it all matters. Plus, although I haven’t mentioned it above, knowing what to leave out. This is how Serial kept us all listening.

 ****

PS While embedded in Serial, I started reading another long story: a PhD dissertation on a topic similar to mine (will be), by a researcher I know through my work. I’ve descended upon it, hungrily. I wanted to see how the author put her ideas together, linked one concept to the next, kept me wanting to read the next page, in much the same way as Serial encouraged me to click through to the next episode. Both are long, complex stories demanding to be told in a compelling way. Although one is journalistic and one is academic, I think the tactics for telling a long story well – structure, guidance, personality, responsiveness and communicating why it all matters – are applicable to both.

Chicago Public Media (2014). Serial. [podcast] Serial. Available at: https://serialpodcast.org
Savage, S (2017). An investigation into local government’s ideal role in enhancing community liveability via the creative industries, Doctor of Philosophy thesis, School of Management, Operations and Marketing, University of Wollongong. Available at: http://ro.uow.edu.au/theses1/38/

 

 

 

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Creative entrepreneurship as a lifestyle choice

Before 10 October this year, I would have been hard pressed to name the federal Education Minister. Turns out it’s Senator Simon Birmingham of the good state of South Australia. In a press release issued on that day, the Senator outlined the tertiary courses “expected to attract funding support under the new … VET Student Loans program.”

As it turned out, a large clutch of creative industries qualifications had been left off that (draft) list. This list itself is heavy with performing and visual arts and digital media courses, but notably also includes a Graduate Certificate in Entrepreneurship for Creatives.

Given the media brouhaha which followed, Sen. Birmingham is probably wishing he’s drawn a red line through these sentences, tapped out by an earnest media officer.

We want to ensure that the courses that Australian taxpayers are subsidising and that we are encouraging students to study, will optimise employment outcomes. Currently there are far too many courses that are being subsidised that are used simply to boost enrolments, or provide ‘lifestyle’ choices, but don’t lead to work.

A number of commentators in the creative industries arced up. Not just in response to suggestion that these courses would not be eligible for student loans (which, after the Government’s unpopular changes to arts funding, they could be forgiven for seeing as another attack on arts and culture). But also to the fact that he described, albeit indirectly, a career in the creative industries as a “lifestyle choice”.

It’s a loaded phrase. In 2015, then Prime Minister Tony Abbot, described people living in remote Indigenous communities in Western Australia as having made a “lifestyle choice”. He said, “what we can’t do is endlessly subsidise lifestyle choices”.  So Sen. Birmingham managed to suggest that the chance of landing a job in photography, fashion, dance or social media marketing, was as remote as a village in the Kimberley. And neither are worth subsidising.

(What is a “lifestyle choice” anyway? At first, it seems to be something of a passive aggressive slight. “You’ve made a choice that benefits your lifestyle, rather than one which builds something worthwhile, like having smashed avocado for breakfast instead of saving for a deposit on a stratospherically overpriced one-bedder in Camperdown”. But it also has an accusatory air suggesting selfishness; “you’ve brattishly chosen a path whereby you can’t contribute to economic good of the nation. You should have made a different choice, a more constructive choice, like getting an MBA and working for a lobby group and a political party, like Sen. Birmingham. We’d have been happy to subsidise that.”)

It’s seems to be the by-product of a policy mindset which sees entrepreneurship in the creative industries as a pipe dream.  Presumably there are other courses which will attract the student loans which encompass entrepreneurship, just not in creative industries.

Is entrepreneurship in some industries a surer bet than others? Surely the innate qualities of a successful entrepreneur mean that they will find a commercial opportunity in whichever field they choose? What this seems to suggest is a hierarchy of entrepreneurship; from those worth subsidising to those which are not.

Subsequently, the Minister went directly to arts industry website ArtHub to pour oil on troubled waters.

Of the 478 courses that will no longer be supported 119 are in management and commerce, 149 are society and culture courses like the Diploma of Life Coaching and 149 are in health-related fields such as veterinary Chinese herbal medicine. In comparison, 57 arts-related courses did not make our proposed list and 29 of those have no students at all… 

Contrary to the impression given by some commentators, VET Student Loans will support studies across a number of different genres and roles related to the arts, including graphic design and visual arts, screen and media, live production, photography and music industry…

The narrative tactics here are clear. You haven’t had it as bad as management and commerce! (Sure in numbers, but what about as a proportion to the total number of courses?) We’re still subsidising lots of creative things! (Just not performing arts, dance, writing or entrepreneurship for creatives) You wouldn’t want us to fund craziness like veterinary Chinese herbal medicine! (But what if my cat just doesn’t respond to Western pharmaceuticals?)

But later on in the same article we get a sense of what the real problem is.

We know there are job opportunities in the arts for current and future students – but the demand for graduates is not significant enough to justify funding every single arts course, just as it isn’t in many other industries.

It’s the demand for graduates which designates whether something’s a lifestyle choice or not. And in a way, the decision to redirect funding makes perfect sense; why oversupply an industry with graduates it cannot support?

But there’s another implication here; that a career in the creative industries means finding a job, not creating that job for yourself. It’s another tacit indication of that mindset which sees creative entrepreneurship as a fanciful dream.