The 'Serial' Effect: Programmers Ramping Up on Podcasts

Sarah Koenig - H 2014
Meredith Heuer

Sarah Koenig - H 2014

Six months after the true-crime hit, nearly 40 million listen to one at least once a week amid 285,000 choices and an iTunes tweak.

This story first appeared in the April 24 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

Adnan Syed still might be in prison, but his story is altering the trajectory of an industry. Serial, Sarah Koenig and Julie Snyder's 12-part podcast about a Baltimore teen's murder and her ex-boyfriend Syed, who is serving a life sentence after a flimsy conviction, has inspired a newfound appetite for public radio's digital delivery that is prompting surging downloads across the board. The boom comes at a time when models for distribution, marketing and moneymaking in the audio media space are evolving for the old guard.

"Serial totally changed the way all of us are seeing possibilities for podcasts," says Ira Glass, the This American Life maestro and Serial's editorial adviser, citing its unprece­dented numbers. During the six months since the NPR veterans kicked off Serial's run, it has accumulated 77.6 million downloads (7 million people have listened to the complete season). After witnessing its pop culture clout — it's not every day a podcast warrants a Saturday Night Live parody — programmers are scrambling to up their investment in the format, especially in narrative storytelling. "There's an audience that's still discovering podcasting even exists," adds Glass, who premiered Serial's first episode on his popular radio show before subsequent installments were made available exclusively by download. "It's like advertising a movie … only it's 1910, and people have never been to a theater: 'We're going to be sitting in the dark?' "

Unlike previous programs This American Life had previewed to its 2.2 million weekly radio listeners on 500-plus public stations, this one proved mutually beneficial: The podcast virgins whom Serial attracted stuck around after its December finale, and This American Life, whose radio ratings have been steady for a decade, has seen a 25 percent spike in podcast listeners. The 20-year-old program's weekly podcast downloads have increased from 1.2 million to 1.5 million in Serial's wake. That boost has come at a pivotal time: Glass and company severed ties with longtime distributor Public Radio International in 2014 and now are in charge of finding their own underwriting. Thus far, it has been a success. Ad sales for the podcast, according to Glass, are up significantly — though he, like those at other outlets, declines to reveal specifics. Financial success for most podcasts is determined by underwriting — and those rates are based on available ratings or projected downloads (CPM, the cost of ads per thousand impressions, can hit $20 for top pods). Comic Marc Maron, whose WTF With Marc Maron has generated 2.75 million downloads a month, has said sponsors pay as much as $15,000 for mentions on the show. Most podcasts are free to download, but some top podcasters charge subscription fees for extras like access to archives. Serial, whose first season was sponsored by MailChimp, will make significantly more money in its second season because it now can sell ads based on its huge reach. Serial, like official NPR pods, also gets money from listener donations.

Serial isn't the only explanation for the podcast swell: iTunes, the most popular dispenser of all things audio, tweaked its podcast app in September. The app had drawn criticism, but many say it finally is intuitive enough to attract new subscribers and keep them via navigation.

The difference in podcast consumption post-Serial and the app tweaks is impressive. According to Edison Research, 39 million Americans listened to at least one podcast in March. That's up 25 percent from the same period in 2014 and a big leap compared with the previous two Marches, when podcast listening inched up a mere 12 percent and 15 percent, respectively. iTunes alone now offers more than 285,000 podcasts. Such talkers as Adam Carolla and ESPN's Bill Simmons can attract hundreds of thousands of loyal listeners to their chat-show pods, and narrative storytelling is seen as more valuable because it can attract listeners for weeks or months.

One new success is the recent NPR debut Invisibilia. The program, a brew of science and storytelling, launched only two weeks after the Serial finale — when listeners where clamoring for something new. "Serial blew podcasting up to a whole new audience, and we, by dumb luck, ended up launching in January," says NPR vp programming Eric Nuzum, who worked on Invisibilia's launch. That also included bowing on This American Life and NPR shows. "We had the benefit of watching them roll out and learning from what happened. We made it so that if you encountered NPR within a period of time, it would be very hard for you not to know what Invisibilia was."

Invisibilia's six-episode run proved a hit digitally and as a conventional broadcast. It found distribution on more than 310 radio stations, a record for a new NPR series, and debuted atop the iTunes podcast chart. It had logged 33 million downloads as of late March. The chart also has become more fluid: Where This American Life once was a fixture at No. 1, comic Paul F. Tompkins kicked off his Spontaneanation podcast in the top spot April 1. Hollywood also has taken notice, making talent available for television-related pods from outlets such as Slate and Grantland, and TV personalities such as Rachel Maddow are adopting the format.

If there is a complication to the new interest for Serial and Invisibilia, it's that success has been followed by silence. Koenig and Snyder still are formulating what Serial season two will sound like. (They declined comment.) The Invisibilia team also is stressed. "We want to find some marriage between things we can put out more frequently and keeping the emphasis on hourlong experiences," says Nuzum. "It's uncharted territory. Invisibilia and Serial broke into new audiences and opened up the space a bit, but we're making it up as we go."