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Mystery Show is the new Serial. Kinda. (But it’s an awesome moment for radio.)

Hey guys, Mystery Show is the new Serial!

Well, sorta. Not quite. Actually, it’s almost the antidote to Serial. But in a way that acknowledges the awesomeness of both shows.

I listen to a lot of podcasts. I have a long commute, a serious walking habit, and an apparently endless need for distraction. The list varies, but heavy rotation currently includes Reply All, Love and Radio, StartUp, Song Exploder, the memory palace, Welcome to Night Vale, Theory of Everything, 99% Percent Invisible, The Moth, On the Media, This American Life, and Story Collider. All of which ended up taking a back seat when new episodes of Serial came out.

You remember Serial, right? The podcast by Sarah Koenig that spun out of This American Life, the one so popular that Slate ran its own podcast commenting on each episode? Serial brought podcasts to a much wider audience (specifically, the NPR listening audience) and helped demonstrate that podcasts didn’t need to resemble existing radio shows, but could tell very different types of stories.

I was thoroughly addicted to Serial until it became clear that we weren’t going to get the satisfying resolution we were looking forward to, a convincing explanation of Hae Min Lee’s final hours, giving us clarity as to whether Adnan Syed was a victim of terrible injustice, or whether he was a phenomenal liar. I still think the show was a brilliant example of storytelling, and I think Koenig took an amazing risk in telling a story without knowing how it ended. But I ended up feeling both disappointed and vaguely creeped out as it became clear that Koenig’s reporting wasn’t going to clear Syed of a crime. Instead, we were exhuming the worst days of people’s lives as a form of entertainment and contemplation, not righting a wrong or solving a mystery.

And despite the feeling that we were intruding where we shouldn’t, I listened to the end, fascinated. And I think the meta-lesson Serial told about the perils of investigative reporting, of digging deep and not being able to unearth Truth are invaluable. But Serial left me feeling implicated in a project I’m not entirely comfortable with.

So now here’s Starlee Kine, who like Koenig has featured prominently on This American Life (Koenig was a staff producer for TAL, and Serial is an official TAL spin-off, while Kine was a frequent guest producer on the show, and Mystery Show is unaffiliated with TAL) with another podcast about mysteries. And that’s roughly where the similarities end.

The mysteries explored by Koenig in the first season of Serial were as important as they get, matters of life and death. Those explored by Kine on Mystery Show couldn’t be more trivial. The three episodes thus far have explored a video store that unexpectedly closed, a novel that might have been read by Britney Spears, and a lost belt buckle. With the stakes so laughably low, Kine sets up a fascinating storytelling problem: how does she get listeners to care about mysteries so banal that the parties to the mystery barely even care?

The answer is that Kine is an otherworldly interviewer, capable of drawing people down conversational paths they never expected to tread. After all, this is a woman who persuaded Phil Collins to help her write a love song about breaking up with her boyfriend. She’s got chops. In early episodes of Mystery Show, Starlee gets a bar owner talking about Fellini films and his fear of love, and turns an informational phonecall with a Ticketmaster customer service representative into a counseling session, helping him recover his self confidence. If I saw Kine at a cocktail party, I would run in the opposite direction, afraid that I’d immediately reveal my deepest hopes and fears, then hear them a week later in my headphones, over a bed of tastefully twee indie pop.

It’s the third episode of Mystery Show that’s got me hooked. It’s the story of a belt buckle, found in a ditch, inscribed to “Hans Jordi”, from “Bill Six”. And lest you worry that Kine will leave you hanging, by the end of the episode, I promise that you’ll know who those people are and why a simple story of lost and found stopped me in my tracks with its emotional weight.

This is a remarkable moment for “radio”, a term that’s increasingly archaic as much of the best stuff is never broadcast over the airwaves. But that’s the term the producers at Gimlet, Radiotopia and other purveyors of fine podcasts use, despite the fact that 10 of the 12 shows I’m following exist only in the digital realm. Podcasting appears to have found a business model, and with phones increasingly integrated with other devices, like cars and home audio systems, there’s a large and growing audience for time-shiftable audio content. What’s great is that despite the fact that audiences are large and growing, the field seems to be getting weirder and more adventurous, rather than safer and more dull.

Take The Truth, part of the Radiotopia family of storytelling podcasts. Jonathan Mitchell makes “audio movies”, contemporary radio dramas that use all the affordances of audio, not just the human voice, to tell powerful and profound stories. It’s not my everyday listening because I find so many of the stories so affecting that they’re often disorienting. For example, “Can You Help Me Find My Mom?” is probably the best thing I’ve heard this year, but so powerful that I’m reluctant to play it for some of my favorite people… and I can’t even craft a proper trigger warning without giving away the best part of the story.

When Chris Anderson and other prophets of the long tail predicted the future of cultural products online, there was a lot of talk about finding markets for the previously obscure. What wasn’t as obvious, to me at least, was the ways that changing the distribution and revenue equation for content could spark a renaissance in creativity. Much of what I’m listening to on podcasts is much, much better than what I routinely hear on NPR or commercial radio. It’s as well produced (sometimes ludicrously better produced, in the case of Hrishikesh Hirway’s Song Exploder), more intellectually challenging and at least as likely to spark conversation around the proverbial watercooler (or, these days, on Twitter.)

Turns out that there was a massive backlog of talented radio producers who couldn’t get their content on the air. Turns out that some producers who were often on the national stage, like Koenig and Kine, had ideas big enough to be successful shows. Turns out that this is a very exciting moment for those of us with time to listen and ears to hear.

1 thought on “Mystery Show is the new Serial. Kinda. (But it’s an awesome moment for radio.)”

  1. Great list of podcasts. We visited Western MA this weekend and I thought to myself, “I don’t know how Ethan does it.” I’m sure the podcasts help. Sadly, I find myself deleting shows because I can’t keep up. It’s a good problem to have though.

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