Charlie Swinbourne: “Did Adnan do it?” How Deaf people can follow Serial, the murder case podcast the world is talking about

Posted on April 19, 2015

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About a month ago, I started to see articles popping up online and in print about a podcast called Serial, which was being described as a real game-changer in terms of what a podcast could be. It’s also broken all kinds of records on iTunes.

Podcasts typically feature discussions on various subjects – a bit like radio shows – except they’re downloaded and usually listened to on smart phones. There are podcasts on subjects like football, politics and comedy and usually, they focus on something different each week (such as the latest football results).

What makes the Serial podcast different is that over a series of episodes, a radio journalist called Sarah Koenig is investigating a real-life murder case from 1999, trying to work out whether the teenager convicted of the murder, Adnan Syed, was guilty or not, and also (for the two may be mutually exclusive) whether there were flaws in the prosecution against him.

In each episode, Koenig looks at a different aspect of the case. The first episode focuses on how easy it is for a defendant to remember events from 6 weeks ago (as Syed was asked to) in order to provide an alibi. Other episodes have looked at the testimony of Jay (the key witness in the case), mobile phone records and how the body of the murder victim was found.

Growing up in a deaf family, the radio wasn’t really part of our lives, but over the years I have enjoyed listening to some radio programmes and podcasts. Often, radio presenters speak very clearly, so with good headphones (and the sound turned up), usually listening in the dark so there are no other distractions, I find I can follow what is going on.

My wife will tell you that on Monday nights, I often fall asleep listening to the Guardian’s Football Weekly podcast (although I often struggle to understand the Irish football journalists, which is a shame because I can tell Barry Glendenning is really funny – I just can’t understand his jokes).

Sarah Koenig

Sarah Koenig

So, after reading yet another story by a journalist saying she was addicted to Serial, I thought I’d give it a try.

The hardest episode to hear was the first. It took me a while to get used to Sarah Koenig’s rhythm of speech, but I started to understand her more clearly after the first ten minutes.

Much harder to make out were the recorded phone calls (from Adnan, who is now in prison) and recordings of court proceedings and police interviews.

Luckily, I found that Koenig often summarises what people are saying, before and after we hear them, helping me just about follow what was going on.

Like many others, I soon found myself addicted to the podcast, listening to an episode every night, missing some things, but finding I could follow most of the story.

Then I found out that, miracle of miracles, due to the popularity of the show, there were full transcripts online (see below for links), via the Reddit group which has been set up to discuss the show.

This was also a bit weird, because it then put me in the position of being able to read episodes I’d already heard, and see just how much I’d understood or had got wrong. Like an audiogram of how much I really hear compared to how much I think I do.

I worked out that I understood about 80% of the clear bits, and about 40% of the unclear bits.

The great thing about discovering the transcripts is that this meant I could read them while listening to episodes I hadn’t yet heard – fantastic (a bit like subtitles on TV except you have to make sure you don’t lose your place in the text).

I’m now as addicted as anyone else is to the series, and I can’t wait for the next episode on December 4th. No-one knows exactly how long the series will go on for – it could be 12 episodes, but it depends when Koenig thinks she’s reached the end of her personal investigation (she’s been digging out details of the case for over a year). (note: the series ended on 12 episodes)

Until then, I’m consumed by questions that I – and every other follower of the podcast can’t help returning to again and again. What kind of deal did Jay strike with the police, and how true is his account of the day of the murder? Is Adnan innocent or is there more to him than meets the eye? If Adnan is innocent, why isn’t he more angry with Jay?

What is fascinating, in terms of how this story is being covered in podcast form, is that Koenig herself is a key character in the narrative.

We’re being given the case from her perspective and as she outlines all the evidence for us, she also tells us how different pieces of evidence make her feel – changing her view of Syed’s innocence. She’s also open about how, over many phone calls with Syed, she’s grown to like him – and how believing he’s done it becomes much more difficult.

My suspicion (or maybe it’s just my hope) is that the last episode of Serial, whenever it comes, may include some kind of conclusive evidence one way or another, giving more certain answers to the central questions of the case than we’ve had so far (I’m wondering if it might be linked to Adnan’s email account, as he may have been checking emails at the time the murder took place). (note: I was wrong! The case is ongoing and there was no clear conclusion)

As one commenter on Reddit says: “I’ve never seen anything like this, and I think it’s one of the most fascinating pieces of art / journalism / narrative that I’ve ever experienced.”

Below, you can find all the links you need to hear and read the podcast. I hope you find it as compelling as I have.

Listening to the podcast

You can download all the podcasts or listen to them directly on the Serial website, or on iTunes, for free.

Then, clicking on the links below, you can read along.

Reading the transcripts:

Episode 1

Episode 2

Episode 3

Episode 4

Episode 5

Episode 6

Episode 7

Episode 8

Episode 9

Episode 10

Episode 11

Episode 12

There’s also a range of resources on the Reddit group’s page, including an FAQ.

Charlie Swinbourne is the editor of Limping Chicken, as well as being a journalist and an award-winning scriptwriter. He has written for the Guardian and BBC Online, and has written films such as My Song and Coming Out, and wrote and directed Four Deaf Yorkshiremen go to Blackpool earlier this year.

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