On Thursday, people will gather around tables everywhere and, well, talk about how bummed they are that “Serial,” the wildly popular podcast, is taking Thanksgiving off.
“Serial,” by producers of public radio’s “This American Life,” is nine episodes deep in its re-examination of the 1999 murder of Hae Min Lee, a Maryland teenager, that resulted in the conviction of Adnan Syed, her former boyfriend. With listeners over her shoulder, the reporter Sarah Koenig has anthologized the case, pulling apart old evidence, uncovering new facts and alibis, and raising questions about whether a young man belongs in prison for the rest of his life.
There has been a rabid debate all over the web about the murder and the show, along with parodies on YouTube and recaps on Slate. “Serial” has quickly become the most popular podcast in the history of the form.
To call something the most popular podcast might seem a little like identifying the tallest leprechaun, but the numbers are impressive for any media platform. “Serial” has been downloaded or streamed on iTunes more than five million times — at a cost of nothing — and averages over 1.5 million listeners an episode. That is as many people as watch an episode of “Louie,” the buzzed-about comedy on FX. Ira Glass, the host of “This American Life,” told me his show took four years to reach one million listeners. “Serial” raced past that in a month.
But other than a debut episode on “This American Life,” “Serial” is not a creature of radio, but podcasting.
“When I saw the numbers, my jaw just dropped,” Ms. Koenig said a few weeks ago. “It feels like we are doing exactly the same thing, making radio, except it’s not on the radio, at least not yet.”
Podcasting used to be a novel way of distributing audio programming over the Internet, but it is up 25 percent year-over-year and almost 40 million people listen to some form of podcast. It gained traction with the introduction of the iPod, hence the name. “Serial” is arguably the medium’s first breakout hit.
Podcasts have moved beyond being a nerd curio because all of the friction has been removed from the process, which used to require setting up RSS feeds or cutting and pasting web addresses into a browser. Now, with the advent of ever smarter smartphones, it has become one more push-button technology, allowing consumers to download an app and listen to audio programming at a time of their choosing. If that sounds familiar — Netflix, anyone? — it’s no surprise that it will have similar transformative effects on traditional providers of serious audio programming, which means public radio.
Like television, cable and newspapering, public radio — which has long been built on a loyal audience willing to contribute to the cause — is being unbundled, in this case, by a nonbroadcast format that shares many of the characteristics of its programming. News and information on the radio have not been under attack from insurgents, probably because there is little money in it. But as cars become more connected, people can program their ride with material they don’t find on the airwaves. Some of that audience may come from public radio.
“I still listen to the news every day on WNYC and send them my money,” said Mr. Glass, who is an editorial adviser on “Serial.” “I hope that this is a good thing for public radio in the long run, because if you think of the number of shows that came out of NPR and its affiliates, it’s pretty impressive.” He added that stations that produced innovative original programming would thrive in a digital environment that offers more ways to reach audiences.
If there were no public radio, there would be no WBEZ in Chicago, where “This American Life” began, which means there would be no offshoot like “Serial.” When you listen to Ms. Koenig slowly heating up a cold case, doing interviews that are built on conversations, not sound bites, and taking up to an hour to unfurl a single episode, you are getting aesthetic storytelling that feels like the best of public radio.
But public radio was not what I was listening to last Thursday, and therein lies the problem for shows like NPR’s “All Things Considered” or American Public Media’s “Marketplace.” For the time being, part of my mindshare belongs to Ms. Koenig and her riveting exploration of a terrible event that took place among a group of friends at a Baltimore-area high school.
Charles Kravetz, the general manager of the public radio station WBUR in Boston, which produces original programming including “Here and Now” and “On Point,” is a fan of “Serial.” He can’t help being excited and worried at the same time.
“When you talk to young people, they will tell you that they are listening to a lot of public radio, but when you probe more, you find out that they are listening to podcasts,” he said. “Public radio audience, after years of steady growth, is off slightly, probably in part because people are listening to on-demand programming on podcasts.”
As part of an effort to get its arms around a changing landscape, WBURreceived a grant from the Knight Foundation this year to set up BizLab, which will explore new models for public radio. “We have a great, thriving legacy audience and we have to find a way to disrupt ourselves,” Mr. Kravetz said.
Just as web-enabled television viewing took off when the technology became reliable, music programming like Pandora and Spotify gained traction when streaming became routine. I happily pay Spotify for its seemingly infinite array of music — Taylor Swift is a little less satisfied with the arrangement. And after dismissing podcasts for years, I am now dialed in, not just to “Serial,” but to other digital programming like “My Brother, My Brother and Me,” a funny Q. and A. show, and “StartUp,” a series hosted by Alex Blumberg, a former producer for “This American Life” and a founder of NPR’s “Planet Money.” The show chronicles his efforts as a nonbusiness person to start a business — Gimlet Media — that is working on a model to, wait for it, create and make money from podcasts.
“Anyone can listen to anything they want to right now, when they want to,” Mr. Blumberg told me. “Even though I am not a businessman, there seemed to be a business opportunity there. I’ve been part of two radio programs that had steadily rising audience and revenues, and at this point, I wanted to have some skin in the game.”
As a regular listener of “StartUp” could tell you, there have been some bumps along the way, including hilariously misguided pitches for funding and quarrels over ownership, but that doesn’t mean Mr. Blumberg is wrong. Podcasting, broadcasting and cable, are all, at bottom, a hit-driven business, and “Serial” has demonstrated that if you come up with an episodic story that leaves people eager for the next installment — a form as old as Dickens and beyond — audiences will flock to you.
Right now, people who tune in typically hear promotional messages from MailChimp and Squarespace, and last week, “Serial’s” one and only request for donations. I’m willing to pony up, as long as Ms. Koenig and her producers get back to work soon and solve the mystery she has unpacked. No pressure there.